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New York City grapples with influx of new asylum-seeking students

A line of students wait outside a school, with some students along a wall and others along a chain link fence.

Students enter a Queens high school last year on the first day of school.

Gabby Jones for Chalkbeat

As New York City grapples with how to better support the influx of students from asylum-seeking families hailing from South American countries, schools are looking for more bilingual educators and social workers.

They’re also trying to get clothes and food to families in need. 

But getting there isn’t simple. At least 5,500 new students living in shelters have enrolled, whom officials believe are largely newcomer immigrants, though their immigration status is not tracked by the education department. Given the additional students, schools should receive, at minimum, an additional $34 million in funding, Comptroller Brad Lander said Tuesday.

Before this school year began, officials had expected about 1,000 children would enroll, though they expected that figure to grow. Now, as nearly six times that number of newcomer students have arrived, officials are scrambling to tackle a raft of challenges at the school level, including a shortage of Spanish-speaking staff.

“There are no easy answers here. We are all very clear about that,” Chancellor David Banks told reporters Tuesday during a press conference at P.S. 16 in the Bronx, which recently welcomed several asylum seekers to its school. “We’re figuring it out as we go and doing the best that we can.”

The influx of students, many of whom have high needs, comes as schools had already been dealing with funding cuts due to declines in projected enrollment. Officials promised emergency funding for schools that are seeing a surge of new students, but some schools report not yet receiving extra support, Lander said. Brooklyn’s P.S. 124, which enrolled 35 new migrant students, added a temporary guidance counselor but received no new funding or staff, such as another bilingual educator, Lander’s statement said.

P.S. 16, where the chancellor visited Tuesday, now has a psychologist intern and a new English as a new language teacher, Lander said. 

Banks said that the school recently saw 39 new students living in temporary housing, though the city does not track whether those students are part of the surge of asylum seekers. 

Schools will likely face more challenges as they try to address the various needs of newcomer immigrant students, especially if the number of asylum-seeking students continues to grow. 

Need for more bilingual instruction

Some schools with many new students are struggling to provide instruction in Spanish. At P.S. 33 in Chelsea, parents reported that their children are having difficulty understanding lessons, the New York Post reported. 

Lander believes more resources are needed, and he is calling for the education department to immediately release an additional $34 million to schools that opened their doors to migrant students. But that might be a conservative estimate. The figure excludes preschool programs, as well as costs associated with any students who may be newly identified with disabilities, according to his office. 

Education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer said the city has distributed $25 million so far to schools seeing an increase of new students, on top of $50 million distributed to schools that appealed the budgets they received over the summer. Lander’s office noted that the education department has not responded to requests for their funding plan for migrant students, and it’s unclear how that $25 million will be spent. 

Generally, schools that have enrolled more students than the department has projected receive more funding in the winter as part of the city’s “midyear adjustment” process, but the late timing of that extra money makes it tough for school leaders to hire staff when the needs are more immediate.

“These children – who have little English proficiency, varying degrees of grade level readiness, possible special education needs, and extreme trauma to overcome – need extensive academic and social emotional support,” Lander said in a statement. 

Students who are learning English are entitled to traditional English as a new language instruction, meaning their classes are in English, but they receive extra support and translation help during and outside of class. Their families can also choose from bilingual programs or dual language instruction, but most city schools lack such programming, according to data from last school year. 

Carolyne Quintana, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, said the city is creating transitional bilingual programs at schools as needed, in response to the influx of newcomer students. These programs gradually increase the amount of time that students receive instruction in English, she said. 

“The goal of the programming is to support students in their home language while they transition into acquisition of English instruction,” Quintana said at Tuesday’s press conference. 

Department officials did not provide more details on how the department is creating these new programs or where they’re being created. A spokesperson said they’re adding teachers at schools as needed, based on the language needs at the school. Facing a shortage of bilingual educators, the city recently announced hiring teachers from the Dominican Republic. 

Advocates have pointed out that schools in New York City have long struggled to support students learning English as a new language. Over the past decade, the city has failed to comply with a state-issued corrective action plan focused on students learning English as a new language. For example, the city has failed to provide legally required services to all bilingual students with disabilities, largely because there aren’t enough trained bilingual educators. 

In a letter issued to the city last year, the state said it was “dismayed” by the continued lack of bilingual programs for students learning English.  

Hiring bilingual social workers

Education officials and advocates have emphasized that asylum-seeking students are likely grappling with many different stressors: leaving home and loved ones behind, learning to speak a new language, and acclimating to a new country. In his remarks Tuesday, Banks recounted recently meeting a student who had nearly drowned crossing into the United States. 

“If you take time, and we really think about the level of trauma that a lot of these young people have had to go through, just to get here … it’s an opportunity to stand for everything that we’ve always said that we’re about,” Banks said. 

Of the roughly 3,100 guidance counselors who work for New York City public schools, about 10% are bilingual, according to a city report from February. Of 1,900 social workers, nearly 13% are bilingual — meaning there would be one social worker for every 580 students learning English as a new language. The report didn’t specify which languages these staffers speak. About 14% of city students are learning English as a new language. 

Advocates often report that students they work with don’t have access to a counselor or social worker who speaks their native language. 

Banks said the education department is currently recruiting more social workers who speak Spanish. Officials did not elaborate on how many they’re looking to hire. 

Coordinating donations and other supplies

Many of the new students are in need of basic supplies, such as food and clothing as their families get settled. 

City officials are planning to create “borough response teams,” which will “organize food and clothing drives, resource fairs, and listening sessions/focus groups across the city,” according to a flier shared with parent councils across the city, asking people to sign up to join

The teams will “help organize donation drives to support our newest New Yorkers, leveraging the incredible generosity of our communities,” Banks said Tuesday, but neither he nor the flier elaborated further on what these teams will do.

Some parent councils have already kicked into gear gathering donations for families in need. 

The parent council overseeing Manhattan’s District 2 blasted out an email Tuesday asking people to donate or purchase items from Amazon wishlists that have been requested by various schools in the district. Schools are requesting warm clothing and shoes, undergarments, toiletries, and snacks that they’ll distribute to families in need. 

Lupe Hernandez, a member of that parent council, is also a member of the newly minted Manhattan borough response team and has been helping coordinate donations. The parent council has always collected items for schools that enroll many students living in nearby shelters, but those same schools are now seeing a surge of newcomer immigrant students, she said. 

Her new “borough response” team is still figuring out how they’ll support families, but volunteers are brainstorming ideas, including mirroring a plan in the Bronx to have a fair-like event with booths that provide various support, such as health services, and fun activities for new families, she said. 

“I think the goal is to try to provide as many wraparound services in one location, as well as provide uplifting fun for families and kids,” Hernandez said. 

Alex Zimmerman contributed.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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