How NYC Could Reset Its School Help for New Migrants

How NYC Could Reset Its School Help for New Migrants

By Bruce Cory | Center for New York City Affairs

Last month, the administration of Mayor Eric Adams at long last scuttled its ill-considered $432 million no-bid contract for asylee services with a questionably qualified provider whose performance left a great deal to be desired.

The question now is: Could the administration be open to a reset in managing how it provides shelter, assistance, and education to the more than 180,000 asylum-seeking migrants who have arrived in New York City in the past two years?  

If the answer is “yes,” a good place to start would be considering some eminently sensible and cost-effective suggestions, such as those included in recent City Council testimony by Natasha Quiroga, director of education policy and InsideSchools at the Center for New York City Affairs.

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First, as to Natasha’s bona fides on these matters: For 20 years, InsideSchools has been the go-to guide to making sense of the nation’s largest public school system – a task designed to tax the patience of even the savviest longtime New Yorker. And since last summer, the InsideSchools team has put that expertise to work helping some 600 new migrant families navigate the city’s schools on behalf of their children. 

They’ve organized scores of face-to-face, multi-lingual meetings with families in the network of emergency shelters temporarily housing them. (One such encounter is pictured above.) They’ve often accompanied students and families to the Department of Education (DOE) Family Welcome Centers where assistance in school enrollment is supposed to happen. In the process, they’ve been a welcome source of the practical and timely information and sympathetic personal guidance too often lacking from admittedly stressed-out official sources. 

On May 15th, Natasha appeared before a joint hearing of the City Council’s Finance and Education Committees on the proposed City budget set for adoption in the next few weeks. She explained why the hands-on work her team does is essential – and why more support for it from the City Department of Education (DOE) is needed badly.

“We continue to meet families whose children are not enrolled in school despite living in shelters for weeks,” she testified, as she described some of the obstacles they confront.

Natasha detailed, for example, the disheartening thicket of problems her team has encountered as they accompany newly arrived Francophone West African youngsters, aged 17 to 21, who desperately want to resume their high school educations. Taking one look at their age, DOE Welcome Center officials have summarily directed them all to the “pathways to graduation” program. While it helps over-age students earn general equivalency degrees, it doesn’t put students in traditional classrooms – which is what most of these young people deeply desire. Moreover, such GED instruction only comes in English or Spanish – and waitlists for high school-age English Language Learner classes were months long. “I am very discouraged,” Natasha testified that one 17-year-old told an InsideSchools staffer. “I want to learn, but the schools don’t want me.” 

In response, the ever-resourceful InsideSchools team has scrambled to find seats for some such students in DOE international schools, run by the non-profit International Network of Public Schools to support multi-lingual learners and immigrant students. In other cases, their persistence has helped land pathways to graduation placements for students who sincerely want – or have accommodated themselves to – that option.

The thousands of asylum-seeking families with far younger kids face a different set of daunting hurdles. Most who have kids three years old or younger don’t even know that the city’s free 3-K early childhood education program exists, let alone how to enroll in it using the DOE’s MySchools online portal, or how to accept an offer or get on a waitlist, Natasha testified. And when parents call the MySchools helpline they have to listen to nearly two minutes of an English message before hearing alternative prompts only for Spanish or Mandarin.  

“It should not be this difficult,” Natasha rather understatedly concluded. “Families should be able to navigate the system on their own [but] the processes are not user-friendly.”

Earlier this year, the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation of New York awarded InsideSchools a $100,000, one-year grant to help them expand their remarkable work. The grant will enable them to hold more workshops with asylum-seeker families, create informative handouts and videos in multiple languages, and continue to provide personalized support.

But with an estimated roughly 20,000 new migrant kids in the school system, even the most creative and empathetic such efforts by a dedicated but small team at InsideSchools can only go so far. That’s where more help from DOE has to come in. While DOE seems to recognize that, its current proposed solutions are unfortunately half-steps at best. 

Its proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1st, for example, includes funding for 100 shelter-based liaisons – which works out to only one person for every two shelters. The budget also includes $3.5 million for DOE outreach to encourage early childhood education. That’s less than half what the City Council and outside advocates estimate is needed. It’s not hard to guess what such a shortfall would mean for asylum-seeking families with pre-school kids. 

In her May 15th testimony, Natasha urged that DOE also expand high school English Language Learner programs, with more professional development for educators and school leaders faced with older newcomer students needing such instruction. And she proposed that DOE fund partnerships with community groups expert in reaching “limited English-proficient and digitally disconnected families,” including new migrants.

With the City expecting to receive some $3.1 billion in State funds this year and next for services to asylum seekers, such rather modest measures ought to be practicable. And with a new budget year at hand – and a new school year not that far off – the Adams administration has an opportunity to do some course corrections in its handling of migrant services. There’s a lot they can learn from listening to groups that, like InsideSchools, have been deeply involved with meeting asylum-seekers’ needs.

Bruce Cory is editorial advisor at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

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