Thousands of migrant children start school in New York. Is the system ready?

For many New York kids, summer vacation means summer work. Or summer school. Or go out on the town with friends. Vanessa, 13, spent this summer selling fruit snacks outside a subway station in midtown Manhattan with her mother. Mango slices, watermelon pieces and cucumber sticks. Vanessa recently arrived from Ecuador. She is in the process of seeking asylum in the United States. Her mother, Alejandra, is undocumented and asked that her last name be withheld to protect her family back home. “They are killing people there. There are kidnappings, rapes. I had to take the children out.”

/ Jasmin Garst/NPR


Jasmin Garst/NPR

Vanessa (right), 13, is about to start school in New York. She will be joined by around 20,000 migrant children.

Vanessa’s routine in the city is about to change: at the end of summer, she leaves for school. She will start 8th grade. She will join about 20,000 other migrant children starting this month in New York public schools. Part of the migratory wave that has arrived in the city in recent years: around 100,000 people since last spring alone.

Authorities have reminded schools that they must accept all children, regardless of their immigration status. And they encourage migrant families to send their children. For many families, enrolling a member who might otherwise work is a financial sacrifice, but worth it. “It’s hard for us,” admits Alejandra. “It’s hard for a lot of families, New York, it’s expensive.” But she says she doesn’t want her child hanging out on the streets with her. She herself was unable to go to school in Ecuador when she was a child. “Maybe if I had had this opportunity,” she thought, “I would be in a better place today.”

Jorge Delgado Vega and his mother at this package from the Family Welcoming Center.

/ Keren Carrion/NPR


Keren Carrion/NPR

Jorge Delgado Vega and his mother at this package from the Family Welcoming Center.

Despite all the excitement, some families also told NPR they were worried. On a sweltering September morning, immigrant families line up outside the Queens Department of Education offices. They are trying to figure out where to send their children. The Jorge Delgado Vega arrived in New York only three days ago. They too come from Ecuador. One of the first things the family did was enroll Vega in high school. He will start grade 11 in the coming days. “I feel very happy,” says Vega. “This is a new opportunity.” But he says he’s also nervous. He does not yet know which school he will go to and hopes that it will be bilingual. “I still don’t know English very well. I don’t know how people will react. It makes me nervous.”

He’s not the only one worried. Some New York parents say they are concerned about the school system’s ability to handle a massive influx of students who speak English as a new language (ENL). “Compassion dictates that you try to understand: ‘They are here now, what are we going to do with these children who are here?’ ” said Maude Maron. She herself is the mother of four children educated in New York schools. She is also an elected leader of the Manhattan Community Education Council, an advisory body made up of parents and residents. “But we also have to ask ourselves, what impact is this going to have on the children who are already here? Children who have suffered repeatedly over the course of a year of learning loss because of COVID closures. These are children who are already very far away. And now they are going to have classrooms filled to the brim with migrant children who teachers are unprepared and, in some cases, incapable of teaching.

A family outside the Dpt.  of Education in Long Island City, New York.

/ Keren Carrion/NPR


Keren Carrion/NPR

A family outside the Dpt. of Education in Long Island City, New York.

Maron says she hasn’t heard a word from the Department of Education about how to handle the current situation. She worries that New York schools won’t be able to accommodate as many foreign students. Not with a shortage of teachers, and only 3,400 ESL teachers on staff.

Melissa Aviles Ramos, chief of staff for the New York Department of Education, disagrees. “We can handle it. We always have. This is a massive increase that we have (never) seen before, and it is not without challenges. It is a real opportunity for our teachers, our administration and all of our staff. truly step up and not only accept, but embrace the difference in language and culture.

The New York Department of Education announced that it has hired 188 new ENL teachers. And 140 other candidates are in preparation. Compared to 20,000 new students, that seems like a drop in the ocean.

NPR spoke with teachers across the city. “The department is woefully under-resourced for everything,” said Christopher, who asked that we withhold his last name, lest his employer retaliate. He teaches at a school in Brooklyn. He says the new arrivals are a joy to be around. “Every kid we’ve had so far has been incredibly eager to learn. They just want to be kids. They want to be kids.”

Christopher believes the children are scapegoats for a crisis that existed long before they arrived. “I mean, you could take away all these new students, and there’s still… there’s no money.”

Other teachers told NPR that this situation could bring a lot of growth to New York schools. “This is an opportunity to diversify our schools as well,” Rosie Fraschella said. “New York City is one of the most segregated school districts in the country.” Fraschella is the parent of one child and herself an English as a new language teacher. “There is a very strong need in the United States to be multilingual. Most of the world is multilingual.”

Meanwhile, far from the debates, in the middle of the traffic of Midtown Manhattan, Vanessa, the 13-year-old Ecuadorian, says she dreams of one day becoming a lawyer.

But for now, she’s just happy to be back at school. It’s been a long summer here. And she’s ready for a break.

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