Many asylum-seeker students facing school transfers due to haphazard relocation of migrant families, CPS tells City Council

School transfers abound for asylum-seeker students due to the city’s haphazard relocation of migrant families and because every school isn’t equipped to serve English learners in need of trauma-informed services, Chicago Public Schools officials told City Council members at an Education and Childhood Development Committee meeting Wednesday night.

Amid a humanitarian crisis that’s seen more than 200 buses of asylum-seekers from the southern border arrive in the city since August 2022, thousands of migrant students have enrolled in CPS for the 2023-24 school year.

At Wednesday’s meeting, occurring just ahead of the 20th day of school, when enrollment counts will largely determine next year’s school budgets, some council members balked at the transfer of newcomer students out of their wards.

“The city wants to secure shelter in a more standard place,” Karime Asaf, CPS’ chief of language and cultural education, said of families who’ve been staying at police stations and at O’Hare International Airport. “They will move to any part of the city. I don’t think that they are aligning precisely with school attendance.”

Families who’ve been moved to transitional housing, such as a motel, may be transferred again in a few months, Asaf said.

Ald. Nicole Lee of the 11th Ward said this week a bus picked up about 40 people who’d been staying at the 9th District police station, including 15 students who’d been attending Holden Elementary School in Bridgeport, and transferred them to a shelter on the North Side.

“I think the families really liked the stability of the school; they liked what was going on there,” Lee said. “And they’re wondering about what happens with their children going to school.”

CPS officials said the district is also working to route students who initially enrolled at schools close to the police stations where they’re still staying — which have only a few English learners — to schools with robust bilingual programs.

“We do not have the resources to serve every single immigrant student in every building,” CPS Chief Portfolio Officer Alfonso Carmona said.

Ald. Jeannette Taylor, 20th, chair of the council’s education committee, asked why a program couldn’t be created at Jesse Sherwood Elementary School in her ward. “I can see CPS in two years coming after that school,” she said, alluding to the upcoming end to a moratorium on school closures in 2025. “Why is that not one of the schools that’s being chosen?”

A spokesperson for Taylor said Sherwood has about 100 students with a capacity of about 800.

In addition to language needs, Carmona said the district has prioritized keeping relatives together and enrolling students with other kids they already know. Officials added that there’s strength in numbers, with bilingual teacher positions allotted based on the number of English learners. Schools with more than 20 English learners receive a part-time position; schools with more than 150 receive a full-time position and those with over 600 English learners receive two full-time positions, fully dedicated to coaching teachers, securing resources and supporting those students’ needs.

Carmona said newcomer student enrollments can’t be motivated by a desire to increase a school’s per-pupil funding. “It’s not about budget,” he said. “It’s about providing the resources and the support that the students need.”

If a neighborhood school were to see an influx of new families, the district could open a bilingual program, he said. But having a bilingual teacher position allotted — and then filling it and ensuring that the teacher has the necessary professional development — aren’t the same thing, he said, explaining why the district is focused on moving students to schools with programs already in place.

He said the district is committed to immediately enrolling students in temporary living situations at any school where they show up so they can receive other social services before being transferred.

“We’re trying to centralize these pieces. It’s not working as magically as we’d plan it because the influx is large,” he said. “What we also don’t want to happen is that principals are denying enrollment. … The student should be enrolled in that school while we find the right placement if the school doesn’t have the resources.”

Ald. Desmon Yancy, 5th, questioned the district’s logic. “I don’t think it makes sense for them to go through a lot to be here, to then put them in a neighborhood school that can’t meet their needs and then transfer them to another school, in some cases halfway across town, that then serves those needs,” he said. “This fluid situation ... at some point it’s got to be static.”

CPS enrolled about 2,300 more English learners last school year than the district usually does on average. And since July, the district has enrolled 1,500 newcomer students, officials said.

“We certainly have a crisis with families arriving nearly every day,” Carmona said. “We have a lack of resources. We need support from you in the council and the city.”