NYC Education Dept. scrambles to enroll influx of migrant kids as school year approaches

·4 min read

New York City’s Education Department is facing a logistical nightmare as the start of the school year approaches: registering potentially thousands of recently-arrived asylum-seeking kids for school in less than a month.

City officials estimate more than 4,000 migrants from Central and South America have sought refuge in New York and filled city homeless shelters in recent weeks — many on buses sent by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

For the city’s school system, that means identifying, enrolling, and securing additional services for hundreds, maybe thousands, of newcomers with no knowledge of U.S. schools, unstable housing and limited English proficiency — all by the start of classes on Sept. 8.

DOE officials insist it’s an “all hands on deck” effort in partnership with other city agencies.

“Our staff are meeting incoming families at shelters to assist in school enrollment, establish support pathways for multilingual learners, and to provide resources and supplies to new students,” said Education Department spokeswoman Nicole Brownstein.

But some DOE staffers, advocates and homeless shelter operators say they haven’t seen the systemwide coordination needed to match the scale of the challenge.

“This is crazy,” said one DOE employee involved with enrolling the new families, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There’s no uniform orders on what to do and no accountability in ensuring these young people are registered in schools and have the appropriate seats. There’s nothing systemic.”

Typically, new students can enroll in schools when they open in September, or at family welcome centers open year-round — but few of the newly arrived families know about those options, advocates say.

The Education Department assigns additional staffers to support families in homeless shelters — but the bulk of shelter-based DOE workers are ten-month employees who don’t have to work during the summer, leaving the agency with less manpower to handle the flood of new arrivals.

“You have this influx of families and at most [shelter] sites, there’s no one from the Department of Education there to help them with enrollment,” said Jennifer Pringle, a project director at Advocates for Children.

Year-round worker in the DOE’s division for homeless students and nonprofit shelters are scrambling to pick up the slack.

But the number of new arrivals is daunting, and shelter employees — particularly new hires — may not have the expertise to help families navigate the complex enrollment process, added Catherine Trapani, the Executive Director of Homeless Services United, a coalition of shelter operators.

“If you’re trying to staff up quickly, there’s usually going to be some training gaps,” Trapani said.

Education Department officials said they’re training partner agencies and shelters on how to support the migrant children’s educational needs.

Making matters more complicated, many of the kids may need specialized services that not offered in the closest school, advocates say.

All city public schools are required to provide “English as a New Language” services to students who need them. But not all schools have “dual-language” programs, where teachers alternate between English and Spanish, or bilingual social workers and counselors who can provide mental health support in another language.

If kids end up in schools without the appropriate services in September, it’s likely to cause more headaches for everyone, advocates said.

“It’s not fair to families or schools to have this rush of kids enrolling in programs where there’s not sufficient supports available to only to have kids transfer a few weeks later,” Pringle said. “No one wants that.”

Still, many educators are doing all they can to ensure the newcomers feel welcome next month.

In Manhattan’s District 2, where officials are expecting between 100 and 200 new students, schools are holding in-person registration drives, giving out backpacks and adjusting the schedules of their English as a New Language teachers in preparation, district superintendent Kelly McGuire told families.

For one migrant family, Education Department outreach has already made a big difference.

Nestor Enrique Torrealba, who arrived in New York with his wife and two daughters last month after a grueling journey from Venezuela, thought his kids weren’t eligible to attend school because of their immigration status — until DOE staffers showed up at the family’s shelter and explained their options.

Torrealba found a nearby school with a Spanish dual-language program for his 10-year-old daughter — and even got a call in Spanish last week from her new teacher.

“I feel more calm because I know the kids are going to keep moving forward and they’re not going to fall behind,” Torrealba said. “That’s what you want most as a father.”