InsideSchools director Natasha Quiroga appeared before the New York City Council Joint Immigration and Education Committee to share our insights and observations from helping over 400 newly arrived families enroll their children in schools. The following is the full transcript of the testimony..

Testimony of InsideSchools, November 29, 2023

Thank you, Chair Joseph and Chair Hanif and members of the New York City Council
Education and Immigration Committees, for the opportunity to submit testimony on thechallenges facing newly arrived immigrant students in New York City Public Schools. Myname is Natasha Quiroga, Director of Education Policy and InsideSchools, of The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. InsideSchools, a project of The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, provides families with resources and support to make informed decisions and advocate for their children’s education. For twenty years, InsideSchools has been the premier source for millions of families who want to better understand New York City public schools.

Since this past summer, InsideSchools has facilitated eleven in-person workshops at
The New School and at nine shelters housing newly arrived migrant families throughout the city, including HERRCs and DHS shelters with no service providers. We’ve also met one-on-one with parents, caregivers, and students to address their specific concerns. We have helped over 400 families navigate the New York City public school system, learn how to enroll in school, figure out how to access transportation to school, find resources for their children and set up their MySchools account. We helped families learn about EL transfer schools, schools in the Internationals Network, and showed them how to learn more about their children's schools through the 1,800 school profiles on the InsideSchools website. We’ve helped parents figure out how to get school bus pickups for their kids – from the littlest ones to students with disabilities – or sign up for the student MetroCards. Our experiences and observations have highlighted critical
issues that demand attention and action.

Families are not receiving enough assistance or guidance at shelters. In the two weeks before school started this year, we provided workshops to families at five HERRC sites. Most families did not know there was a DOE liaison on site or where to find them. There was no liaison at the Roosevelt Hotel the week before school started. At the five DHS shelters we are visiting now, only one has a DOE liaison on site one day a week. At this same shelter, 20% of families who shared their information with us had children waiting weeks to over two months to enroll in school. While the larger shelters tend to have on-site DOE liaisons, they have limited availability (often only one day a week) and other shelters request the liaisons as needed. The enrollment process is confusing and families often receive conflicting information from shelter-based staff and Family Welcome Centers. During the summer and now, we met several families who met with DOE liaisons for school enrollment but waited weeks for a school placement.

Language access remains a paramount problem. While the DOE website is
available in multiple languages, there are still gaps in communication. Families who speak languages other than Spanish struggle to communicate with shelter-based
coordinators and Family Welcome Center staff. Until a month ago, DOE emailed school
acceptance offers to parents in English only. Fearing scams, families missed these
messages. Unable to get them translated in a timely manner, they missed opportunities to get their children off enrollment waitlists. Also, DOE's MySchools web portal is its default mode of communicating with parents about admissions – but many migrant parents do not yet know how to log in or haven’t set up an account.

School placements aren’t always a good fit. Some families who arrived towards the end of the 2022-23 school year wanted to transfer to schools better equipped to meet their children’s language or other academic needs. Most families are living in shelters distant from dual language programs or from schools with sufficient teachers and staff to support multilingual learners. Conversely, children assigned to more distant schools face transportation problems – and that’s compounded for families with children in both elementary and secondary schools, or in preschool programs. And many families are understandably nervous about sending children to schools a long subway ride away in a still-unfamiliar city. One father worried about the long subway commute his teenage daughter would have to take alone to high school, after the trauma she experienced before coming to the U.S. Families whose children are enrolled in an English as a New Language (ENL) program worry how their children can learn if English is the only language of instruction. Families with children who speak languages other than Spanish are especially concerned. One Russian-speaking mother worries about her elementary-aged son who went to school every day where no one, not a teacher nor a classmate, speaks his language.

There’s an unmet need for 3K/Pre-K and childcare. Several families struggle to find childcare or early childhood opportunities for their infants and toddlers. Early childhood education spots are limited, if available at all, near most shelters. Because many parents have not initiated a MySchools account, several children missed out on getting off of waitlists for PK as well as HS. We helped several families get on a waitlist for 3K and Pre-K as many of the options near shelters were full.

The right to transportation for students living in shelters remains a challenge. The number one concern parents brought to us was their child's school was too far from their shelter. So many children struggle to obtain transportation to school, whether by bus or subway. Several families told us less than two weeks ago they are still unable to obtain Metrocards for themselves and their children at their shelters or at their schools. A few families who received a school placement they felt was too far from their shelter kept their kids out of school for weeks until a closer school could be found. Other families struggle with the distance to get to school on time, racking up tardies and unexcused absences. Almost half of children living at the shelters we have visited are elementary school aged. Parents who are able to obtain Metrocards struggle to balance taking their children to school, caring for younger children not old enough for school, and work. Several mothers lost job opportunities because they had to pick their kids up from school or couldn’t find childcare or a 3K/PK program. A grandmother worries about who will take her 8-year-old grandchild to school if she gets sick. Another mother is undergoing a medical procedure that will prevent her from taking her children to school for weeks.

Families are worried how the 60-day limit will impact their children. We will likely see increased absenteeism of an already vulnerable student group. Children may not attend school for days and weeks while the family adjusts to a new shelter and new route to school. Children who have built relationships with their teachers and made new friends will have to do so again at a new school, a cycle which could be repeated every 60 days. Some parents worry their children will not want to go to another new school. This would be incredibly destabilizing for children, many who have experienced trauma and have already missed months or even years of schooling before arriving in New York City. It was already hard enough to find schools for families that would be a good fit for children, especially for families with a range of ages. A few families were fortunate to enroll in K-8 schools not far from their Midtown shelter so an elementary school child and a middle school child could attend the same school, making transportation easier for the parents. Many families have applied to middle school and high school based on where they are currently living as will families applying to Kindergarten.

InsideSchools recognizes the enormous task to address the number of newly arrived
newcomer students to the city and the strain on the City’s shelter system and the DOE. We acknowledge the immense work of the DOE and shelter staff and appreciate their responsiveness when we raise these issues. But too many children are impacted and falling through the gaps. The school system is confusing for even the most savvy and proactive New York parent. The vast majority of families we met were unaware about their children’s rights and unsure of who to reach out to if they had problems.

More must be done to address this disruption to children's lives and education. Based upon our work, we make the following recommendations:

  • Strengthen Shelter-Based DOE Liaisons: There is an immense need to increase the quantity, visibility and availability of liaisons at shelters. We understand that there are still significant, unspent federal stimulus dollars specifically allocated to support Students in Temporary Housing held at the DOE, with no clear path for their deployment. Given the current dire situation, we strongly advocat for transparency regarding the amount of funding remaining and unprogrammed, and recommendations for how the city might still advance those dollars to meet critical needs.
  • District/Borough School Placements: For those families receiving 60-day notices, families should be placed in the same school district, or at least For those families receiving 60-day notices, families should be placed in the same school district, or at least the same borough, of hte child' initial school. Families should als be helped to ease any school transitions.
  • Community-Based Organization Collaboration: Leverage the combined skillset of community-based organizations working with migrant families and those with education expertise like InsideSchools by contracting with them too provide direct assistance. "Peer navigators" could, for example, help with the enrollent process, connect families to needed services, help them establish MySchools accounts, and more. There should also be increased coordination between the DOE, the shelters, and community-based organizations.
  • Streamline the Enrollment Process for Newcomers: Ensure that Family Welcome Centers , DOE liaisons, and school staff are well-informed and up to date on the process. Shelter and Family Welcome Centers staff need additional training to support this unique population, especially about schools and programs for multilingual learners and students with disabilities.

Every child, regardless of how they arrived or where they live in New York City, has the right to an education. Many of our newest New Yorkers have faced enormous trauma and need stability. We don’t just want our children to go to school, we want them to succeed and thrive.

Thank you for the opportunity to share these experiences with you and for your interest and support of immigrant children and families in New York City.