When 17-year-old Amadou* arrived in New York City in March, his first priority was to enroll in high school. With his eyes on a career in business and dreams of starting his own company someday, he wanted to get on track with others his age as fast as possible. But when it came to getting enrolled in a public high school as an older teen from Senegal without any official school records, he found himself hitting dead end after dead end.

Amadou went with his brother, who was already living in New York, to a Department of Education Family Welcome Center near where they lived in the Bronx. He asked about enrollment. The center staff told them to show up at two nearby International High Schools, which he and his brother did the very next day.

“Both schools told us they were full,” Amadou said. When he went back to the Family Welcome Center, he was asked for his phone number and was told a meeting would be scheduled to find him a placement, but he never got a call. He reached out again two weeks later, was offered another meeting over the phone, but again, no one called Amadou back.

There was also the language barrier; Amadou and his brother do not speak English and know only some French, which was their second language after their native tongue, Wolof. They needed interpreters to communicate with the center and school staff.

Helping Amadou and others

There are a significant number of migrant students like Amadou, who are between 17 and 21 years old and want to continue their education. Many find their way to Afrikana, a Harlem-based community center, which InsideSchools is partnering with to help newcomers understand their options and enroll in school and other education programs.

Even with help, it wasn’t easy for Amadou. He was extremely discouraged after the initial visits to Afrikana. “I have two choices: go to school or go to work,” he told InsideSchools. “I know that going to school is better but if it's not possible, I have to go to work.“

InsideSchools Program Coordinator Maricruz Badia-Cestero met with Amadou at Afrikana in late March, when he showed up at the community center to get his NYC ID card. As a parent and former school counselor herself, Badia-Cestero was determined to get Amadou enrolled in school.

Outside Afrikana
Behind this nondescript entrance is Afrikana, where Mariana Bah, Afrikana's Chief Operating Officer, and staff and volunteers provide a welcoming space in Harlem for African migrants seeking education and opportunities.

Weighing the Options

According to New York State policy, students have the right to a free public education until the June after they turn 21 years old.

Older youth like Amadou have a number of options, including traditional public high schools, "International" schools geared for recent immigrants, English Language (EL) transfer schools that serve multilingual learners who have fallen behind or have interrupted learning, and alternative graduation programs such as the Pathways to Graduation where attendees may earn a High School Equivalency Diploma.

Badia-Cestero says many of the older youth want to attend a traditional high school, but end up taking whatever option is put in front of them, often by an official that has just met them and doesn’t know much about the student’s background or what they need or want.

“They are regarded as adults, but they're really not,” Badia-Cestero said. “And so on top of the fact that they are new to the city and new to the country, they're in limbo because they're on their own and have no one who knows the system to advocate for them.”

“There’s also the issue of language interpretation on top of that,” she added.

Compounding these challenges is the lack of authority by Family Welcome Center staff to enroll newcomers in specialized settings including International and transfer schools as well as Pathways to Graduation programs. All the center staff can do is give the student a referral to one of those types of schools, which doesn't guarantee a spot.

Newly arrived youth must then scramble to find an open seat among the type of schools or programs they were referred to, and then travel to one with space to present their referral for enrollment. Unfortunately, most of these programs are full, leaving many with referrals on waitlists.

Persistence pays off

Badia-Cestero accompanied Amadou and a group of several youth ages 17 to 20 to a Family Welcome Center in the Bronx, near where many of them were living. Staffers there referred most of the students, without further assessment, to Pathways to Graduation because of their age, even though many were eligible to attend a traditional high school.

Badia-Cestero pushed back and asked about other options. Refusing to give up, she contacted several International High Schools to find Amadou a seat. When she finally found one, Badia-Cestero and Amadou returned to the Family Welcome Center to get the referral.

“The counselor sent the referral to us, but he would keep leaving me out of the communication. And so I kept inserting myself back into the process, until it was settled,” Badia-Cestero said. When she couldn’t accompany Amadou to the school on the day he was to enroll, another InsideSchools volunteer who spoke French went along in her place.

close up of Amadou
Amadou completing paperwork at the Family Welcome Center.

Advocacy makes a difference

Over 850 single immigrant youth between the ages of 17 and 20 were in the city’s shelter system as of March 3, and a sizeable portion of them have not yet enrolled in school, the local investigative news site City Limits reported.

And out of the 70-some students InsideSchools worked with at Afrikana over the past few months, roughly half have gotten placements. The rest are on waitlists.

Badia-Cestero says it’s really a matter of privilege who gets enrolled in the school they want within the time frame they want. It’s also about access to someone who can advocate for you.

“My children have the privilege of a mom advocating for them,” she said. “If you're somebody that's intimidated by the system, you're not going to speak up, so it becomes about the privilege of having somebody to accompany you who is an insider.”

Amadou is now enrolled at an International High School in the Bronx, and he says he’s already started to make a few friends. His advice for another student in his situation is to connect with an advocate.

“Call Maricruz,” he said half-jokingly. "I would have given up if it weren’t for someone pushing for me like that.”

InsideSchools staff and volunteers will be at both Afrikana and the Little Shop of Kindness on alternate Fridays from 10 am to 1 pm. We'll be helping children enroll in grades 3-K through 12, helping parents find ESL classes, and answering education-related questions.

For more information, email us at questions@insideschools.org or text/send a WhatsApp message to 929-332-4467.

Main image: InsideSchools volunteers, Alejandra and Steven, assisting youth at Afrikana.

*The student's name was changed to protect his privacy.

Translation assistance for this article by Rachel Ford