Valeska Cardona, 9, is still far from calling herself conversational in English — she’s trying to remember how to pronounce the word orange — but she says she’s cracked the code for making a friend.
“You have to say, ‘Hi, how are you, what’s your name? My name is Valeska,’” Cardona said. Sometimes the native Spanish speaker will ask, “where you from?”
Back home in Venezuela, Cardona said she knew the days of the week in Spanish. Now she’s learning them in English – “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Thursday, Thursday!” her 7-year-old friend interjected during an after school program at the Salvation Army Times Square.
Cardona is among thousands of New York City public school students who arrived in the U.S. in the last year-and-a-half and are learning English.
Child advocates, educators and social services providers say migrant students face significant barriers to schooling in general, let alone having to learn a new language. And local groups are getting creative, using music and play to encourage language skills.
Some don’t know how to read or write, missed school for months or years at a time and are still processing the trauma of their journeys to New York and the family members and friends they left behind. Teachers and providers say students need a sense of stability and safety to learn, but a shortage of bilingual teachers and the city’s newest rules forcing migrant families in shelters to leave and reapply for housing every 60 days will only undermine those efforts, leaving kids with sporadic learning.
And learning English takes time.
“People are very interested in this question of how long does it take? I think that we should really be asking a different question,” said Kate Menken, a linguistics professor at Queens College. “The question is which approach is going to ensure that students are able to succeed in school, but also experience the least amount of ongoing trauma as possible.”
Some groups, like the Salvation Army, launched programs helping children practice English through music, and others are providing after school services or mentorship to provide additional support to students outside the classroom and supplement what they say is a lack of bilingual educators.
“For us right now, the most important thing is their heart and how they’re feeling,” said Jeanette Frazier, the community school director for Children’s Aid at Central Park East II. “A lot of them have nightmares. They say they can’t sleep at night, we see it when we have our [fire] drills and when they hear the sirens … We saw that a lot of the babies, they wouldn’t move. They would not move.”
New York City’s Department of Education, which doesn’t ask students for their immigration status, said 12,500 students living in temporary housing have enrolled in schools since this July, many of whom are presumed to be migrants.
“Regardless of their immigration status or language spoken at home, every student deserves access to high-quality schools that meet their unique needs,” DOE spokesperson Nicole Brownstein said. “We will continue to work with students, families and partners to ensure that newcomer students have what they need in our public schools and that our schools are well equipped to support these needs.”
Schools offer several programs for students who don’t speak English. But most students are in English-only classes where the teacher is certified to teach English as a new language but doesn’t need to speak a student’s native language. Experts say the gold standard is a bilingual program, where students receive partial instruction in English and their home language. About 1 in 5 of the 160,000 English language learners were in bilingual programs last year, school data shows.
NYC Schools employ 1,700 bilingual educators and 3,400 teachers certified to teach English as a new language.
Diana Aragundi, who works with immigrant students at Advocates for Children of New York, said while some groups are stepping up to support students learning English and creating a patchwork of support, “it doesn’t replace the need for more bilingual resources.”
“Anything that allows them to feel like kids and to have that enrichment is really great,” she said. “Especially in hotels and in different types of shelters, it’s been really challenging for them to find places to have community.”
Learning through music
At the Salvation Army Times Square, about a dozen children line up in a row in front of a piano, holding a sheet of lyrics.
“There are a couple of important words we have to learn to pronounce,” pastor and program director Cpt. Danielle Hall said, as she had the children repeat words like “father,” “flame” and “Christ,” – emphasis on the T-sound at the end. The week before the kids sang the same song in Spanish and this week they sang it in English.
“Learning language through song is probably one of the easiest ways to learn a language,” said Cpt. Yuco Hall, who co-leads the program that started last September.
He said they’ve seen the children — who are all Spanish speakers — get more comfortable in English, but more importantly, get a chance to just be kids outside the pressure of school. While the children sing upstairs, the parents gather downstairs and then they all eat a home-cooked meal together.
“I feel really happy,” Valentina Garcias, 9, said in Spanish. She said learning English through song is “a little easier because I sing and it stays in my mind.” She also enjoys the hot meals of stewed meats and beans, a contrast to what she eats at Row NYC, a hotel turned shelter in Times Square, where she’s been for about a year with her family.
At the weekly music classes, Valentina Garcias gets to see her childhood friend, whom she calls her sister but is staying at a different shelter in Queens.
“They’re just kids, you know, and they’ve been through so much, but at the end of the day, they want to sing, they want to play, they want to connect with each other,” said Tatyana Kleyn, a professor in bilingual education programs at the City College of New York. She said educators and advocates also need to value migrant children’s home language as a resource and part of who they are — and that will help students learn.
“It’s not just like a race to who knows English the fastest, right? It’s about their whole linguistic repertoire, all their language practices and how we support those and use those in their education,” she said.
Gesnaiker Garcias, a second grader, said he picks up English where he can, including on TikTok. He can’t help but share all the words he knows in English; he said he can count to 200 and just learned how to say, “my favorite fruit is strawberry and watermelon.”
The 7-year-old, who said his teacher speaks only English, said he has an unofficial translator who helps him in class: his classmate, Jerry.
“I say, ‘Jerry, what is that?’ and he’ll tell me,” Gesnaiker Garcias said in Spanish. “I have him almost right next to me.”
And when Jerry isn’t around, Gesnaiker Garcias said he gestures with his hands to communicate with his peers or just says: “I play please.”
‘This is the most consistent thing they have’
Frazier, who works with about 40 migrant families in East Harlem, said her job is to clear as many hurdles out of the way so children can focus on school. That could mean making sure they have proper shoes, clothes, food and know how to get to class.
She said when the families first started coming to school, many kids were scared to ride the train or families frequently got lost. Students also would lose their way in school, walking back and forth in the hallways until a school resource officer guided them to the right place. At first, she said, students mostly kept to themselves and were quiet but now they’re asking questions and starting to pick up English phrases and words.
Frazier said Children’s Aid provides after school programming in Spanish to new arrivals, because the school doesn’t offer bilingual programming. They also partner non-English-speaking students with English-speaking students in class, like a buddy system, and provide in-class mentors who help translate lessons for new arrivals.
“They’re putting sentences together now. They’re not fluent but they also come to us and they say, ‘how do you say this?’ And then we can tell them and they practice. They write it,” said Frazier, who has worked at the school since 2005. “This is the most consistent thing they have.”
But the relationships social service agencies and teachers have formed with students could be disrupted. The city has issued about 1,500 notices to migrant families giving them until December to leave their shelter or apply for a new placement, which could force families to transfer their children to schools that are closer to where they’re living.
“The people from the hotel are gonna call us and tell us to tell them when we’re leaving,” said Gesnaiker Garcias, whose family received a 60-day notice. “I don’t know if I’ll be changed or stay in the same school.”