Migrant NYC school families face new threat of being uprooted again

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By Dan Sears

It took a month and help from an army of immigrant advocates to get Hamidou Diallo’s 4-year-old daughter enrolled at a school in Harlem — a task a member of the schools’ oversight board said should have taken no more than a day.

“All these efforts for her to be accepted and now for her to start classes,” the 36-year-old Diallo, an asylum seeker from Guinea, said in his native Fulani, of the bureaucratic delays that sidelined his daughter. “That was not what I had in mind.”

For migrant parents like Diallo, navigating the city’s school bureaucracy has been a struggle. Parents and immigrant advocates alike complain of poor communication, delays enrolling students, long commutes, and other transportation-related issues.

Those problems were the subject of a recent City Council oversight committee hearing along with a looming change: new 60-day limits on shelter stays for migrant families. The effects of the new policy, which was announced weeks ago, are expected to affect an initial group of migrant families just after Christmas.

The Adams administration insists the policy change won’t destabilize migrant children’s education, as families unable to secure housing on their own will be permitted to reapply for shelter. And the administration has promised that students in shelters will be able to remain in the same school, which they are entitled to under federal law.

But little revealed in the council hearing, which featured Department of Education officials who work on issues involving migrant and homeless students, quelled the concerns about what’s in store for migrant families. School officials told council members they have no control over where migrant students are sent and in some cases aren’t even notified when students are moved.

Diallo said even though he has not yet received a 60-day notice, he’s bracing for any disruption to his daughter’s education.

His family lives in a Lower Manhattan shelter near Battery Park. He specifically sought out the school in Harlem for daughter Zeinab because it’s one of the few dual-language programs for French — also spoken by his family — among the city’s public schools.

Diallo got an assist with his daughter’s placement from Naveed Hassan, a member of the Panel for Education Policy, which approves policies for city’s public schools, after initially being told by school officials that he needed to have a more permanent address, Diallo and Hassan said. The Department of Education declined to comment on the circumstances.

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Diallo said he worries about any future moves affecting Zeinab’s schooling, after stays in three different shelters since arriving in the city in August.

“It’s going to be very hard for us,” said Diallo, adding that he has no savings to move out of the shelter system. “We just settled down.”

‘Falling through the gaps’

Some of the frustrations voiced by parents even ahead of the changes tied to the new 60-day stay limits were put to Department of Education staff who testified before council members.

The school officials, including Melissa Aviles-Ramos, the DOE chief of staff, pointed to their many efforts to help migrant families — including situating staff at shelters to help parents with enrollment and coordinating with principals and superintendents.

The challenge confronting the system is unrivaled in recent experience. The number of public school students in temporary housing stands at about 34,000, nearly double the 18,000 in the system last year, according to school officials.

InsideSchools, an education research initiative at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, monitors five local shelters—of the over 200 the city has created since last spring—where the organization says migrant families have struggled to enroll their children in school. At one shelter, 20% of families that shared information with the organization reported having to wait weeks or months to enroll their children in school, according to Natasha Quiroga, the director of education policy at InsideSchools.

Other migrant children at the shelters racked up absences and tardy slips because of long commutes, Quiroga told City Council members. Several families said they couldn’t get MetroCards for themselves or their children, and several mothers said they lost jobs because they had to pick up their children at school, she said.

Further, Quiroga said, only limited coordinator services have been made available to parents.

“Too many kids are impacted and are falling through the gaps,” Quiroga told the oversight hearing. “The vast majority of families we met with were unaware about their children’s rights and unsure of who to reach out to if they had problems.”

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DOE: ‘It’s a challenge’

City Council member Rita Joseph, a Brooklyn Democrat and chair of the Education Committee, asked how the DOE supports the “hundreds of households who are moving from borough to borough?”

“It’s a challenge,” replied Aviles-Ramos, the DOE chief of staff. “I’m not going to say that it isn’t.”

DOE officials said they are working migrant parents to ensure they are aware of their children’s rights, including to receive transportation and remain in their original schools. They’re collaborating with shelter staff, principals, superintendents, and setting up extra weekend “office hours” to reach more migrant families.

All students in grades K-6 in temporary housing are entitled to busing, and for their families to receive MetroCards. Early in the school term officials admitted there was a shortage of MetroCards provided to schools and shelters; they contend that has since been rectified.

The schools also are providing prepaid rideshares for needful students awaiting bus assignments — a common occurrence as schools grapple with bus driver shortages.

To bus students at the recently opened emergency shelter at Floyd Bennett Field alone — in a remote stretch of South Brooklyn—will also cost an estimated $625,000 this school year.

‘A right in name only’

Facing long distances and commute times, many families choose to relocate their children to another, closer school. Jennifer Pringle, director of the Learners in Temporary Housing project at the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New York, asked city officials to ensure when migrant families are moved that they remain in the same school district or at least the same borough.

“While students have the right to continued enrollment, it is a right in name only,” Pringle testified. “The city is implementing these policies that make it basically impossible to continue in the same school given the challenges with commuting times and transportation obstacles.”

A city report from last summer cited research showing that homeless students who transfer schools mid-year due to housing instability have worse academic performance.

Educators say the harm is exacerbated by prior gaps in schooling and the language barriers many migrant students face.

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Hassan, a member of the Panel for Education Policy, said students’ departures can cause difficulties for principals, school staff, and ripple effects for other students.

“All of these families that keep getting shuffled around in musical chairs, those classrooms are going to suffer,” said Hassan, who helped Diallo and other migrant families navigating the school system.

‘For my daughter, it’s a trauma’

Miryam, a 38-year-old parent from Ecuador who is living in a shelter in Hell’s Kitchen, said she recently received a letter–independent of the looming 60-day notices–telling her she would be relocated to another shelter, this one in the Bronx. Advocates say such relocations have been fairly common.

Miryam, who asked that only her first name be used because she fears jeopardizing her immigration case, said she’s worried how the move will affect her daughter, who enrolled this fall in Pre-K at the nearby Riverside School.

Shelter staff, she said, provided no assistance in enrolling her daughter Arlette in school and no extra details about what the move would entail for her daughter’s schooling, or how to request transportation.

“For my daughter, it’s a trauma. Because it’s been difficult for her to make friends because of the language,” said Miryam. “This change is going to be hard because she has to start over.”

Power Malu, of the community group Artists Athletes Activists, which assists migrants, said many more families will face similar struggles as the administration’s 60-day stay limit reaches more migrants.

“It’s just building up a lot of anxiety and unnecessary trauma,” Malu said.

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