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Thousands of migrant kids are starting school in NYC. Is the system prepared?

Families walk in and out the Dpt. of Education in Long Island City.
Keren Carrión/NPR
Families walk in and out the Dpt. of Education in Long Island City.

For many New York kids, summer break means a summer job. Or summer school. Or hanging out in the city with friends. For 13-year-old Vanessa, this summer was spent selling fruit snacks outside a subway stop in midtown Manhattan with her mother. Mango slices, watermelon chunks and cucumber sticks. Vanessa arrived recently from Ecuador. She's in the midst of seeking asylum in the U.S. Her mother, Alejandra, is undocumented and asked that their last name be withheld, in order to protect their family back home. "They are killing people there. There are kidnappings, rapes. I had to take the kids out."

13 year old Vanessa (r) is about to start school in New york City. She'll be joined by about 20 thousand migrant kids.
/ Jasmine Garst/NPR
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Jasmine Garst/NPR
Vanessa (right), 13, is about to start school in New York City. She'll be joined by about 20,000 migrant kids.

Vanessa's routine in the city, is about to change: summer is over, and she's headed off to school. She's starting the 8th grade, joining around 20,000 other migrant children who have enrolled in New York public schools this month. Part of the wave of migration that has come to the city in recent years: around 100,000 people since last Spring alone.

Officials have reminded schools that they must accept all children, regardless of their immigration status. And they have been encouraging migrant families to send their kids. For many families, enrolling a member who could otherwise be working is a financial sacrifice, but one that is well worth it. "It's hard for us" admits Alejandra. "It's hard for a lot of families, New York is expensive." But she says she doesn't want her kid out on the streets with her. She herself didn't get to go to school in Ecuador when she was a child. "Maybe if I'd had that opportunity", she reflects, "I'd be in a better place today."

Jorge Delgado Vega and his mom at that Family Welcome Center packet.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Jorge Delgado Vega and his mom at that Family Welcome Center packet.

For all the excitement, some families also told NPR they are apprehensive. On a sweltering morning in September, immigrant families are lined up outside the Department of Education offices in Queens. They're trying to find out where to send their kids. Jorge Delgado Vega arrived to New York just three days ago, from Ecuador. One of the first things the family did, was enroll Delgado in high school. He'll be starting 11th grade in the next few days. "I feel very happy," says Delgado. "It's a new opportunity." But he says he's also nervous. He doesn't know what school he'll be going to yet, and hopes it's a bilingual one. "I still don't know English very well. I don't know know how people will react. This makes me nervous."

He's not alone in his concern. Some New York parents say they are worried about the school system's capacity to handle a large influx of students who are English as a new language (ENL). "Compassion dictates that you want to try and figure out, 'they're here now, what are we going to do with these kids that are here?' " says Maude Maron. She herself is the parent of four kids in New York schools. She's also an elected leader for a Manhattan Community Education Council, an advisory body made up of parents and residents. "But there should also be the question of, what is the impact on the children that are already here? Kids who have suffered many times over a year of learning loss from COVID shut downs. These are kids who are already very far behind. And now they're gonna have classrooms, filled to the brim with migrant kids that teachers are unprepared and in some cases incapable of teaching."

A family outside of  the Dpt. of Education in Long Island City, NY.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
A family outside of the Dpt. of Education in Long Island City, NY.

Maron says she hasn't heard a word from the Department of education on how to address the situation at hand. She worries that New York schools can't handle so many foreign students. Not with a teacher shortage, and only 3,400 English as a new language teachers on staff.

Melissa Aviles Ramos, chief of staff for the New York Department of Education, begs to differ. "We can handle it. We always have handled it. This is a massive increase that we've [never] seen before, and it is not without challenge. this is a real opportunity for our teachers, are admin and all of our staff to really step up and not only accept, but embrace the difference in language and cultures."

The New York Department of Education says it has hired 188 new ENL teachers. And, has 140 other candidates in the works. Compared to 20,000 new students, that feels like a drop in the bucket.

NPR spoke to teachers throughout the city. "The department is vastly under resourced for everything", said Christopher, who asked that we withhold his last name, out of concern his employer will retaliate. He teaches at a school in Brooklyn. He says the new arrivals, are a joy to be around. "Every kid we've had so far has been incredibly eager to learn. They just want to be kids. They want to be children."

Christopher thinks the kids are being scapegoated for a crisis that existed long before they arrived. "I mean you could take all of these new students out, and there's still ... there's no money."

Other teachers told NPR, this situation could bring a lot of growth to New York schools. "This is an opportunity to also diversify our schools", says Rosie Frascella. "New York City is one of the most segregated school districts in the country." Frascella is a parent of two, and an English as a New Language teacher. "There's a really strong need in the United States for us to be multilingual. Most of the world is multilingual."

In the meantime, far removed from the debates, standing in the midst of midtown Manhattan's traffic, Vanessa, the 13-year-old Ecuadoran, says she's dreaming of becoming a lawyer one day.

But for now, she's just happy to go back to school. It was a long summer for her. And she's ready for a break.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.