Ensuring continuity for migrant students in New York City schools

As a former teacher, New York City Council Member Rita Joseph knows a thing or two about how to best support students.

In October, New York City Council Member Rita Joseph announced new funding for schools in her Brooklyn district.

In October, New York City Council Member Rita Joseph announced new funding for schools in her Brooklyn district. John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit

New York City’s new policy imposing a 60-day limit for migrant families staying in Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers has created concerns about how it will impact the thousands of asylum-seeking students enrolled in public schools.

Roughly 2,700 families have received notifications since Oct. 27 that they’ll need to reapply for a new shelter placement or find alternative housing in the next 60 days. Educators and advocates fear the policy’s impacts will be devastating on a population of already vulnerable students.

One New York City Council member has a particularly deep understanding of the school system and what it takes for a student to thrive within it. That’s Education Committee Chair Rita Joseph, a former New York City public school teacher, who has led several oversight hearings aimed at ensuring the needs of the city’s newest students are met.

City & State spoke to Joseph about how the city’s 60-day policy could impact migrant children, proposed cuts to the education budget and how schools can bolster mental health support for students. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are you hoping to better understand about the 60-day shelter limit for migrant families and its impact on migrant students? 

What are we going to do with the students? How do we get them to schools? And how does the McKinney-Vento law come into play? (Editor’s note: This is a federal law that requires school districts to provide transportation to and from a child’s “school of origin” or the school that they attended before they became homeless.) How do we transport students from one location to another? I know the city’s goal is that they can come to the schools, but the Office of Pupil Transportation has not been the greatest. We have our students here in District 75 that already have a hard time with transportation. Can you imagine our newest New Yorkers? It’s going to take a while to figure out that system and that’s the reason why we were so forceful in hiring Students in Temporary Housing community coordinators to make sure these students can navigate the system.

We’ve already seen high rates of chronic absenteeism, especially among students living in temporary housing. How could a longer commute because of the 60-day policy impact that trend?

We’ve already seen that contribute to high absenteeism rates. That’s why the council wanted to make sure that we hired the Students in Temporary Housing community coordinators, which 75 of whom are funded by the Adams administration and 25 are funded by the council. Yet they still have a vacancy of 15 coordinators that have not been hired in the middle of the crisis.

Do you think the city will expand the 60-day policy to migrant families living in other, non-Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers shelters?

If the city doesn’t want to disrupt the lives of these children, we can’t open up and move them in the middle of a school year as they are starting to adjust. We have to think about the whole child when we make these decisions; it’s not just, hey, they got to move. But OK, how do we move them responsibly? And how do we maintain the relationships that they’re building? I went down to the border in 2021 and some of these children traveled six, seven months to get here. And this is trauma. One of the things we’ve been asking for is to make sure they are having mental health support – we want it to be culturally and linguistically appropriate as well – to make sure that they are getting the support. For them to walk for seven months with a vision to get to America, it’s already traumatic to get here, and it’s also very traumatic to keep up and moving. We have to find some way to stabilize that area, especially when it comes to young students.

How do you feel the school system has been doing at providing these students with the mental health support they need – especially support in their languages? 

I’ve taught for 22 years, and if you go back, those have historically been shortage areas. You know my story. I was a new language coordinator, but when I won my primary I was still working because there was nobody to take my position. I taught up until the very last day of Dec. 23, 2021, and I entered the council on Jan. 1, 2022. A lot of these schools were already out of compliance in terms of meeting their (English as a new language) needs. Now with a huge influx, I don’t think New York City was ready for that. They have to continue to build out the pipeline and produce more bilingual educators, ESL teachers, (English as a new language) coordinators and bilingual psychologists. The city has some incentives – I noticed that they had a program at Brooklyn College, and I told the chancellor that every common branch teacher should have an extension in ES. It’s not a new master’s, it’s only 15 credits, and the city should subsidize it to encourage people to apply.

City leaders have contended that no child’s education will be interpreted as a result of the 60-day policy because no student is going to be forced to transfer schools. How do you feel about this rhetoric? Is it misleading?

I’m waiting to see. I visit schools, I talk to teachers, I stay in touch with schools across the city. I’m the education chair. I don’t just visit just the schools in my district, I visit schools in all boroughs. Teachers and principals are not afraid to reach out and say they don’t have the support they need. I usually advocate for them, so I’m waiting to see. They promised to deliver, and I would love to see it delivered – it would be a great win for New York City kids – but at the same token, if it’s not delivered, we will make sure that they get oversight and my committee will ask all the right questions to make sure that these students are supported.

How do you feel about the upcoming midyear budget adjustments at New York City public schools?

Midyear adjustments last year was a win for us. We were able to do that 100%. People who know about major adjustments, know how much of a win it is. This year was another matter. I was hoping to negotiate a percentage, but that didn’t work. The second round of PEGs and the midyear adjustment will decimate public schools. We must keep public schools, public education. We cannot defund any more public schools. That includes many other programs. Anything that keeps young people safe should be safeguarded. That plays into public safety. People keep thinking they operate in separate silos. No, they’re gutting the Department of Youth and Community Development that provides vital programs for New York City kids. Even libraries – libraries have teen centers open on the weekends. They are safe havens in New York City. They go hand in hand when you talk about public safety.