Oct 30, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Schools scramble to respond to an influx of migrant students

Photo illustration of a collage of a chalkboard, abstract scribbles and family holding hands.

Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

School districts across the country are on the front lines of the migrant crisis as children coming with their families across the U.S.-Mexico border enter classrooms.

Driving the news: Education officials tell Axios they are trying to enforce vaccination requirements, find classroom space, change bus routes and hire more bilingual teachers to meet the needs of thousands of students who have survived traumatizing migration journeys.

Why it matters: Schools have sprung into action as they also navigate complaints about strained resources, on top of a host of existing challenges like pandemic learning disruption and severe teacher shortages.

  • All children in the U.S. are entitled to a public elementary and secondary education regardless of their citizenship or immigration status, per the Department of Education.

By the numbers: Chicago Public Schools have seen their first enrollment bump in 12 years in part thanks to the new arrivals, as well as to more preschoolers. The district is in now enrolling about 1,000 additional English learner students, adding to 1,200 new enrollees this summer.

  • Since July, New York City Public Schools have received 11,000 students living in temporary housing — the only way the city tracks whether students likely are recently arrived migrants or asylum seekers.
  • Denver Public Schools are seeing many full classrooms, with nearly 2,000 migrant students having arrived since July, including about 400 this month.
  • Boston Public Schools have enrolled more than 900 foreign-born students since July, though it's not clear how many came across the southern border.
  • D.C. estimates roughly 400 migrant students are enrolled in its public schools.

The big picture: The past two months set records for families illegally crossing the southern border, according to Homeland Security data. Last month alone, 124,000 family members crossed without visas — whether illegally or by showing up at ports of entry.

What's happening: Districts across the country are scrambling to meet the learning, physical health and mental health needs of their news students.

  • New York has adjusted bus routes to and from temporary housing sites and is hunting for more English as a Second Language teachers.
  • Boston hired 18 in-school social workers dedicated to migrants with major education gaps — in addition to its existing 200.
  • D.C. reports it has struggled to find high quality, bilingual mental health support for migrant students.
  • In Chicago, two independent analyses show a drop in employees working as bilingual teachers in recent years, but a district spokesperson says its number of teachers with bilingual endorsements has actually risen since 2017 — and they're recruiting more.

Threat level: This comes as many districts nationwide already face tight budgets.

  • Over the past year, educators and staff in the Boston area have reported paying out of pocket to help migrant students with short-term housing, clothing and other essentials, according to several local officials.

Zoom in: Many migrants are entering new schools after surviving weeks or months traveling — sometimes across multiple national borders.

  • They likely have navigated a complicated border process, sterile government facilities or non-profit shelters at the border.

Yes, but: Things don't get easier after that. These children likely then spent hours traveling within the U.S., only to be met with crowded shelters and a housing shortage.

  • Many families are struggling to meet basic needs given a long wait for legal work permits.
  • "We see kiddos coming in and living near a school for 37 days, and they have to pick up and move," disrupting their education, Adrienne Endres, executive director of multilingual education for Denver Public Schools, tells Axios.
  • That's even after Denver extended the time families can stay in city shelters.

Be smart: Leaving your home "and being relocated to somewhere where you don't know anyone and don't have stable housing qualifies as early childhood trauma," says Shani Andre, chief medical officer at the NYC health care charity The Floating Hospital, who works with migrant students.

Plus: As they work to meet the new students' needs, school officials are also fielding complaints from other families about the resource drain.

  • "We know that a lot of people have feelings about students possibly taking resources from others," Melissa Aviles-Ramos, chief of staff to the chancellor of the city's education department, tells Axios.
  • But she insists they can respond without "taking from one student to another."

Reality check: Despite the challenges, officials tell Axios the larger importance of their work is clear. "This isn't just crisis and strain, it's also building community and making sure kids are welcome and safe in a new city," said Endres in Denver.

  • The payoff "shows when you visit these schools and you see how happy and well-adjusted these children are, despite the journeys that they've had to get here," says Aviles-Ramos in New York.

Axios D.C.'s Cuneyt Dil contributed reporting.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the number of teachers with bilingual certifications has risen since 2017, per Chicago Public Schools, and that its bump in enrollment is not entirely due to migrants

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