‘We’ve Lost Some Things’: How the Migrant Crisis Is Affecting New York City Classrooms

As more migrant children enter schools and class sizes grow bigger, ‘the focus has changed in the classroom,’ one parent tells the Sun.

Via Wikimedia Commons
The New York City schools chancellor, David Banks. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Frustration” is growing among New York City parents amid an influx of migrant students into the city’s already overburdened public school system.

More than 150,100 migrants arrived in the city between spring 2022 and December 2023, and 30,000 migrant students have enrolled in New York City schools during that period. Amid language barriers and a shortage of teachers, classroom dynamics are changing — and parents are taking note. The pressure is now intensifying on local officials to get the migrant situation in public schools under control.

Fury grew after a Brooklyn high school, James Madison, was turned into a shelter for migrants from nearby park, Floyd Bennett Field, for one night during a major rainstorm last week, leading the students to have two days of instruction via Zoom. The transformation of a place of learning for New York children into a place of refuge for New York asylum seekers suggested to some critics just how unprepared the Big Apple is to respond to the numbers of migrant families arriving from border states.

“I know that we’ve lost some things,” a New York City public school parent, Jean Hahn, who serves on the school leadership team of her daughter’s middle school in Queens, tells the Sun. “We’ve lost some clubs. We can’t seem to find Spanish teachers.”

“Part of it is, I think, somewhat related to the migrants, but also because there has always been a teacher shortage in some areas, and one of them is ESL,” Ms. Hahn, referring to English as a second language courses, says. “I think that the migrant situation might just be exacerbating it.” She declined to comment further on the migrant issue, explaining that it hasn’t affected her daughter’s school as much as others. 

When the crisis first hit Manhattan in spring 2022, public school parents were quick to organize coat drives and provide forms of humanitarian relief, but even then they began to feel “frustration,” the co-founder of an education center that advocates for academic rigor in K-12 public schools, Place NYC, and a mother of two children who attended public schools, Yiatin Chu, tells the Sun.

It soon became apparent that there weren’t enough bilingual teachers to communicate with migrant students who needed to learn English. Classrooms have faced space constraints, despite a new state mandate for smaller classes that went into effect fully for the first time this school year.

“As more and more migrant children are coming into their schools, the class sizes may have gotten bigger. The resources had to be dedicated differently — both space and teachers,” Ms. Chu says. Parents have thus found that “the focus has changed in the classroom.” 

This fall, a permanently closed high school at College Point in Northeast Queens served as a temporary center for about 300 migrants for three months. The Board of Education had previously bought the school “so that I could get the first public high school in my district in decades and decades. I was thrilled,” a New York City council member who represents the school’s district, Vickie Paladino, tells the Sun. “But before they put a sledgehammer to anything, they transferred it into a respite center.”

A public school in Ms. Paladino’s district has enrolled, by her estimate, about 60 migrant students. “The neighborhood did embrace them, which I was very happy about,” she says. “But they’ve had no formal education, schooling of any kind. These kids are placed in the different grades, being promoted, no education, no reading, writing, arithmetic. They’re just being passed through.”

Principal Edward Gilligan of Public School 111 in Brooklyn told CNN that his school prepared for the influx of migrant students this school year by having three teachers teach English as a new language class. About 36 percent of P.S. 111’s roughly 400 students, compared to 10 to 20 percent in a typical year, now live in temporary housing, often in the form of parks, schools, former jails, and hotels repurposed for migrants throughout the city.

A tent complex is housing 2,000 migrants on Randall’s Island in New York’s East River, home to nearly half the athletic fields in Manhattan used by school sports leagues. “I heard a lot of unhappy Manhattan parents,” Ms. Chu says. “Randall’s Island was their kids’ soccer field where they practice for high schools. It’s not school, but it impacts your child’s life. And it’s a disruption.”

New York City schools are seeing an increase of 8,000 students this year compared to prior years, the schools chancellor, David Banks, told NY1. “I think we could attribute a lot of that to the surge of migrant students who have come to our schools,” he said, describing the trend as a “boon” to the school system that had seen a dip in enrollments during the Covid pandemic. Yet Mr. Banks warned that classroom supplies, the number of library books, and certain school programs may be cut. 

The crisis is draining the city budget of close to $5 billion, by Ms. Paladino’s estimate. “My city council that I exist on seems to think we could go out and just pick the dollar bills off the tree,” she says. “When we have to do the budget, things are going to have to get cut. We have no choice.”  

Ms. Paladino urges New York City leaders to lift its “sanctuary city” status. When imposed by Mayor Koch in the 1980s, the designation helped immigrants who had already been in America for decades earn legal protections and send their children to school. “But it doesn’t work anymore,” she says. “This is detrimental to our city. They’re killing our city.”

There is not currently an organized effort from parents to restore normalcy to New York City classrooms. Some might be writing letters to their local officials and expressing their frustrations on their community Facebook groups, but “no one wants to speak up,” Ms. Chu says. “It’s very difficult. People are griping, unhappy — you’ll hear it — but to speak to reporters: Very few people want to do that.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union declined to speak on the public backlash after migrants were moved from Bennett Field last week. Members of parent-teacher associations at various New York City public schools did not immediately respond to the Sun’s request for comment.

“The stink of being called xenophobic is very, very …” Ms. Chu says, trailing off. “I’m an immigrant. I got here legally. I know what it takes to get here. There’s a reason we have an orderly immigration process.” 

These frustrations, though not always voiced out loud, appear to be swaying some New Yorkers’ politics. 

A Democrat assemblywoman who represents the Brooklyn district that includes Floyd Bennett Field, Jamie Williams, has been outspoken against the Biden administration’s handling of the migrant situation. Ms. Williams told Fox last week that New York City residents have become “benefactors of the lawlessness” caused by the crisis. As Ms. Chu observes, “I would think she’s a Republican, honestly.”

Republican runs for local office are gaining traction. A first-time Republican candidate for New York City’s 23rd district in Eastern Queens, Bernard Chow, earned an unexpected 5,000 votes, around 30 percent, after campaigning on a platform of supporting immigrants, “but not migrant tents.” The incumbent Democrat council member, Linda Lee, still had a solid win, “but in areas like that,” Ms. Chu notes, “there are challengers that will take those issues on.”

Council Member Inna Vernikov did just that in November, when she flipped a traditionally blue seat in New York City’s 51-member council. Ms. Vernikov, whose district includes James Madison high school, warned during a conversation with the Sun about the school takeover last week that “the parents are concerned that this is going to happen again.” 

Ms. Paladino put it bluntly in a recent conversation with Mayor Adams. “This is unsustainable,” she recalls telling him. “And if you want to get re-elected, you’re putting another nail in your coffin here.”

Correction: Close to $5 billion Vickie Paladino’s estimate of how much the crisis is draining the city’s budget. An incorrect amount was reported in an earlier version.

The New York Sun

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