Are Public Schools Getting A Passing Grade?

For students with different language or learning needs, parents—and kids—are filling the gaps where schools are lacking.

| 01 Feb 2023 | 04:28

At P.S. 11, Camila, a third grade student, has been speaking Spanish during the school day—and not just during language classes. She began translating for new students, children of asylum seekers bused into the city from states along the country’s southern border, at the start of the academic year, according to her mother, Melanie Gomez. But according to Gomez’s account, the task began to take a toll.

“I can’t concentrate,” Gomez said Camila told her.

Across Manhattan, families are identifying—and filling—gaps in resources that they say schools haven’t been able to provide. In some neighborhoods, there still aren’t enough multilingual teachers to match an influx of migrants. In others, school programs are falling short in supporting children with learning differences and teachers don’t always reflect the demographics of their classrooms.

Speaking A New Language

After accepting around 60 new migrant students in the fall, many of whom only speak Spanish, Chelsea’s P.S. 11 feels filled to capacity, according to Gomez. But there are still a number of asylum-seeking families trickling into other schools, including J.H.S. 104, in Gramercy Park, where Gomez’s older daughter, Chloe, has also taken to translating for her new peers. “Instead of going to Spanish [for her own foreign language class] my daughter—who is fluent in Spanish—she asked to volunteer” in other classes, Gomez said.

In November, two months into the school year, the Department of Education had tallied over 7,200 students in temporary housing who had enrolled in public schools citywide since July. Now, as of January, the number of new public school students living in shelters who hadn’t previously entered the New York school system tops 11,000, according to a DOE spokesperson.

Gomez’s children have been speaking more Spanish in the classroom because there aren’t enough multilingual teachers, she said, to meet the demand. But “it shouldn’t be like that,” she said. In their schools, Gomez estimated there are five or six students in each class who don’t speak any English.

“They should have somebody who could be able to help them,” she said. “The school should be able to fulfill that need that they have right now.” Principals from P.S. 11 and J.H.S. 104 did not respond to requests for comment.

A City Council report released at the end of December called for more multilingual teachers, mental health providers and “language access coordinators”—in addition to a host of other resources—to accommodate those seeking asylum in New York. A letter signed by 13 Council members criticized deep cuts to the city’s education budget. “Mayor [Eric] Adams recently blamed his own service cuts on the migrants and asylum seekers who have recently arrived,” the letter reads. “We can’t and won’t fall into the xenophobic trap of blaming immigrants for needless reductions to essential services.”

Individual Attention

On the Upper East Side, La Keesha Taylor, a public housing activist, is calling for more teachers of color for students to look up to. “How can you look to anyone, as a young child, and be like, I want to be this, I want to teach, I want to do this—if you don’t see yourself there?” she posed. “I want my children to be able to see themselves everyday in positions that they may want.”

Taylor is also outspoken about how tricky it is for students with learning differences to navigate the public school system. This year, she enrolled her eldest son, Anthony, at M.S. 177 for the start of middle school—but only after fighting an initial placement into J.H.S. 167. “He would have died if he went into such a big school,” Taylor said. “That’s just too much overstimulation.”

Halfway through the academic year, it’s been an uphill battle for Anthony, who has ADHD. But in a smaller school, “they’ve gotten to understand him,” Taylor said of his teachers. Part of the problem in the city’s public schools, she believes, is that there aren’t enough teachers to meet students’ individual needs. “We already know class size matters,” she said.

Dylan Bitensky, a clinical psychology master’s student at Columbia University, tutors a handful of young students as an “executive function coach” with Organizational Tutors, focusing on ADHD. “Kids that have different learning needs benefit from extra support” and an individualized approach to teaching, she said—but that’s not within reach for everyone. Bitensky, who tutors some students who attend private schools, characterized it as “unfair” that “only certain populations can afford getting this extra resource.”

“There needs to be a focus in and out of school, where [educators and students] need to start looking at individual differences and modifying those strategies that they’re using currently,” she said.

While pandemic-era setbacks still linger, the worst of COVID-19’s ramifications on schools—closures, lengthy quarantines and more—have faded. “It doesn’t feel like it did last year,” Taylor said. Instead, families are busy tackling different problems.

“The school should be able to fulfill that need that they have right now.” Melanie Gomez, whose two daughters are translating into Spanish for new asylum-seeking students