‘It’s all behind us now.’ 1,700 migrant children see hope in nation’s largest school system

After the hardship of their journey from South America to the United States, Marialena Coromoto and her 13-year-old daughter, Neimarys, see hope in the US school system.

Days before her first day of class, Neimarys described finally feeling at peace following months of uncertainty. The young migrant from Venezuela, sitting on a park bench near the Queens, New York, hotel where she is staying with her mother, proudly showed off some of her English language basics — “Hello. How are you?” — and a colorful backpack with notebooks, pencils and a ruler that had been donated to her.

“It’s all behind us now,” Neimarys said in Spanish, speaking of their long journey to the border with Mexico. “It was no American dream but a nightmare.”

When New York City public schools reopened on September 8, Neimarys was among the over 1,700 school aged children that arrived with asylum-seeking families since April, according to a city official briefed on the response.

“I’m excited because I’m in a country that will help me become the professional I want to be,” said Neimarys, who is undecided about a career but hopes one day to return to Venezuela and buy a home.

Neimarys and her 31-year-old mother are part of a wave of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers who have arrived in New York in recent months. Most fled economic insecurity and political upheaval in Central and South America.

Now public schools are scrambling for staff to support the newcomers and preparing for students who have suffered trauma.

“We want every child to have a chance to be able to thrive and grow and prosper no matter their ZIP code, no matter their ethnicity, no matter how they got here,” New York Mayor Eric Adams said at a Bronx elementary school on the first day of classes.

‘I knew we couldn’t give up’

The Democratic mayor has clashed with Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for busing hundreds of migrants to New York City. Texas has also bused recently arrived migrants awaiting immigration court proceedings to Washington, DC, and Chicago.

Some undocumented migrants and asylum seekers arrived on buses chartered by Texas to highlight what Abbott said is the Biden administration’s failure to secure the border.

Others — like Neimarys and her mom — came to New York on flights from San Antonio and other cities near the southern border. In some cases nonprofits or relatives cover their airfare. New York is using more than a dozen hotels as emergency shelters, city officials said.

More than 1,700 of the newcomers are school age children, according to city officials. Most face language barriers, homelessness, financial stress and emotional trauma.

“I had to stay strong,” Neimarys said of the passage north through remote jungle and rugged mountains. “My mom would cry and I would encourage her to keep moving. I knew we couldn’t give up and stay where we were.”

Schools try to meet students’ multiple needs

Pan American International High School sits in one of six city school districts taking in most of the school-aged children from the summer migrant surge.

The campus, with an enrollment of about 350 last school year, is in Elmhurst, Queens, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in New York. Pan American bills itself as a “diverse learning community of recently immigrated Latinx scholars,” according to its bilingual website.

At least 75 new students have enrolled this year and nearly all are the children of recently arrived asylum seekers, principal Waleska Velez said.

“We’re prepared to support those students not only academically but also with social and emotional support,” said Velez.

Already facing massive budget cuts, declining enrollments and teacher shortages, school administrations are now looking to recruit certified bilingual teachers and other support staff to deal with the influx of Spanish-speaking children from migrant families.

“Think about the fact that we cut a couple of hundred million dollars from our budget in education and now we have children coming in with specialized needs,” said New York Assemb. Catalina Cruz, an immigrant from Colombia and a former undocumented student.

“These are children who have severe trauma, families that have severe needs and we have to invest in them and the rest of our city to make sure that our children and teachers and community are positioned to welcomed them.”

‘They are not in this alone’

Last month, the Adams administration launched Project Open Arms to reach migrant families at shelters and help them enroll their children in schools. The project also offers language support, legal services, transportation and school supplies.

“We are showing these families that they are not in this alone and we’re making sure that our schools are ready to do the same,” Department of Education Chancellor David Banks said. “I can’t even begin to imagine the level of challenge and trauma that so many of these families have gone through.”

Adams last week called the surge of asylum seekers coming to New York City from the southern border “unprecedented.”

“Since May, this administration, on its own, has safely and efficiently provided shelter, health care, education, and a host of other services to more than 11,000 people predominantly from Central and South America who are seeking a better life,” Adams said in a news release.

The city saw a large influx over the weekend with a record nine buses arriving in just one day, Adams said Tuesday at a press conference. He said the city now has received about 13,000 migrants, with 9,500 in the shelter system.

To accommodate those many families with children, the Department of Education has expedited appeals for support from city schools.

“We definitely have some concerns about how well and what kind of systems we can have in place to provide truly comprehensive supports for the students,” said Alan Cheng, a Department of Education district superintendent for nearly 50 high schools.

“The challenge will be how do we ensure continuity of these services. How do we make sure these people are not forgotten after the first week or the first month?”

In terms of handling the increased number of students, “we certainly have the seats in our classrooms, teachers that are ready to go” and the resources to serve the needs of the migrants, Cheng said. “We’ve really been pretty deliberate about ensuring that every single one of our schools is fully staffed and ready to go and also being fairly flexible.

“I hope our city and folks that are here understand that we’re here to work with young people from all four years to whether that’s a month or even one week,” Cheng said. “That we recognize just how valuable and special and beneficial being able to be in a place like this can be.”

Neimarys and her mother, originally from the northwestern Venezuelan state of Falcón, had been living in Ecuador for the last five years. On May 14, they embarked on their journey north with a group of friends and family. On June 17, Neimarys and her mom crossed the Rio Grande into the United States.

“I want her to learn a lot and to open up her mind,” Marialena Coromoto said of her daughter’s enrollment in a city public school. “I want her to put behind all that we have we endured.”

Neimarys, carrying around her backpack filled with school supplies days before the start of classes, is ready for her next journey.

“I don’t speak English and that will make things difficult,” she said of the coming school year, “but I’m confident I can handle it.”

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