Since last spring, more than 120,000 asylum-seeking migrants have arrived in New York City, of which approximately 23,000 are school-age students who are enrolling in public schools and pre-K programs across the city.
To help educators navigate this influx and address the crucial needs of students, Bank Street Graduate School of Education hosted a virtual event titled “Stories from the Field: Educating Migrant Students” featuring a panel discussion of educators who shared their experiences and insights on working with migrant students in New York City schools.
“Public education in New York City is the de facto safety net for these families, and so our panelists today are on the front lines of dealing with this crisis and supporting not only the students but their family members as well,” said Amy Stuart Wells, Dean, Graduate School of Education, in her opening remarks. “Inviting this panel of distinguished speakers and educators is very much in line with Bank Street’s credo of being sensitive, not only to the external formal rights of all people but to their rights to create a good life up to their own standards.”
The discussion was moderated by Katie Wassel, Director, Center for Emotionally Responsive Practice, Bank Street College. “We seek to move closer to the stories behind the headlines, stories of real children and families, stories of real educators and school leaders,” said Wassel. “This year, themes of separation and attachment, journey and arrival, are very present for people who have recently made an immigration journey. We know that there is a vital need for building a sense of safety and belonging at school.”
The panel featured educators from a preschool, elementary school, and high school representing leadership and mental health support, including Alberta Conteh, Director, Bank Street Head Start; Kevin Hesseltine, Principal, Flushing International High School; Jane Hsu, Principal, PS 116: The Mary Lindley Murray Elementary School. Each principal invited a second educator from their school who works on the front lines of meeting the needs of migrant students to join the panel as well. Thus, Allison Niles, a Social Worker at PS 116; Lizette Otero, the Family Advocate at Bank Street Head Start; and Juliana Ruiz, a Counselor at Flushing International High School also participated in this event and offered important insights on the relationships between the schools, the families they serve, and the broader communities surrounding their schools.
To begin, each panelist shared a story describing what it’s like to be meeting the current historical moment within the culture of their school building today. Speakers discussed the challenges presented by the influx of asylum seekers and how they have worked to address urgent needs, such as food, clothing, and housing insecurity. One story of a migrant student coming to school in flip-flops in the winter because those were the only shoes they had was particularly poignant.
“We were in the position of how do we assist these families?” said Conteh as she spoke about an increase of newly arrived families last June and how Head Start is helping with various needs. “Many families came not speaking English, not having permanent housing, not having any clothing, so we realized that this was a big need on our end, as well as social-emotional support because that was a traumatic experience most had coming through the process—especially with the young children of 3 years old that we have at Head Start.”
Panelists shared how they have responded to children’s social, emotional, and academic needs in addition to their basic needs. For example, at PS 116, the school implemented “healing circles,” which offer a safe space for children to share their experiences and allow the school to learn more about students’ individual stories. The school also searched for more bilingual paraprofessionals to help assist classrooms and communicate with families in Spanish.
Flushing International High School, which is specifically designed for newly arrived immigrant students, has worked to support language development by focusing on integrating English language learning with the academic content area. The school also facilitates academic growth by implementing project-based learning to differentiate roles and tap into students’ strengths and assets.
Additionally, to create space for students to be in community, the school offers ninth-graders the opportunity to participate in a “peer group connection” program in which older students lead discussions about different topics, like how to build relationships with peers and enhance public speaking skills.
To conclude the event, Margaret Blachly, GSE ’05, Assistant Director, Center for Emotionally Responsive Practice, Bank Street College, facilitated a Q&A session to explore questions around classroom teaching and mental health, including how teachers are finding ways to connect with newly arrived students and how to avoid having children feel like outsiders when they join classrooms.