There are few challenges Nereyda Gonzales has not faced as a parent.
She arrived in New York City from Honduras in July 2019 and lives in a Brooklyn shelter with her family — a 17-year-old son in high school and a 10-year-old daughter in elementary school. Her daughter has multiple disabilities — she was born with cerebral palsy as a child, had a vascular accident and has sickle cell anemia. Her son is having difficulty with sleeping and anxiety, and Gonzales says she is struggling with depression.
She is among the thousands of New York City parents who are navigating a school system that can be difficult for non-English speakers in the best of times — and has been upended by the coronavirus crisis.
“The school, they really do care about [my daughter] but the issue is that they don’t always have a translator when we need to connect with them and they call through a machine that I can never understand,” Gonzales said, through a translator. “[I want] mothers and families to use their voice and for the system to listen.”
English language learners and immigrant families say their students are falling behind due to lack of communication from the city, the absence of a plan to catch up students and inadequate family engagement during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new survey conducted by the New York Immigration Coalition Education Collaborative.
The collaborative — which includes Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project, Masa and Advocates for Children of New York — developed the “2021 Roadmap for English Language Learners,” based on findings of a survey the groups conducted in the summer of 2020 of 100 immigrant parents and guardians and more than 20 immigrant students from New York City public schools. The challenges faced by many of the students during normal times were compounded when all students were relegated to remote learning last year.
“Communities like ours, we’re a low-income community, immigrant, low English proficiency community so therefore the technology was nonexistent,” said Darnell Benoit, executive director of the Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project. “Poorer communities suffer from technology because it’s an extra bill, you have to pay to have access to Wi-Fi — that’s an extra 60, 70 dollars that many families don’t have.”
Andrea Ortiz, NYIC’s manager of education policy, said the collaborative met with then-schools chancellor Richard Carranza in January “and walked away from that meeting with a lot of hope” but budget cuts have raised concerns about the city’s efforts to bring immigrant students up to speed. She said they are hopeful for a productive meeting with new Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter.
“We know that other states, other cities have already come out with academic recovery plans that include tutoring, extended hours, summer school and we just hope that the DOE also does a really concerted effort in doing that,” Ortiz said.
About 36 percent of parents and guardians surveyed said they had not received information or assignments from their school in the language they speak at home. Nearly 30 percent said their school didn’t share fall semester plans, while 37 percent said they need better communication, directions and timely information to support their children’s remote learning.
Some families and community-based organizations said students were left without instruction for months, and many immigrant parents didn’t receive access to technology or instructional packets for weeks — some still have yet to receive these materials from the city.
The advocates also said schools admitted to member organizations that, amid the pandemic, they’re not offering the full services to which students are legally entitled, including English as a New Language instruction, bilingual staff to provide pre-Covid services and bilingual special education services.
About 40 percent of respondants said schools’ insufficient special education services and their children’s complex disabilities are affecting their participation in remote learning.
The DOE said the survey was conducted before the current school year and that the results represent less than 1 percent of school families.
“These students and their families remain top of mind during this crisis, and we continue to work closely with advocates like NYIC and partner agencies to support their unique needs and to make remote learning the strongest it can be,” Sarah Casasnovas, a DOE spokesperson, said in a statement.
The advocates also found that, while the DOE has offered some immigrant-centered workshops, town halls and family-facing events, many parents can’t access them because they’re not being communicated well, not announced with enough time and are only offered virtually.
About 35 percent of immigrant parents and guardians did not feel that their child’s school prepared them to help their children participate in remote learning and 37 percent weren’t prepared to help their child participate in summer school.
Esperanza, who asked to be identified only by her first name, has a 17-year-old son and a 12-year-old at a school in the Bronx. Her eight-year-old daughter, who is in elementary school, and her four-year-old, who is in prekindergarten, are in another school, also in the Bronx.
Her eldest son is returning to school later this month but has felt isolated at home, and her eight-year-old has had a rough experience due to technology issues. Her four-year-old, she said, has struggled the most.
“It’s been an issue of just not having that socialization and being close to others,” she said, through a translation. “He’s in a bilingual program so they do speak Spanish but without that face to face, it’s been more difficult for him to develop the language.”
Esperanza, a parent leader, wants to see programs like ImmSchools, an immigrant-led nonprofit that has helped families, expanded.
The advocates recommended the DOE and the City Council offer “targeted academic support” for English language learners, including English language learners with disabilities.
They called on the DOE to offer summer school for K-12 students that incorporates early childhood students and English language learners with disabilities. The DOE, they said, should publicly announce the “scope of investment” and metrics for their plan to catch up the students and indicate which leaders will be responsible.
The advocates also suggested they provide grants to community-based organizations and schools that offer additional academic programming to students.