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‘All-hands-on-deck’: A Long Island City Charter School Welcomes 70 Asylum-Seeking Students

Staff and parents at VOICE charter school in Queens help families at a supplies giveaway, part of an “all-hands-on-deck-effort” to welcome 70 asylum-seeking students. Michael Elsen-Rooney / Chalkbeat

This article was originally published by Chalkbeat New York on Nov. 28By Michael Elsen-Rooney

On a Friday night in early November, roughly two dozen families at VOICE charter school in Long Island City, Queens, were preparing for a New York winter — most for the first time in their lives.

In the school’s ground floor gymnasium, parents who had recently migrated from Venezuela and other Latin American countries to seek asylum in the U.S. perused tables stacked high with warm winter gear, pots and pans, and school supplies. Students in light blue uniforms munched on pizza and played with toys and balloons.

Ingles Moreno, the mother of a seventh grader at VOICE who arrived with her daughter in New York City in late August after fleeing Venezuela, surveyed her suitcases and garbage bags full of new supplies.

“I feel happy,” said Moreno, who is living at a nearby homeless shelter. “I didn’t have [winter clothes], and now thank God I do.”

The Friday night giveaway was part of what school staffers describe as an “all-hands-on-deck” effort to accommodate an influx of dozens of new migrant families at VOICE, a K-8 school of around 650 students, 84% of whom receive free or reduced-price lunch.

The enrollment rush began as a trickle in the summer and quickly picked up steam as families referred each other to the school or got recommendations from local shelters and social service organizations. A proliferation of hotels in recent years in Long Island City led to a cluster of newly converted homeless shelters in the school’s backyard.

Pandemic-related enrollment declines left VOICE with extra space, and the school wound up enrolling an estimated 70 asylum-seeking children, said principal Franklin Headley.

Across the city, an estimated 7,200 students living in homeless shelters have enrolled in public schools since July, many of them asylum-seekers sent on buses by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, education department officials said last month. In the neighborhood on the border of Astoria and Long Island City where VOICE is located, several schools saw dramatic influxes: The public elementary school that shares a building with VOICE’s younger students also enrolled about 70 asylum-seeking kids, according to education department budget records.

Officials didn’t have an estimate of how many migrant students have enrolled in publicly funded, privately run charter schools like VOICE.

At VOICE, their arrival profoundly reshaped the school almost overnight.

The school, which does not have dedicated dual language programs and got no advance notice of the new arrivals, has scrambled to meet the material, educational, and emotional needs of students and parents. Staffers acknowledge it’s still a work in progress.

“I’m really proud of my teachers,” said Headley. “It’s hard when they see so many children in the class and not quite knowing what to do.”

And while the past few months at VOICE have been taxing, they’ve also been inspiring, Headley said. They’ve given the school an injection of new students at a time of faltering enrollment, and given existing families and staff a shared purpose in helping the new arrivals.

“I think there’s been a narrative out in the news a little bit that maybe schools are panicked about this,” Headley said. “I think for us, it’s like these kids are a gift.”

Teachers adjust their expectations

The number of the school’s homeless students leapt from under 1% last year to 10% this year, school officials said. VOICE previously served English language learners — about 16% of its students were classified as such last year. That number jumped to about 27% this year, nearly half of whom are classified as beginners, Headley said.

But numbers alone didn’t communicate the scope or complexity of what the school was about to face. It was only when staff started conducting more detailed intake interviews that a fuller picture of the families’ needs started to emerge, said Peter Cataldo, a social worker who’s been at VOICE for 12 years.

“An influx of children who don’t speak English is very new for us,” he said.

Families often arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs, school social workers learned. Few were prepared for winter, and they had scant options for cooking food or washing their clothes in the shelters. Many kids didn’t have the immunizations required to attend school in New York City, and parents were anxiously searching for ways to earn money without work permits as they awaited immigration hearings, which were often scheduled in other states.

Administrators tried to distribute the newly arrived students as evenly as possible across multiple classrooms so that no single teacher had a critical mass.

VOICE had two dedicated English as a new language teachers prior to this school year, and hired another this year. But those educators don’t lead their own classes, instead helping out in existing classes or pulling out small groups of students to offer supplementary support.

An English as a new language teacher works with two recently arrived immigrant students at VOICE charter school in Queens. Michael Elsen-Rooney / Chalkbeat

The first few weeks were a blur of trial and error.

At first, some classroom educators translated every word of their lessons into Spanish, but quickly learned that was too impractical and time consuming, said Matt Kolman, VOICE’s middle school dean.

Then some teachers started leaning on students who were fluent in both English and Spanish to buddy up with the newcomers to help translate. But the bilingual classmates found themselves missing most of the lesson trying to help out their peers.

Ultimately, many educators settled on a more limited approach — translating key words and assignments, allowing students to use an automated computer program that translates English audio to Spanish in real time, and setting up “translation stations” with computers that students can check into at their discretion.

“I’m in my 10th year at VOICE, and in some ways, it’s like going back to like being a new teacher,” said Danny Powell, who teaches seventh and eighth grade social studies.

The city education department shelled out $12 million in additional funding last month to roughly 370 city public schools that enrolled asylum-seeking students, but charter schools weren’t included in that allocation.

Headley said the school has relied on a group of schools convened by the New York City Charter School Center that meets monthly to learn about serving English learners, and tried to pass some of that knowledge along to administrators and teachers.

Middle school students use headphones and laptops to help with translation during a class at VOICE charter school. Michael Elsen-Rooney / Chalkbeat

One of the hardest lessons for staff has been accepting that the pace of learning may look very different.

Teachers have had to learn to “pump the brakes a little” and accept that “get[ting] them settled in the country, building language, making community … is just as important as what they’re learning,” said Cataldo, the social worker.

The steep challenges, however, have made the small victories and moments of joy even sweeter.

One middle school student, an aspiring future actor who migrated from Colombia, was able to define the word “personification.” Another group of kids let loose on a class field trip to the Statue of Liberty. Seeing them “be kids, feeling accepted and safe and welcome,” was deeply gratifying, said Powell.

‘Peeling back the layers’: Students share their stories

Nearly three months into the school year, staffers are still carefully working to gain the trust of students and parents struggling with memories of traumatic border crossings.

“Some students … are carrying a lot with them, whether they left family members behind, a few who have … encountered death along the way,” said Cataldo, the social worker. “We’re really just peeling back the layers of the onion right now.”

Four middle school students who spoke with Chalkbeat on the condition of anonymity described grueling and perilous journeys that remain fresh in their minds.

One sixth grader described getting swept up in a strong current while crossing the Rio Grande, and being separated from her mother and siblings, who remained in Mexico for several days while the preteen was in detention in the U.S.

“I went three days without seeing her and knowing nothing about what happened to my siblings,” the student said.

“There were a lot of deaths out there in the forest, the desert,” said another middle school student, who journeyed to the U.S. with family members, including a 5-month-old cousin. “My little cousin almost drowned.”

Several of the students said they were still traumatized by elements of the journey and think about it often.

The school has several built-in advantages responding to emotional and mental health challenges, including six social workers on staff.

“The kids want to talk, want to tell you their story,” said Cataldo, the social worker.

One of his colleagues who doesn’t speak Spanish called a city-sponsored phone translation service, “sat the phone right there in the middle, and an hour-and-a-half later got like this whole story, just this wonderful opportunity for this kid to just share what they were carrying,” Cataldo said.

Educators and parents provide wraparound support

The school has focused on integrating the new students into social and extracurricular activities, encouraging soccer players to join the school’s team and trying to create opportunities for the new arrivals to build friendships with students who have been at the school for years.

Staffers and parents at the school have been trying to figure out what the school could help with directly, and what kinds of services it could help link the families to through community partners.

Students participate in a music class at VOICE charter school. The school has focused on integrating new students into social and extracurricular activities. Michael Elsen-Rooney / Chalkbeat

Karina Chalas, the head of middle school operations, and one of a limited number of bilingual staffers, forged relationships with staff in the shelters, giving the school a better understanding of the conditions families were facing.

Chalas soon learned that parents were struggling with what to do with their kids in the afternoon. Shelter rules prohibited kids from staying alone in their rooms – so the school made a push to enroll the new arrivals in after-school programs.

The school’s parent leaders — some of whom arrived in New York City as immigrants themselves — also leapt into action.

“To me it’s very personal. I came here in 2000 from another country, and Astoria is such a great community,” said Aniko Domokos, the corresponding secretary of the parent association. “I just want these people to feel the same way … of I was so welcomed, and found my place here.”

Looming over all of the school’s efforts to support the migrant students is the question of how long they will stay.

Many of the families are looking for permanent housing, but may wind up in far-flung corners of the city, or they have court dates that will take them to other states. The school loses funding if students drop from its roster, making any big additional investments something of a financial risk.

But Headley, the school’s principal, says he’s trying not to worry about what the future holds.

“We don’t know how long they’re going to be with us,” he said. “They’re here now, let’s make the most of it.”

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at [email protected].

email the author: [email protected]

42 Comments

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Good riddance

Who cares if they are kids? They belong where they were born . To help their own country. We don’t need more homeless people. Help people that were born here first.

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Democrats are failing! literally!

Less than 50% of kids passed math and only 38% passed math. Why? Maybe because school resources are going towards teaching kids how to speak and write English and trying to catch them up on others subjects. Maybe it’s also all the mental health care they need. I love listening to all the executives around America whining about how they can’t find people with the right skill sets. Unfortunately now I’ve realized they are probably right. KIDS CANT READ PEOPLE!

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Republicans believe in myths fairytales invisible gods and conspiracy theories

Your post is spreading misinformation. According to a wallet hub analysis of US department of education data of all 50 states and DC, the top performing school systems are in Democratic controlled states almost exclusively. New York is no where near the bottom as a matter of fact New York is 17t, placing it in the top half. https://wallethub.com/edu/e/states-with-the-best-schools/5335

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Earl

Wow, it’s great to be a migrant. Free private education, free housing, free food, jobs. I think that i’ll go to Venezuela and immigrate to the US. Can’t beat it! I’m sure that they will vote Democratic and attend Catholic church.

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SMH

Do it you coward.

Pack up what you can carry on your person, have your children do the same, quit your job, drain your accounts, cut up your US passport, move to Venezuela and live in poverty for a decade. After that feel free to find your way back. If you’re lucky you will be granted asylum, and then you can come tell everyone how easy these people have it.

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Joebama Robinette Obiden

cant wait til DeSantis deports them all back for crossing the border illegally after he becomes the 47th. enjoy the 2 years you have left.

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Gullible Republicans believe in myths fairytales invisible gods and conspiracy theories

Republicans had the control of the House, Senate and White House on more than one occasion even under Trump and never passed any comprehensive immigration policies. Are you gullible enough to fall for that one again? Republican backers are capitalizing on the status quo. Nothing will change just like it has t changed since Ronald Regans amnesty.

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1st Generation American

We don’t need comprehensive immigration reform. Enforce the current immigration policies. The reason why the system is broken, is because of all the illegals crossing the border breaking our laws. Joe Biden has open the flood gates to these people. Trump had the remain in Mexico policy, Biden ended it.

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Gullible Republicans Believe in Myths Fairytales invisible gods and conspiracy theories

Nothing to do with Joe Biden. Joe Biden is a Republican deflection. Regan gave amnesty to tens of millions of illegal immigrants. Obama administration deportees the most illegal immigrants. Facts are facts. Republicans are assisting their backers in circumventing labor laws and the social security system. The status quo just keeps the attention off of other issues and benefits wealthy companies and individuals. Nothing has changed for this very reason and nothing will change for this very reason. Keep up the banner waving and drum pounding idiocy. You’re wasting your time.

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Smh

So it’s fair to let anyone in the country as long as they have a sob story? What about immigrants who do it the right way by applying and saving for years to immigrate to the country. Often these parents have to pay for their kids to learn English so they can assimilate into their classrooms.

Keep thumping your chest, tough guy! Ignorance is bliss.

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Anonymous

By all means, try to get the US to adopt the same socialist system that destroyed the economy of Venezuela. Great idea.

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Glenn Glenda

Helllooooo, they voted for it! So now my tax dollars go to individuals that made bad decisions? Not the homeless US Veterans that eat out of garbage cans, have intestinal parasites, and open sores. Pathetic.

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This Vet Knows Better

There already is Veteran Assistance Programs in place to assist Vets with housing, mental health, employment and so on. Kindly stop the politicization and misinformation.

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Jessica

This is wonderful. And NYC should also diversify ranks and teaching staff at every school. I think hiring spanish speaking educators should be a priority. Makes communication between many students and caretakers much easier.

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Joebama Robinette Obiden

thank goodness i can afford private school. after all, i want my kids to become successful, not stuck in remedial classes forever thanks to public school liberal agenda fake teachers.

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Proud mother

You know very little of what you speak. My son graduated Stuyvesant and is now attending Dartmouth. There are several similar scenarios on our street here in Sunnyside. Both public and private school success stories. The failures you’re blowing out of proportion are not the norm in this area outside the housing projects.

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That's your son.

Hooray for you but more hooray for him. These migrant kids and their parents coming and others already here DON’T TAKE EDUCATION or THE WELFARE OF THEIR CHILDREN SERIOUSLY!!! That’s where everyone else’s kid goes, down the tubes with these ‘students’.

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Fed up

No , it’s not a PRIORITY you Transplant ! Everyone should be learning ENGLISH! Not the other way around , when my immigrant parents came over 50 years ago they struggled to learn the language and no free hand outs either ! Everyone needs to struggle if they want to achieve that American Dream , shouldn’t be a give away

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Sonia

Bilingual education is a hindrance, not a help. Emmerse kids in English only classes and they will learn. That’s the way I learned at P.S. 84.

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Democrats hate Americans

Role out the red carpet for illegals, but homeless and undeserved citizens get nothing and pushed aside. Not to mention all the tax payers especially the middle class as always. Democrats claim to help the little guy, but all they care about is expanding their voter base to ensure they keep their power at any cost. This dates back to the civil war.

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SMH

copy/paste

If you read the article, even just the headline, you would see that they are asylum seekers. Being granted asylum by the US government is not the same as entering the country illegally.

Regardless, THESE ARE CHILDREN. How miserable and pathetic do you have to be to decry helping children in need?

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Anonymous

They have all been coached in how to make false asylum claims, knowing that the courts are completely backed up. In a year or two or more if they drag it out as they will, we’ll hear how mean it is to deport these asylum seekers because this is the only home thy know. Just like DACA. Economic hardship does not entitle you to enter the US under an asylum claim, so lie on the form folks. There is no penalty, and once you’re in the onus is on the Feds to kick you out. They should all be tossed and their legal representation disbarred.

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SMH

You know this for a fact? Each and every one of them told you they made false claims to enter the country? Or is this yet another round of baseless accusations to further diminish the plight of your fellow man?

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June

Most also hold the same socialists views they are fleeing from when they arrive to the USA. They believe that Governments should provide shelter, food, healthcare and pay bills. The majority also claim they are fleeing from gang violence.

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Democrats hate Americans

They are abusing the system. Asylum was intended for religious or political persecution
not for economic reasons. If we accept everyone around the world because the economy in their country isn’t that great that is the end of the country. It makes much more sense to help people in their country than to over load our country that is already having a housing/ homeless crisis.

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SMH

“If we accept everyone around the world because the economy in their country isn’t that great that is the end of the country”

You must still be upset about the millions of Germans who came here at the turn of the 20th century seeking a better life. Or perhaps the millions of Irish. What about the French Canadians? The hundred year stream of Polish immigrants? Maybe the influx of Europeans fleeing the continent after WW2? More recently, any issues with the 150,000+ Ukrainian migrants over the past ten months?

Probably not.

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Anonymous

They haven’t been given asylum yet. That involves a process. At the moment they are illegal aliens. Very few will get asylum. Just because you come from a poverty stricken country that also has high crime, does not qualify for asylum.We have poverty and crime in this country, where do Americans go. Help Americans first.

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C'mon Man

deport them all. they should have applied to the first democratic country they stepped foot in, Mexico.

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Anonymous

After families have been enrolled in Voice, I am sure they will be like most families and be moving soon. Voice has a very weak reputation and a major turnover rate of students and faculty. Many do not even stick it out for a full year there before transferring out after a few months back to their nearby public schools. Most Charter Schools have long waiting lists. There is no wonder that there were seats open immediately for the that many new arrivals.

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HELP FOR AMERICANS!

Meanwhile, I see homeless people living on Roosevelt Avenue and I don’t see them getting any services. Why are we using tax dollars to help people who have broken the law while American citizens are homeless? It is disgusting the way the city – and Mayor Adams et al, turn a blind eye. Hey, Julie Won – why don’t you walk around the neighborhood and see the misery. I see people living the parks and I have spoken to homeless veterans.

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Janey

It’s not up to the average citizen to help homeless vets or any other American. It’s the responsibility of our elected officials. They seem to be more interested in helping illegal aliens.

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SMH

If you read the article, even just the headline, you would see that they are asylum seekers. Being granted asylum by the US government is not the same as entering the country illegally.

Regardless, THESE ARE CHILDREN. How miserable and pathetic do you have to be to decry helping children in need?

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wrong

They have all been coached in how to make false asylum claims, knowing that the courts are completely backed up. In a year or two or more if they drag it out as they will, we’ll hear how mean it is to deport these asylum seekers because this is the only home thy know. Just like DACA. Economic hardship does not entitle you to enter the US under an asylum claim, so lie on the form folks. There is no penalty, and once you’re in the onus is on the Feds to kick you out. They should all be tossed and their legal representation disbarred.

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