Thousands of young NYC immigrant didn’t enroll in school. Advocates want to fix that.

Georges Remy had one year of high school remaining when he left Haiti with his family in March 2017 and settled in Brooklyn. At first Remy, then 17, had a hard time finding a nearby school, since enrollment officials said he should be placed in a program that serves new immigrants and would help him learn English.

“They said there was no current school that would take me,” until the following school year, Remy said, even though all schools in the city offer English-as-a-new-language programs. (A department official said she cannot comment on specific cases.)

Within two weeks, education department officials pointed him to two Manhattan transfer schools that serve under-credited, older students, and are equipped with programs for English language learners, including bilingual education. By April, he was traveling 45 minutes to get to one of them, Lower East Side Preparatory High School, where he took extra courses in order to graduate in 2019 — one year sooner than school officials predicted, he said. 

Remy is now in college, but there are thousands of immigrant students like him who did not enroll in school upon arriving in New York, according to new data released Wednesday by the Migration Policy Institute. Results were first reported by Politico. 

At a news conference Wednesday, advocates said they believe this is largely the result of what they see on the ground: Immigrant students who often juggle a job with school, and do not receive the intensive services they need to learn English and graduate.

From 2013-2017, 4,200 newly arrived older immigrant students — ranging in age from 14 to 21 — were not enrolled in school, according to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by Migration Policy Institute, in response to a request from the New York Immigration Coalition. The immigrant advocacy group defined “newly arrived” as youth who have lived in the United States between zero and three years. 

“That’s about the size of a small town in the USA,” said Rita Rodriguez-Engberg, director of the Immigrant Students Rights Project at Advocates for Children New York. 

As a result, a coalition called Education Collaborative — made up of more than 30 community groups — wants the education department to open a $6 million pilot program that would offer more seats at transfer schools for newly arrived, older immigrants. 

The data looks at responses to the American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau distributes annually. In total, 21,500 of these newly arrived immigrant teenagers and young adults lived in New York City from 2013 to 2017, and roughly 17,300 of them were enrolled in school. Of the 4,200 students who were not attending school, just 400 of them were ages 14 or 15, underscoring how older immigrant students are more likely to drop out of school or not enroll at all, advocates said. Most of these students lived in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, according to the Migration Policy Institute. 

Last school year, 25% of high school students who are learning English as a new language dropped out of school, compared to less than 6% of high school students citywide. 

“It’s double, even triple of other subgroups, and that’s appalling,” said Kim Sykes, director of education policy for the New York Immigration Coalition, referring to the drop-out rate. 

Community groups are frequently helping students who say they aren’t getting the support they need in school, are turned away at enrollment, are told they were too old to enroll in school or told they should get a GED instead of a traditional high school diploma, Engberg said. 

“That’s really concerning for us because as an immigrant and as advocates for immigrants and folks that serve immigrants, we know our immigrant communities deeply, deeply want to get a good, quality education for themselves and their families and their future,” said Andrea Ortiz, education policy manager for New York Immigration Coalition.

The state has acknowledged some of these concerns in a corrective action plan for the city, which specifically calls on the city to eliminate any enrollment barriers that exist for older immigrant students, and focus on lowering dropout rates for English language learners, as well as improving their graduation rates. 

The education department has provided Family Welcome Centers, where students can go to enroll in school, with brochures and guides in 10 languages on options for students who are learning English as a new language, a spokesperson said. The department monitors these centers annually and held a training this November that focused on options for English language learners.

Officials have also been working with the Education Collaborative to address the concern over students being sent to GED programs.

The coalition’s proposal for a pilot program would open more seats at two schools each in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx — the boroughs where most of these students live, advocates said.

Currently, there are five transfer schools that advocates consider “well-suited” for such students because they have bilingual programming, are built for under-credited students, and provide access to wraparound services. Four are in Manhattan — including Lower East Side Prep — and one is in the Bronx.

The pilot program would run as a grant program to transfer schools willing to open seats and create programming for newly arrived immigrant students. The money would pay for programming at the school — teachers who could teach English as a new language, partnerships with community organizations for wraparound services, such as extra tutoring services for immigrant students and connecting families to social services, and providing professional development.

The department is reviewing different aspects of the proposal, including what good implementation would look like at the schools, an official said. 

“We’re working to increase access to quality programs for our older and newly arrived English Language Learners, and we thank these organizations for their partnership on this important issue,” said Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the education department, in a statement. “We are currently reviewing this pilot program and will continue to focus on how we can expand ELL programs to more transfer students and improve education for all ELLs.”

Sykes suggested the biggest hurdle at the moment is securing the total $6 million for the pilot. That could be tough as the city raises concerns about a $136 million budgeting shortfall from the state, which is figuring out ways to plug a $6 billion budget gap of its own. 

“We’re gonna fight as hard as we can fight to make this happen,” Sykes said.