Miriam Sicherman looks at her Google Translate app or her pocket translator an average of 25 times a day while teaching fourth graders at the Children’s Workshop School in Manhattan’s East Village. 

For a recent lesson on internet safety, she translated her presentation into Spanish and Russian ahead of time for her five newcomer immigrant students who speak those languages, but then used her phone to look up words like “password” or “email address” to respond to their questions. In an eight-hour school day, she repeats this process over and over again.

On top of the translation apps, Sicherman takes Duolingo Spanish lessons in her own time and accepts occasional help from a bilingual student and a Russian-speaking teacher at another school in her building. 

Still, it sometimes feels impossible to explain in-depth concepts in a language other than her own. 

An estimated 14,000 asylum-seeking immigrant students have enrolled in New York City public schools, city officials said last month. Teachers are finding that many of these children are learning English at the most basic level, and some hadn’t attended school regularly before arriving in the United States. The students are legally entitled to extra support, but some schools are struggling to provide it.

Failing to meet the needs of English language learners is not a new problem. Since 2016, the state has placed New York City on a corrective action plan because the district has failed to adequately support English learners, including not providing required services for those with disabilities. The plan, which has been extended multiple times over the past seven years, requires the city to gradually provide more of these services.

For Sicherman, it’s crucial that her English language learners get the support to which they are entitled. But there is just one part-time English-as-a-new-language, or ENL, teacher who provides this support to dozens of students at her school. That means Sicherman’s newcomers are getting a fraction of the extra help they should receive, she said.

“I can make them feel comfortable and safe — that I’m doing my best with, and I think I am achieving that — but they really are entitled to much more than that,” Sicherman said.

Sicherman’s concern is one that potentially many educators share, as thousands of new immigrant families have sought refuge in New York City this year, from Central and South American countries, as well as from Ukraine and Russia. 

In anticipation of students’ arrival, the city launched “Project Open Arms” in the fall to send a total $12 million to schools that enrolled six or more newcomer students living in temporary housing. Officials also said schools that have enrolled more students than expected have received another $98 million this year. 

Still, some teachers say their schools don’t have enough funding to hire more staff who are equipped to work with newcomer English learners. Some schools have the money, but have struggled to find teachers due to a long-standing shortage of bilingual teachers. That leaves teachers like Sicherman feeling overwhelmed and at times unequipped to properly help these students. 

As the city expects another wave of newcomer immigrant families, teachers and advocates are worried it will become even more challenging to support English learners without more help from the city. 

The New York Immigration Coalition has heard complaints throughout this school year that students aren’t receiving their required services, said Andrea Ortiz, senior manager of education policy. 

“We shouldn’t be allowing students to be just housed in places where they’re not gonna be given the types of supports that they’re legally entitled to,” Ortiz said.

In a statement, education department spokesperson Nicole Brownstein said officials are working closely with schools to “assess any gaps in resources and to provide solutions as expeditiously as possible.”

‘It’s kind of demoralizing’

Sicherman’s school has been waiting months for more help.

Over each of the past five years, her school enrolled between six and 13 English learners, according to demographic records. This year, roughly 60 English learners enrolled, Sicherman said.

School leaders volunteered in January to accept more asylum seekers, the spokesperson said. A crush of newcomer immigrant students began coming in February, but even after the principal requested more staffing help from the education department, the school still had just one part-time ENL teacher, Sicherman said. 

Budget records show that the school received about $64,600 in funding from Project Open Arms, which can be used to pay teachers overtime, cover teacher prep periods, and pay substitutes, among other uses related to communication with parents. It’s not clear when the school received those funds. The principal did not respond to a request for comment to discuss the school’s challenges this year or explain how that money was used.

As beginner-level English learners, Sicherman’s five newcomer students should each be receiving 360 minutes a week of extra help building English skills, per state regulations for grades K-8. But they are only getting 135 minutes, since the part-time ENL teacher can only work with them for 45 minutes during each of her three days at the school. 

Officials did not answer why the school hasn’t received more staffing help. Superintendent Carry Chan, who oversees Manhattan’s District 1, where the Children’s Workshop School is located, has appealed for the school to receive another full-time ENL teacher, a spokesperson said. The spokesperson added that the school also has a classroom teacher licensed to work with English language learners, and suggested they could tweak programming and use that person so that students are getting more services.

Sicherman said she’s constantly trying to balance those students’ needs with those of the 16 native English speakers in her class. She translates many lessons and uses other tools, including donated Spanish flash cards. But it’s difficult to explain topics in-depth, such as the Irish potato famine, or have a conversation about it. She relies “completely” on Google Translate for her Russian student, with whom the language barrier is so thick that Sicherman worries the child won’t be able to tell her if she’s feeling unwell. 

Even lighthearted moments are hard. Sicherman recently pulled up Google Translate to tell a few of her Spanish-speaking students that they were “being silly.” Her bilingual student stopped her: Using the app’s suggested word “tonto” would be like calling the children idiots, he said.

“It’s kind of demoralizing,” Sicherman said. “I wish I could be teaching these kids, and I’m really not teaching them.”

There don’t appear to be immediate consequences for schools or districts who are not providing legally required services to English learners. J.P. O’Hare, a spokesperson for the state education department, said the corrective action plan requires the district to submit multiple reports a year about how they’re improving support for these students. In response, state officials share “direction and guidance” on where city schools need to improve and meet regularly with district staff. 

Some experienced ENL teachers are struggling this year

Even experienced ENL teachers say they’re overwhelmed by the arrival of thousands of new immigrant students. 

Brooklyn ENL teacher Melanie is usually paired with middle schoolers. But this year, as more English learners enrolled at her Bay Ridge school and one of her ENL colleagues went on leave, she was also asked to work with children in grades 2-5. 

Melanie, who asked only to use her first name because she was not authorized to speak with the press, found she was “really struggling” to help younger students, since she’s used to helping older children who know how to read and write at more advanced levels. 

The school couldn’t find a replacement for the ENL teacher on leave, who returned a few weeks ago. 

For most of this year, Melanie served roughly twice as many children in the “beginner” level as she usually does, many of whom haven’t attended school in a while and are learning various skills, such as how to use an iPad. She was providing the legally required amount of support to these children, but she doesn’t think they received enough individual help, she said. 

“I know going into it, I am not meeting their needs,” she said.

One Brooklyn high school enrolled about 30 new immigrant students between February and April, causing classes for beginner-level English learners to fill up to the legal limit of 34, said Nathan, an ENL teacher at the school who asked only to use his first name. 

The school, which is used to serving many English learners, is staying afloat for now. They’ve created new classes with existing staff, and they’re using some funding to pay one person overtime in order to be a “migrant students coordinator,” who is charged with creating resources for newcomer families.

But if they get another similar wave of students, he’s unsure if the school has enough funding to add another class for beginner-level English learners or even meet legal mandates. 

“That would require a lot of creative budgeting,” Nathan said.  

Asylum seekers are a ‘blessing’ for one Brooklyn school

Some schools, such as those with dual language programs, seem better set up to welcome newcomer immigrants. 

Asylum-seeking families have “been a blessing” for one Spanish dual language program in Brooklyn, where the number of English language learners has doubled this year, said F.C., a teacher at the school who requested only her initials be used because she was not authorized to speak to the press. Typically, the school doesn’t attract many native Spanish speakers. This year, the surge in enrollment has given both English and Spanish speakers a chance to learn from one another.

As a former newcomer immigrant herself, F.C. has used her experience to connect with students. She comforted a student who would occasionally cry because he was struggling in class and missed home. She told him once, “I used to cry, too, because I didn’t understand what everyone was saying, and that motivated me to learn.’” He gave her a hug. 

Most schools don’t have dual language programs. There are 245 such programs across all grades for general education students, covering 13 different languages. 

While those programs are “set up well” for English learners, they don’t exist everywhere, said Councilmember Rita Joseph, chair of the council’s education committee, who used to be an ENL teacher. Looking ahead, she thinks the education department will have to “pivot” as more asylum-seeking families make New York City their new home. 

“We’re gonna have so much that we can no longer have part-time [ENL] teachers,” she said. “That’s the only way you can stay in compliance.” 

Sicherman’s school recently launched an after-school program for English learners, which doesn’t count toward their legally required support but is helpful, she said. Her principal also bought each teacher a pocket translator, which Sicherman has found more useful than Google Translate. Sometimes students use it to talk with each other while she uses her phone app. 

Five days after Chalkbeat reached out to the education department about the issues at Sicherman’s school, she discovered that their part-time ENL teacher would soon be working with them full time.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City public schools. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.