What’s happening to migrant students once they enter Chicago schools?

CPS said it’s working with city and state officials to enroll kids in schools located near city shelters. But sources tell WBEZ that neighborhood schools often lack the staff and curriculum to work with non-English-speaking students.

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Chicago Teachers Union members on Wednesday called on Chicago Public Schools to approve proposals for sanctuary charter schools and to provide resources for migrant students amid the influx of migrants bused from Texas and Florida.

Chicago Teachers Union members on Wednesday called on Chicago Public Schools to approve proposals for sanctuary charter schools and to provide resources for migrant students amid the influx of migrants bused from Texas and Florida.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Nine-year-old Juanito can identify most of the world flags in the lobby at his North Side school. He’s seen them firsthand after trekking thousands of miles on foot from his native Ecuador to a new home in Chicago.

Juanito and his mother, Ana, are part of a recent wave of migrants from Central and South America seeking asylum in the U.S. (WBEZ is withholding their real names and school name due to safety concerns). The crisis made headlines last summer after Republican-led states started busing people to major cities including New York and Chicago.

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The city has welcomed more than 5,000 new arrivals since August, many with kids in Chicago Public Schools. CPS won’t say how many students have enrolled, though the Chicago Teachers Union estimates it’s 1,200 students since the fall. The school district declined to be interviewed, but in a statement said it’s providing resources to schools serving migrant students and is working with city and state officials to enroll kids in schools near city shelters.

But sources tell WBEZ that families are being directed to neighborhood schools that often lack the staff and curriculum to work with non-English-speaking students — and that requests for bilingual staff are being delayed. At one West Side school, some teachers lean on custodians to help translate. Others are having attendance issues because kids are skipping class to work.

Earlier this week, the teachers union spoke out at a news conference outside CPS headquarters. Members called on CPS to allocate more resources to schools accepting large numbers of migrant students. 

“Essentially [CPS] is asking teachers, principals and support staff at schools to bend over backward and do multiple jobs to provide these newcomers with the things they need,” said CTU organizing director Rebecca Martinez.

A dangerous road

Ana and Juanito arrived in December after a dangerous, six-week journey that began in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest and continued through seven countries.

Originally from Guayaquil, Ecuador, the family was forced to flee the country in October after violent threats from a local drug cartel.

Once they made it to the Texas border, Ana and her son applied for asylum. In a stroke of luck, they met a stranger at a Walmart who noticed they were in distress and offered to buy them plane tickets to Chicago.

Juanito is thriving at his new school, but it’s far from where he’s living. The trip takes about 45 minutes on the CTA, and he’s not eligible for bus service.

Teachers step in to help

Teachers said migrant students are coming into schools with major gaps in their formal education and need extra support. Some teens need help identifying letters and numbers, and others are behind in reading.

CPS said “newcomer specialists” evaluate every student. It also says it has resources in Spanish in its Skyline universal curriculum that are available to all schools, and it is adding more, but Spanish versions are not available for all courses and grades.

But one employee who spoke to WBEZ on condition of anonymity said there aren’t enough bilingual coordinators to serve the influx of migrants and that many kids are left to fend for themselves.

“Oftentimes, we might be the only person who can speak their language,” the CPS employee said. “But we don’t have the resources at hand, or the training, on how to meet the needs of newcomers.”

CTU organizer Linda Perales, a former bilingual teacher in Little Village, said kids desperately need Spanish-speaking nurses and social workers.

“A lot of students are arriving with severe medical needs and with no one to help service them in the school, or provide any type of medical support or guidance,” she said.

Many teachers are going the extra mile to connect with students and make them feel welcome — whether it’s learning phrases in an indigenous language or offering snacks to students the teachers pay for themselves. 

Ryan Williams, a history teacher at Multicultural Arts High School in Little Village, said he’s had at least 20 new students this year. But the school is struggling to keep them. Some show up for a day or for a week — and then they’re gone.

Choosing the right school

CPS said newly arrived students, including those in shelters or any temporary housing, can enroll in schools near their housing.

But some advocates want the district to direct students to dual-language schools, where students learn in both Spanish and English, and help families identify schools with the proper bilingual resources and staff.

“Our English-dominant kids are so excited to have native speakers with them,” said Gwen Kasper-Couty, principal at Sabin Dual Language Magnet School in Wicker Park. She said the elementary school has enrolled four new arrivals in the last month and would love to have more.

Sabin can accommodate at least 10 new students in every grade level from kindergarten to 8th grade.

“This isn’t gonna be a stretch for us, it’s what we do,” Kasper-Couty said.

Instead, many students are enrolling in neighborhood schools like Ogden International High School, which has taken in more than 100 migrant students this year. But the school doesn’t have enough bilingual resources or staff to meet their needs, CTU said.

Building community

Since arriving in December, Ana and Juanito have been overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers, including Jenn Torres, a West Ridge mom whose kids attend Juanito’s school.

“He just lights up every room with his smile. Of course, he caught me and I could never look away,” said Torres, who’s taken them under her wing.

It’s been no small feat. Torres helped arrange free temporary housing for them in Rogers Park. She’s taken Ana to immigration court appointments and often brings Juanito along for karate lessons with her kids. She even reached out to her child’s school to help get him enrolled.

“I really believe in creating community,” she said. “It makes a difference for all of us —  our kids, our families and our neighborhoods.”

CPS said it has partnered with several organizations to support students, and the budget for this school year includes $3 million in new funding for more dual-language program coordinators and more bilingual teachers.

CPS also said it reviews individual school requests for extra staff, noting, for example, that Haugan Elementary, which added 60 migrant students, recently got two new teachers.

But Sylvelia Pittman, a teacher at Nash Elementary in the Austin neighborhood, said staff is “making do with what we have.” The school has welcomed about two dozen migrant students this year, with the majority enrolling after Christmas break.

While there are no dedicated bilingual teachers on staff, at least two employees speak Spanish. One teacher offers English lessons four days a week to kids. Another works with parents twice a week.

“Everybody is stepping in because it’s not right and not fair,” Pittman said. She said the school is getting a bilingual teacher next fall. 

None of the clinicians on staff are bilingual. Pittman said it took months for one child to warm up to her and crack a smile.

“We are so focused on trying to get them to speak English, and we’re not even thinking about the trauma,” she said.

Pittman said she wants the district to provide resources to help non-Spanish-speaking students communicate with their new peers.

“Building that relationship between Black and Brown [students] would really help our community,” she said. “That’s unity.”

Nereida Moreno covers education for WBEZ

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