On Monday, February 28th, 2022, the New York City Council Committee on Education held an oversight hearing with the New York City Department of Education (DOE) to address the impact of COVID-19 on the city’s English Language Learners (ELLs). Next100 policy entrepreneur Alejandra Vázquez Baur testified during the hearing, and submitted the following written testimony to the Council for their record. This testimony calls for the Council to direct city funding toward language access infrastructure co-created with immigrant communities and advocates, programs that meet the needs of newly arrived high school-aged students, and the collection and public reporting of immigrant student data, so that NYC schools can move forward with multilingual immigrant communities as we continue to recover from this pandemic.
The text of Vázquez Baur’s testimony is presented below.
Good afternoon, and thank you Chair Joseph and members of the New York City Council Committee on Education. My name is Alejandra Vázquez Baur, and I am a former high school teacher in Miami, a policy entrepreneur at Next100, and a community engagement volunteer at ImmSchools. Next100 is a startup think tank that is changing the face and future of progressive policy by addressing the historical exclusion of individuals and communities from the policymaking table, due to race, ethnicity, immigration status, age, gender, income, educational level, or any number of other factors. We are a diverse set of thinkers and doers, who are developing creative, rigorous, and relevant policy ideas, with a focus on translating these ideas into tangible change. ImmSchools is an immigrant-led nonprofit partnering with educators and community leaders to ensure schools are safe and inclusive for undocumented and mixed-status students and families. I’m grateful to you, Honorable Chair Joseph, for your commitment to the field of education and your concern for ELLs, and for prompting this important hearing.
I am here to share recommendations based on the research I have done at Next100, whom I represent as a member of the Language Access Working Group, and on what I have learned from students and families as a volunteer throughout the pandemic at ImmSchools.
Impact of COVID-19 on ELLs and Immigrant Youth
COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on New York City (NYC) families for almost two years now, but the city’s immigrant communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, exacerbating enduring economic, social, educational, and health disparities that immigrant communities faced long before the spring of 2020.
In January 2021, the NYC Department of Education (DOE) released attendance data that demonstrated particularly high rates of absenteeism among underserved student populations, English Language Learners (ELLs), and students with disabilities in particular. According to an analysis of this data by Advocates for Children, the attendance rate for tenth-grade ELLs in the fall of 2020 through January 2021 was 10.1 percentage points lower than in the 2018–19 school year. Similarly, the attendance rate for ninth-grade ELLs fell 7.9 percentage points during the same time period. The absenteeism rates were so high, that ELLs in tenth and twelfth grade missed about one out of every four school days.
According to the New York State Education Department (NYSED), graduation rates rose in the 2020–21 school year from 46 percent in the previous year to 60 percent, in part due to changes in the graduation requirements triggered by the pandemic. While we understand the reasoning behind the pandemic-related graduation exemptions, the unprecedented increases in graduation rates raise concerns about whether students who benefitted from these exemptions and graduated during the pandemic are being adequately prepared for their next step—whether that be a college or career pathway. Furthermore, even with these increases, ELLs still graduate at a rate that is drastically lower than their native English speaking peers (who graduate at a rate of 84 percent).
The ELL dropout rate has always been disproportionately high, and in 2020–21, it remained high at a rate of 16 percent, more than five times that of native English-speaking peers.
Additionally, according to the Migration Policy Institute, roughly 3,900 newly arrived immigrants1 aged 14 to 21 were not enrolled in school in the period of 2015 to 2019, based on their analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. The majority of those students were in the outer boroughs, particularly in the Bronx. This is an absurd number of students that could benefit from a NYC education but are not currently enrolled in school—a critical requisite for social and economic mobility. The challenges students face in accessing an education have been severely compounded during the pandemic by the closure of Family Welcome Centers, which provide language support and assist in the enrollment of students upon arrival. Without linguistically accessible information about available programs that best meet immigrant students’ needs and clear enrollment guidance, older newcomer youth often face pressure to work—often in essential industries that put them at higher risk of catching COVID-19—or take on responsibilities caring for younger family members.
Alongside these concerns, immigrant and limited English proficient (LEP)2 families have reported a number of school-related language access concerns. Throughout the pandemic, the DOE has failed to publish timely announcements about policy changes, including how to access basic services during the pandemic; how to access, set up, or troubleshoot at-home devices or Wi-Fi; information about summer school, busing, school closures, enrollment procedures, and other critical information in the home languages of many students. Additionally, during the pandemic, the DOE has been unable to print all translated materials and partner with key community locations or organizations, adding additional barriers for families without internet or digital access to receive up-to-date information, understand their choices, or make informed decisions about their children’s education and safety.
After two extremely challenging years, immigrant communities and their children need more than value statements. We urge City Council to direct city funding toward efforts to bolster support, programs, services, and resources that will have a direct impact on ELLs and immigrant students so that they can thrive in our schools.
Recommendations for New York City Council
First Step Campaign
Echoing the calls of the New York Immigration Coalition’s (NYIC) Education Collaborative,3 Next100 is asking for a three-year, $8.3 million commitment, including $2.1 million in the first year, to support a transfer school pilot to increase access for newly arrived, high-school-aged immigrants to programs that meet their academic, social, and emotional needs. Public school options that do not meet the needs of older newcomer immigrant youth in their own neighborhoods are one of the many barriers for enrollment. Yet, we know that there are schools capable of supporting this population. There are five ELL transfer high schools in NYC which specialize in serving newly arrived immigrant youth who are over-age and under-credited. These schools tend to be smaller than your typical high school and have robust wrap-around services and support for our youth. However, four of the five ELL transfer schools are in Manhattan, while MPI’s data suggests that the majority of these youth live in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn.
The aim of the additional funding is to expand access for newly arrived immigrant youth to the city’s existing non-ELL transfer schools. There are forty transfer schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan which already serve older, under-credited students but do not specialize in ELLs or older immigrant newcomers. With additional funding and resources, six of these transfer schools will be able to hire the necessary bilingual staff, obtain the appropriate training and materials, and provide the services that ELL transfer schools provide.
This pilot has the potential to have a broad systemic impact. In addition to the hundreds of youth whose lives will be transformed by having a school that meets their needs and is accessible to immigrant families in their own communities, the pilot will test a model that all schools can replicate to better serve older, newcomer immigrant youth and will develop best practices and identify solutions to common challenges in building this capacity.
Every student deserves a real chance at an education, and in a city as progressive and diverse as NYC, every immigrant student should have access to an education—as is their federal right—regardless of their citizenship status, where they come from, their English proficiency, if they have gaps in their education, or if they are unaccompanied.
Language Access For All
The Language Access Working Group, a coalition of advocates and organizations from across NYC including Next100, is requesting that the City Council baseline a $4 million investment in language access infrastructure in the upcoming FY23 budget.
Last year, the City Council granted $4 million to the DOE to implement the NYIC Communications Plan and to develop linguistically responsive communications infrastructure and marketing strategies to meaningfully engage immigrant and LEP communities. During the pandemic, the DOE relied on parents to play a critical role in supporting their children’s education at home, yet immigrant and LEP families were consistently left in the dark about important updates and policy changes. The DOE has struggled throughout the pandemic to communicate with immigrant and LEP families in their home language and via communication modalities that do not rely on families having access to the internet (robo-calls, pamphlets, radio, community and ethnic media, etc). This has been especially hard for families that speak languages of limited diffusion and for parents who are not literate and/or not digitally literate. The DOE even delayed publishing translations of announcements about major policy changes, including how to access basic services, how to get, set up or troubleshoot devices or WiFi, summer school, busing, school closures, etc. that directly impacted students’ ability to access appropriate education services and supports. As a result of widespread community organizing by members of the NYIC’s Education Collaborative, the City Council made an initial investment of $4 million in language access that has played an important role this school year.
Those funds have provided the unique opportunity for the DOE to cultivate critical partnerships with immigrant-led CBOs, parent leaders, and other important community stakeholders to implement the programs and campaigns that this funding is making available. The funds were also used to formalize the partnership between the Language Access Working Group and the DOE, and we have met on a weekly basis since August of 2021. Our goals have been to: (1) ensure the DOE could properly meet the needs of NYC’s immigrant and LEP families during the pandemic by identifying and incorporating effective, community-informed engagement strategies; (2) work with DOE employees to co-develop communications and engagement policies and campaigns for immigrant families from strategy to execution; (3) plan funding opportunities and partnerships for immigrant serving CBOs; and (4) provide a sounding board for the DOE’s language access practices.
We have a unique opportunity to continue building language access with community input beyond this year. The co-creative process of collecting best practices and building new multilingual communications infrastructure takes time, but it is resulting in a productive partnership that will allow this work to be more impactful long-term. In order to create lasting and sustainable impact on our communities and the children in our city’s schools, we will need this funding to become a consistent part of the budget that NYC immigrant communities and advocates can count on, plan for in advance, and have the time we need to do this powerful work in communities.
Collect and Publicly Report Immigrant Student Data
Next100 urges the DOE to collect and publish data on immigrant children in order to further disaggregate, track outcomes, and more meaningfully identify and address the specific needs of these students. As the largest city in the country in which over 22 percent of its population is foreign-born, it is important that NYC lead on issues related to immigrant communities and families. This is an equity concern for NYC’s newly arrived immigrant students–one in which the United States’ largest public school system can set an example in ensuring immigrant children are able to learn and thrive in school.
Prohibitive enrollment practices in some New York State districts have made it difficult for newly arrived immigrant children to enroll in schools if they don’t provide the proper documents demonstrating proof of residency. Many immigrant and refugee children speak languages other than English, including Indigenous languages and other languages of low incidence, and schools struggle to provide adequate translation and interpretation resources to support them and their families, despite their right to language access. Some have gaps in their education, and others may come in with pertinent social–emotional needs due to traumatic experiences or increased family responsibilities in a new country. Further, many school leaders fail to recognize the countless unique strengths immigrant children and families offer to the school community, often making them feel unwelcome and unimportant. Each of these factors contributes to significant enrollment and attendance barriers for immigrant students that impede access to school, negatively impact academic outcomes (including English language acquisition), and undermine newcomer student’s right to an education. These realities underscore the need to ensure that immigrant students in NYC have fair and equitable access to educational opportunities in DOE schools.
However, ensuring equitable opportunities for newcomer students is extremely challenging without the data to identify and understand their needs. Over the years, advocates have encouraged LEAs and SEAs to collect data on specific subgroups of ELLs, which have been used as a proxy for tracking data on immigrant students, despite many ELLs being born in the United States. In 2019, nearly 54 percent of NYC’s ELLs were born outside the United States. However, the academic outcomes, attendance, and discipline data for immigrant students remain unknown because their data is aggregated and reported along with data for all ELLs. To distinguish between U.S.-born ELLs and immigrant newcomers, we urge the DOE to use the definition offered in Title III of ESSA, which defines “immigrant child or youth” in Section 3201(5) as “an individual who is aged three through 21; was not born in any state; and has not been attending one or more schools in any one or more states for more than three full academic years.”4
At Next100, we believe it is critical to understand the unique experiences that immigrant students have in K-12 classrooms and are not fully captured by ELL status data collection. In order to expand access to the academic, social, and emotional supports immigrant students need to thrive in NYC schools, we must ensure we have data that pinpoints all of the experiences of immigrant newcomer students in our education system. That is why we call on the New York City Council to provide for the collection and reporting of enrollment, attendance, outcome data (graduation rates, state assessments), and discipline data for immigrant students. We also request that this data be made publicly available on an annual basis, on a schedule that aligns with the regular data releases for students in the city.
Surely you will hear from many advocates, parents, educators, and students alike about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on NYC’s ELLs and immigrant students. As you consider where to prioritize your attention, we urge you to remember that without programs that specifically target the unique needs of immigrant students, they will continue to be left behind; without adequate and linguistically-appropriate communications made in partnership with CBOs and parent leaders that inform our communities about those programs and services, immigrant communities will continue to be left behind; and without the appropriate data to identify the inequities in opportunity that immigrant students face, immigrant students will continue to be left behind.
An investment in the First Step Campaign pilot, the continuation of Language Access For All, and the collection and public reporting of immigrant student data will help to ensure that NYC schools move forward with multilingual immigrant communities as we continue to recover from this pandemic.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify.
Alejandra Vázquez Baur
Policy Entrepreneur, Next100
- Newly arrived immigrant youth includes foreign-born individuals who were aged 14 to 21 and had resided in the United States between 0 and 3 years at the time of the U.S. Census Bureau survey.
- We use LEP only with regard to language access and English proficiency, as that is the common terminology used in the field. In other, non-language centered contexts, we refer to our communities as multilingual or immigrant families more broadly.
- The NYIC’s Education Collaborative convenes community leaders from across NYC’s immigrant communities at the grassroots level, advocates, and practitioners. Member organizations specifically serve the needs of marginalized immigrant communities—including newly arrived immigrants, low-income families, and youth and adults with limited English proficiency.
- Note: The term “immigrant” as used in Title III is not related to an individual’s legal status in the United States, as schools are prohibited from inquiring about that information from students and families as established by Plyler v. Doe.