Can Newcomer Connectors help migrant students struggling in Chicago schools?

CHICAGO — Months after enrolling in school, several dozen migrant students had difficulty adjusting to life at Kenwood Academy on the South Side.

The teenagers were sent to a school where few people spoke Spanish, their native language, and the classrooms where they were placed were “a mess,” said teacher Maggie Ritthaler.

“Kids were throwing things, hitting each other, playing, and the teacher barely spoke Spanish,” Ritthaler said.

Ritthaler and another teacher, Zachary Hill, made it their mission to help: two Spanish-speakers changed their schedules to teach migrant children, and the principal hired part-time student teachers.

Still, about 85 percent of Kenwood’s students are black, and the school has historically failed to serve many students whose first language is not English. Teachers say novices still don’t get the linguistic help and emotional support they need.

“We provide them with a safe home base in school, but at the same time, the needs they encounter exceed those for which we are prepared, licensed or resourced,” Ritthaler said.

In May, an investigation by Block Club and Chalkbeat found that many migrant students end up in segregated schools like Kenwood with little or no bilingual resources. So-called “language deserts”, concentrated in the city’s south and west, have left many migrant children feeling lost in school while teachers struggle to meet their needs.

Gabriela Ruiz, 12, from Venezuela, sets off for school from her South Shore apartment in April. She and her family took part in an investigation by Block Club and Chalkbeat into the challenges faced by migrant students and their families. Loan: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

5 takeaways

1. Many immigrant families find affordable housing in Chicago’s mostly black, low-income neighborhoods.
2. Many children are enrolled in segregated schools where there is little or no support for bilingual education.
3. Other students travel long distances to better-equipped schools.
4. Chicago Public Schools officials say they are prioritizing additional support for underfunded schools.
5. CPS has a long history of students failing to learn English.

But experts and teachers union leaders say the district could help migrant students with a different approach: hiring “newly arrived liaisons.” Under the Chicago Teachers Union’s vision, these connections would help ease the burden on teachers and other school staff who, in addition to their regular duties, respond to the behavioral and emotional needs of new students while helping them find health care and clothing.

Liaisons would also provide linguistic support to migrant students enrolled in schools where few Spanish speakers are present, such as John Paul II Elementary School. Laura S. Ward in West Humboldt Park, where a kindergarten teacher and two caregivers translate for the entire building, Block Club and Chalkbeat were found.

School districts across the country have been able to help migrant students make connections, said Alejandra Vázquez Baur, who leads the National Newcomer Network, a coalition of teachers, researchers and advocates that works to address inequality among newcomer students.

While it will take much more work to overcome Chicago Public Schools’ long history of English language learning failure and immigrant students, she said partnering would be a step in the right direction.

“Sooner or later you will get new connectors, and they can help,” Vázquez Baur said. “Students can at least get into the programs that are best for them, (they can be) aware of their options, their rights are respected, everything is explained and interpreted for them so that they can make the best decisions for their future.”

Intermediary for immigrant families and schools

Under the Chicago Teachers Union’s proposal, “newcomer liaisons” would be responsible for migrant student registration, programming, communication between families and teachers and other duties requiring bilingual services, such as interpreting for Local School Board meetings, union leaders said.

Those responsibilities currently fall on teachers like Ritthaler and Hill, who have plenty of other responsibilities. Ritthaler is a Spanish teacher who chairs the world languages ​​department at Kenwood, and Hill is an English teacher at the school.

“Typically (these teachers) try to do it on their own time or they don’t provide kids with the services they need because they do it,” said Julie Sugarman, associate director for K-12 Education Research at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Immigrant Integration Policy Center.

Classes at Erie Elementary Charter School in Humboldt Park, a bilingual school with nearly 50 new students. Loan: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

In other school districts that use this approach, liaisons are “local people, maybe parents, maybe community advocates” who can communicate with new families and explain their rights but don’t necessarily need teacher certifications, Vázquez Baur said.

Experts say other districts have used a patchwork of funds — local, state and federal dollars — to pay for the program.

Union leaders did not respond to specific questions about their proposal.

CPS representatives also did not respond to questions, saying only that the district had received the union’s proposals and was considering them.

The district’s list of initial proposals does not include “newcomer ties.”

District needs ‘more bilingual support at every level’

“Connectors” alone will not be able to solve all the problems facing underfunded schools serving newcomers.

By April, nearly 9,000 migrant students – many of them fleeing turmoil in South and Central American countries – were enrolled in Chicago public schools. The vast majority of new students do not speak English and live in temporary housing. Many of them have had limited time at school and are behind in grades for their age.

Thousands of immigrant families are receiving housing in historically black neighborhoods like South Shore and Austin through the state’s rental assistance program. From there, children will enroll in schools that have not historically served students whose first language is not English.

In addition to a lack of language support, many families struggle with long commutes and are unaware of their rights and options, as Block Club and Chalkbeat have shown.

This all came after the district had struggled for years to fully comply with state and federal laws regarding bilingual education.

Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates said the newcomers’ families are experiencing “what it’s like to be a black family in Chicago Public Schools.”

In a written statement, the union said segregated black schools in the southern and western parts of both sides, which housed many migrant students, have struggled for years with declining enrollment and funding shortages. Meanwhile, some Latino schools have seen their budgets cut in recent years as a lack of affordable housing has led to declining student enrollment.

“This is the context for the influx of newly arrived students – a reflection of how CPS has lacked funding and support for Black and brown students and why it is so critical to our contract negotiations,” union leaders said in a statement.

Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates introduces Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson after winning the April 4, 2023 mayoral runoff. Loan: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

These are CTU’s first negotiations since the election of Mayor Brandon Johnson, a former union organizer. Increasing resources for migrant students is one of the union’s key demands.

The union is asking for “more bilingual support at every level,” a union statement said.

In addition to “newcomer unions,” the union is pushing for more bilingual and multilingual teachers; more bilingual programs that offer English-language learners and native English speakers the opportunity to learn Spanish and English; and developing the district’s sustainable community schools model.

This initiative, launched in 2018, engages community-based organizations to provide programs and services to high-poverty schools that struggle with low enrollment levels.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez Loan: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez has said the district wants to expand dual-language programs, and Mayor Brandon Johnson has made developing sustainable community schools a top priority of his administration.

The union also wants “staffing and support for language access to early childhood education, IEPs, guest teachers, clinicians, access to preschool and other high needs areas,” as well as “board of education training and support for migrant students annually, in total with financing immigration support,” according to the list provided by the union.

Union leaders did not respond to questions seeking more information about the proposals. The union’s current contract expires at the end of June.

“The most traumatic journey they will ever experience.”

Calls for more support for migrant students come amid a severe budget shortfall for the next financial year, which starts on July 1.

With pandemic relief funds drying up, the district faces a budget deficit of nearly $400 million while the state grapples with its own financial woes.

Lawmakers recently approved the state budget increasing K-12 funding for K-12 schools by $350 million, the minimum required by law and $200 million less than education advocates had requested. The General Assembly has not approved a proposal that would have sent more money to school districts that have received an influx of migrant students.

CPS officials have said they are trying to cut spending at the district central office, but Martinez recently told reporters they are still figuring out how to close the deficit.

Kenwood Academy April 24, 2024 Loan: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

In Kenwood, Ritthaler and Hill end the school year exhausted and demoralized.

They spent the year “in survival mode,” finding activities and assignments in Spanish, handing out donated clothes and food, and offering advice.

“We take kids who have just gone through the most traumatic journey they’ve ever been through and we just put them in biology classes,” Ritthaler said.

“It’s not just about accepting 30 new students. These are 30 new students who come from a whole new world… and we are not equipped to serve them as well as they should.”

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