According to the DOE, 43 percent of NYC’s students spoke a language other than English during the current school year. The Immigrant Family Communication program, which had been budgeted for only one year, was renewed in the 2023 budget but was not expanded to the $6 million requested by advocates.
City schools are bracing for cuts to the education budget in the upcoming fiscal year—although Mayor Eric Adams does not call them that, saying the changes are merely a reallocation of funds based on declining student enrollment.
Among the programs that survived the budget chopping block, however, is the Immigrant Family Engagement initiative, which was created to fill the communication gaps between schools and parents who do not speak English fluently, or who communicate in a language outside of the nine in which Department of Education (DOE) documents are routinely translated (Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Urdu).
Parent Florentina, who preferred that her last name not be used, speaks Mixtec, and Spanish is her second language. “Yes, English would be my third language,” Florentina told City Limits in Spanish by phone, saying she struggles with English proficiency.
“I suffer when they send things from school. I don’t read Spanish very well, let alone English. It’s not easy to understand it,” she says. She has lived in the city for 23 years and doesn’t like going to her children’s school because she can’t ask for what she wants, and has difficulty understanding what her children translate on the spot for her.
The city’s 2022 fiscal year budget included $4 million for the one-year program to improve the way the DOE communicates with immigrant families. The new project was created, at advocates’ urging, to aid families who were having more difficulty receiving, understanding information, and engaging with their children’s schools during the pandemic shutdowns.
“This was a multi-faceted program,” explained Rita Rodriguez-Engberg, director of AFC’s Immigrant Students’ Rights Project, “in which the DOE created a working group, of which we were part.”
The group worked on finding the most effective ways to communicate with immigrant parents which included things like sending postcard notices to families’ homes; reaching families over the phone, text messages or robocalls; using local ethnic media; launching the first city-wide campaign to translate Special Education documents; and partnering with immigrant-facing, community-based organizations to share a variety of updates from the DOE.
In the 2021-2022 school year, for example, 43 percent of students spoke a language other than English at home, according to DOE data. However, little is known about the parents of these students, as the DOE doesn’t have data on parental proficiency in English.
According to a recently published data analysis by Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), an estimated 329,000 city students did not have a parent who speaks English fluently and 29,608 students’ parents have limited English proficiency (LEP) and speak a language outside those traditionally supported by the DOE.
Moreover, 55,585 DOE parents have up to or less than an 8th-grade education, the same survey found (in Florentina’s case, she only finished elementary school.) AFC’s analysis also highlights that 61,657 immigrant families do not have access to broadband internet, making communication with teachers even more difficult.
“Language barriers for newcomer immigrants and Limited English Proficient (LEP) families will always exist, and one-time funding streams fail to produce sustainable improvements that would cultivate lasting and equitable access for these families,” the Language Access and Immigrant Family Communication Working Group stated in a letter sent to the mayor at the end of last month, imploring the administration to continue the program past its one-year deadline.
This year, advocates asked not only to renew funding for the communications program but also sought an additional $2 million, for a total of $6 million in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2023 budget, “to establish a permanent, central system for immigrant family communications,” their letter states.
The budget deal approved by lawmakers Monday night failed to include that additional $2 million, but maintained the $4 million base funding so the project can continue next year.
“As a former [English as a New Language] teacher, fighting for immigrant students and families is an issue that is near and dear to my heart,” said the chair of the education committee, Councilmember Rita Joseph. “I’m thrilled that my colleagues and I were able to secure $4 million for immigrant family communication. Now, we must ensure that the money allocated is utilized in a way that directly helps our public school immigrant families.”
Another program included in the budget was DOE community coordinators to support homeless and immigrant students, who saw the most absences during the pandemic.