Asylum-seeking students use translation apps to overcome language barrier in NYC classrooms


The children of asylum-seekers arrive in city classrooms with a long list of educational challenges. Many have not attended school for years. Others have urgent health problems tied to the arduous journey through Central America and across the U.S.-Mexico border. Some are illiterate.

Now, three months after the surge in asylum-seekers prompted Mayor Eric Adams to declare a state of emergency, a migrant student and multiple educators tell Gothamist another ongoing problem is complicating lessons: The language barrier.

Some teachers who only speak English said they have been left to their own devices, literally – using classroom computers, iPads and personal phones to translate lessons and assignments. Some have deputized bilingual students to act as translators, while others have tapped front office staff or maintenance workers as go-betweens.

“It really is just a new face out of nowhere any day of the week,” said a middle school teacher in East Harlem who teaches around a dozen migrant students. “In a very terrible accent and pronunciation, I say ‘Hola, cómo se llama?’ and that’s about where my Spanish ends.”

The education department has spent approximately $60 million so far this academic year to support the approximately 11,220 new students coming from shelters, most of whom are believed to be asylum-seekers. City officials said they are rushing to get resources out to schools, including working hard to create new bilingual classes considered by many experts to be the gold standard. All English language learners are entitled to English as a new language classes, according to state rules.

“We are proud of our school communities for welcoming our new students with open arms, leveraging existing resources, and asking for help when needed,” said education department spokesperson Nicole Brownstein. “We continue to work closely with superintendents and principals to identify gaps in services.”

But in interviews with Gothamist, students, educators and advocates described confused, isolated and frustrated kids.

“I think there’s not true authentic learning for them, at least so far,” the East Harlem teacher said.

Gothamist interviewed more than a dozen educators, community leaders, union reps and immigrant advocates about how the Spanish-speaking new arrivals are being taught. All the teachers requested anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to the press.

Thousands of new arrivals

Many of the new students have been funneled into international schools, like Pan American International High School in Elmhurst, or schools that already had bilingual classes and teachers in place, like P.S. 145 on the Upper West Side. Educators said those schools, which are accustomed to receiving students throughout the academic year who only speak their home language, offer robust language support. Other schools, like P.S. 51 in Midtown, have raced to open brand new bilingual classes and hire more bilingual teachers.

In those cases, parents and educators said the transition has gone fairly well.

But in a landscape where thousands of students have been dispersed to more than 300 schools, the level of support available for students who speak only Spanish is uneven, educators said. Migrant students sometimes arrive in classrooms without prior notice. Many migrant students who only speak Spanish are being placed in classrooms with teachers who only speak English. They struggle to overcome a language barrier with little guidance or support, teachers said.

“This crisis underscores the need for recruiting, training and retaining bilingual staff and opening more bilingual programs in schools serving a significant number of English language learners and newly arrived immigrant children,” said Rita Rodriguez-Engberg, director of immigrant students’ rights at Advocates for Children of New York.

Letting the iPad do the talking

At P.S. 111 in Midtown, a group of newly arrived fifth graders look forward to the one day a week when a Spanish-speaking assistant is in the class. The rest of the week, the kids from asylum-seeking families take turns using a translation app on an iPad to communicate with their teacher, who only speaks English, one of the students told Gothamist.

“Sometimes I get a little stressed because I try to tell [the teacher] something and she doesn’t understand,” said the student, a 10-year-old from Venezuela who arrived in New York City in October. “I say, ‘give me the iPad,’ so I can tell her what I want to say. She laughs, and tries to tell me what she wants to tell me. Sometimes she doesn’t want to give it to me, so I learn English better. And I understand a little, sometimes.”

The student’s parents requested anonymity due to their immigration status.

The students become the teacher

The teacher at the East Harlem middle school said more than 40 new students who only speak Spanish arrived at his school this fall and winter. He has around three newly arrived migrants in each class. But he said he hasn’t received any instructions or resources from education department headquarters about how to teach them. So he and other teachers rely on bilingual students to translate.

“We’ve all been using other children,” he said. “I’ll give instruction, and then they’ll echo at their tables, because we’ve stationed them next to other kids that speak Spanish. We’re lucky they’re good kids … but it’s a tall task [and] I’ve seen some kids get resentful [because] they want to work on their own stuff.”

The teacher said it’s especially challenging because there is no information available about whether the students have learning disabilities or missed years of school.

When he can, the teacher said he hovers over the new students and offers some instruction by speaking into his iPhone’s translation app. He uses Google Translate for homework assignments and PowerPoint presentations. The students do attend an English as a new language class, but he worries they aren’t getting much out of other periods.

“There are blank stares,” he said.

Lashing out

A preschool instructional coordinator in Brooklyn said she was relieved to see some new asylum-seeking students sent to existing bilingual programs, but she worries about those who weren’t so lucky.

“There is a 4-year-old little guy who just arrived from the Dominican Republic in August,” she said. “He was placed in a classroom where the teacher only speaks English, and the assistant teacher speaks English and Italian. So the child came and was completely isolated.”

She said the student, who may also have learning or developmental disabilities, has seemed frustrated. “And that began to manifest in a really negative way,” she said. “Specifically he’s been pushing other kids to get attention. He took off his clothes one day.” She said the assistant teacher tries to speak to him in Italian “but that’s adding a third language,” which may just be adding to the confusion.

She said preschools are not required to have English as a new language instruction, which can make the transition especially hard for the youngest students.

Paths forward

The city, like the nation as a whole, has long faced a shortage of bilingual teachers, particularly those who are officially certified.

According to the United Federation of Teachers, of the total 86,000 teachers in the city, fewer than 3,000 teachers are certified as bilingual instructors. There are also 3,455 educators certified to teach English as a new language but they are not necessarily bilingual themselves, and their classes are primarily in English, according to the UFT. Other teachers may be bilingual, but are not certified.

Bilingual programs, where students are taught in both English and Spanish, are even harder to come by. According to city statistics, only 17% of students classified as English language learners were in these programs last year, before the recent surge in migrant students.

Earlier this fall, Schools Chancellor David Banks touted a “cultural exchange” with the consulate of the Dominican Republic to bring 25 bilingual teachers to the city, but teachers have since alleged that they were threatened and manipulated by some of the administrators who hired them.

Lupe Hernandez, who serves on the District 2 Community Education Council, said she has been impressed by schools, like P.S. 51 in Manhattan, that successfully scrambled to hire additional bilingual teachers and open up new bilingual classes.

But she said there is too much red tape. “What I’ve been advocating is for the DOE to make it easier for teachers who are bilingual to be certified,” she said.

Gwynne Hogan contributed reporting


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