August and September are school enrollment season for the IRC in New York Youth team. With schools closed over the summer, there is typically a backlog of students needing to enroll in school for the first time since arriving in the US. This past school enrollment cycle, the IRC in NY’s Youth Programs team enrolled over 40 youth into the public school system. This is double the number of enrollments from last year!  

Backpacks for IRC youth clients donated by Baby2Baby.

The Right to an Education

One of the main challenges faced by Youth Programs staff has been communicating refugee and migrant eligibility under the McKinney-Vento Act to school administrators. Under this legislation, any student experiencing homelessness or in temporary housing has the right to receive a free and appropriate public education and to be enrolled in school immediately, even if they are lacking the documents normally required for enrollment. IRC has been fortunate to partner with Advocates for Children of New York, whose staff in the Immigrant Students Rights Project have trained countless IRC staff and interns over the years, enabling them to be informed advocates for students and families.  

School Success Specialist Anna Cherednikova explains that while most schools in New York City are aware of the McKinney-Vento act, school districts in Long Island or other surrounding areas are not always knowledgeable on these students’ situations or their rights under the act. This is where IRC staff come in to support, advocating for refugee youth and ensuring that their right to education is guaranteed. 

The School Enrollment Process

The school enrollment process is no small feat. Working in all five boroughs, as well as surrounding areas such as Long Island and Westchester County, IRC School Success staff help refugee youth and their families find and apply to schools, as well as facilitate conversations with school administrators.  

During the school enrollment process, IRC staff: 

  1. Gather preliminary information about the family  
  2. Call the family or set a meeting in the office to go over the enrollment process  
  3. Set a school enrollment meeting with the family and the school or school district 
  4. Accompany the family to the welcome center or school to help them fill out required paperwork 
  5. Communicate with and support the family if extra guidance, such as a school orientation or English language testing, is offered during the enrollment process 

IRC staff and clients have found enrollment to be quite different in New York City versus the suburbs. In New York City, families have more choices for schools, especially at the high school level where there are schools specifically designed to meet the needs of immigrant and refugee students. In surrounding areas, however, students are enrolled in their local school district and have a school assigned to them. While this is a more streamlined process, there may not be as many tailored services available to students outside the five boroughs. 

A Successful School Enrollment

To illustrate what goes into an enrollment, take the example of Muhammad*, a 1st grader who recently resettled in Staten Island with his parents and younger sister. Anna spoke with the family via phone and video chat on several occasions to go over the enrollment process, including their choices, what documents are required and to schedule an appointment. Senior Manager Pat Curran met up with Anna around 7am to drive out and meet the family. Upon arriving, the family was excited and trepidatious about the enrollment process. The group walked to the school together where they were welcomed by the enrollment staff. With the help of IRC’s phone interpretation service, Anna and Pat helped the family fill out all required forms and answered their many questions.

After a full morning of paperwork and questions, Muhammad was officially enrolled and began school the following week, just in time for the first day of the new school year. Anna will now be following up with the family regularly throughout the school year to check on his progress and support in navigating any challenges.  

Staff Reflections

The school enrollment process is a learning process, due to new staff members on the team and refugees resettling more and more outside of New York City due to the high cost of living. Anna has observed that the most helpful thing in completing so many school enrollments this year has been building a good relationship with the schools and school districts. 

Billy LaPietra, the IRC in NY School Success Coordinator, echoes this sentiment explaining how community outreach and community education are invaluable to facilitating efficient school enrollments. He states “Not everyone understands what these students’ situations are and how this affects them. Getting people on the same page can be challenging but worth it once you get there.” 

There is an abundance of IRC in NY youth programs to support students throughout the school year! 

To learn more or to refer youth, please contact Senior Manager for Youth Programs, Pat Curran: [email protected] 

See below for the programs offered:

The IRC in NY Youth Program Team are grateful to partners, volunteers, and providers who have made referrals and enrollments a possibility!    

* Name changed to protect privacy.