Nine-year-old Juanito can identify most of the world flags hanging in the lobby at his North Side school. He’s seen at least nine of them firsthand after trekking thousands of miles on foot from his native Ecuador to a new home in Chicago.
Juanito and his mother, Ana, are part of a recent wave of migrants from Central and South America seeking asylum in the U.S. (WBEZ is withholding their real names and school name due to safety concerns). The crisis made headlines last summer after Republican-led states started busing people to major cities including New York and Chicago.
The city has welcomed more than 5,000 new arrivals since August, many with kids in Chicago Public Schools. CPS won’t say how many students have enrolled, though the Chicago Teachers Union estimates it’s 1,200 students since the fall. The school district declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a statement said it’s providing resources to schools serving migrant students and is working with city and state officials to enroll kids in schools located near city shelters.
But sources tell WBEZ that families are being directed to neighborhood schools that often lack the staff and curriculum resources to work with non-English speaking students — and that requests for bilingual staff are being delayed. At one West Side school, some teachers lean on custodians to help translate. Students have been asked to pitch in as well. Others are having attendance issues because kids are skipping class to work or help care for family members.
On Wednesday, the teachers union spoke out at a news conference outside CPS headquarters downtown. Members called on the school district to allocate more resources to schools accepting large numbers of migrant students.
“There just isn’t any planning to make sure students get what they need here,” said CTU organizing director Rebecca Martinez. “Essentially [CPS] is asking teachers, principals and support staff at schools to bend over backward and do multiple jobs to provide these newcomers with the things they need.”
With a few strokes of luck, Juanito landed in a dual language school where students learn to speak, write and read fluently in English and Spanish. He’s in a better spot than many kids just arriving in Chicago.
First buses arrive in Chicago
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott started busing asylum seekers to Chicago in late August. He said the policy was meant to highlight “federal inaction” at the southern border. Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis also bused newcomers to New York City and Chicago but stopped in January after the mayors of both cities demanded it. In a statement, Polis said they bused migrants to help get them to their preferred destinations.
In response, Chicago set up temporary housing in hotels and about a dozen shelters that provide free meals, clothing and showers. The city also connects asylum seekers to legal aid and medical services. Nearly 4,000 migrants have accepted shelter and other services since August, according to the Department of Family and Support Services. Chicago continues to see an average of 10 new arrivals per day, a city official told WBEZ.
Community groups have also stepped in to help families get settled in the area.
In Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side, the nonprofit Onward Neighborhood House set up a welcoming center that provides food, counseling and information on education, employment and housing resources. Executive director Mario García said the organization deployed social workers and daycare teachers to hotels as soon as buses started arriving at Union Station last summer.
“The whole system was kind of overwhelmed because I don’t think any social service sector is ready for an emergency like that,” García said.
With additional funding from the state, García hired three extra social workers to help manage the caseloads.
“I think the system is trying to be responsive. But long term, the resources and the funding to support [families] is going to be a challenge,” he said.
Pastor Walter Ramirez said he’s planning to convert the basement at Tabor Lutheran Church in Albany Park on the North Side into a temporary shelter. Volunteers provide free English classes for children and adults. They’ve also organized food and clothing donations and offered free meals.
Tabor has also helped families enroll at nearby schools, including Haugan Elementary and Roosevelt High School. At least 60 new arrivals have enrolled at Haugan this school year, mostly from Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.
A dangerous road
Ana and Juanito arrived in December after a dangerous, six-week journey that began in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest and continued north through seven countries.
Originally from Guayaquil, Ecuador, Ana said they hadn’t originally planned to leave. She ran her own food stand back home, but was forced to flee the country in October after facing violent threats from a local drug cartel.
Once they made it to the Texas border, Ana and her son applied for asylum. While in Texas, they stopped at a Walmart when a stranger approached them. The man noticed Ana was in distress and, out of nowhere, offered to buy them plane tickets.
Ana was reluctant at first but accepted his kind offer. She chose Chicago after meeting other migrants headed to the area. They landed at O’Hare around 9 p.m. on a snowy Saturday night.
The family is temporarily staying in the Rogers Park neighborhood. Ana says her son is thriving at his new school but she struggles to navigate public transportation to get him to and from class. The trip takes about 45 minutes on the CTA, and he’s not eligible for bus service.
Teachers step in to help
Teachers say migrant students are coming into schools with major gaps in their formal education and need extra support to catch up. Some teens need help identifying letters and numbers, and others are behind on reading skills.
CPS says “newcomer specialists” evaluate every student. In a statement, the school district said it’s “well-equipped and committed to serving every new student.” It also says it has resources in Spanish in its Skyline universal curriculum that are available to all schools, and is adding more, but Spanish versions are not currently available for all courses and grades.
But some employees say the district is struggling to reach the most vulnerable children. One employee who spoke to WBEZ on condition of anonymity said there aren’t enough bilingual coordinators to serve the influx of migrants and that many kids are left to fend for themselves in the classroom.
“Oftentimes, we might be the only person who can speak their language,” the CPS employee said. “But we don’t have the resources at hand, or the training, on how to meet the needs of newcomers.”
CTU organizer Linda Perales said the union’s bilingual committee created a welcome packet to help newcomers navigate the city. It includes information on medical and housing resources, legal assistance, how to get a driver’s license and other resources.
Perales, a former bilingual teacher in Little Village, said schools desperately need Spanish-speaking clinicians, nurses and social workers.
“A lot of students are arriving with severe medical needs and with no one to help service them in the school, or provide any type of medical support or guidance on where they can go,” she said.
Many teachers are going the extra mile to connect with students and make them feel welcome — whether it’s learning a couple of phrases in an indigenous language or offering snacks to students the teachers pay for themselves.
“I give them materials that go through Google translate [into Spanish], and that has gone a long way,” said Ryan Williams, a history teacher at Multicultural Arts High School in Little Village. “But it’s really not the same as materials that are originally in Spanish, and those can be really hard to come by.”
Williams said he’s had at least 20 new students this year. But the school is struggling to keep them. Some show up for a day or for a week — and then they’re gone.
He and other teachers at MAS are working on getting a bilingual endorsement to better communicate with his students.
Choosing the right school
Chicago Public Schools says newly arrived students, including those in shelters, hotels or any temporary housing, can enroll in their neighborhood school or schools near their housing. Students in temporary housing aren’t required to show proof of residency or any other documentation.
But some advocates want the district to direct students to dual language schools, where students learn in both Spanish and English, and help families identify schools with the proper bilingual resources and staff. CPS has 33 dual language elementary schools listed on its website.
Gwen Kasper-Couty, principal at Sabin Dual Language Magnet School in Wicker Park, said the elementary school has enrolled four new arrivals in the last month. She said the school would love to have more.
“Our English-dominant kids are so excited to have native speakers with them,” she said. “It’s just really beautiful to have these kids coming in.”
Kasper-Couty said she could accommodate at least 10 new students in every grade level from kindergarten to 8th grade.
“I have the books. I have the materials. We have a whole curriculum in Spanish,” she said. This isn’t gonna be a stretch for us, it’s what we do.”
Instead, many students are enrolling in neighborhood schools like Ogden International High School, which the CTU says has taken in more than 100 migrant students this year. But the school doesn’t have enough bilingual resources or staff to serve the influx of Spanish speakers, CTU said.
It takes a village
Ana and Juanito plan to stay in Chicago for good. They were recently reunited with two family members from Ecuador staying at a North Side shelter.
Since arriving in December, the family has been overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers — first by a pastor’s wife who gave them shelter when they first arrived. And then by Jenn Torres, a West Ridge mom whose kids attend Juanito’s school.
Torres met Ana and Juanito through a neighborhood welcome group, Nuevos Vecinos or “New Neighbors.” She brought them clothing and toy donations one day and resolved to take them under her wing.
“He just lights up every room with his smile. Of course he caught me and I could never look away,” Torres said.
It’s been no small feat. Torres helped arrange free temporary housing for them in Rogers Park. She’s taken Ana to immigration court appointments and often brings Juanito along for karate lessons with her kids. She even reached out to her child’s school to help get him enrolled there.
“I really believe in creating community,” she said. “It makes a difference for all of us — our kids, our families and our neighborhoods.”
As time goes on, Torres says she’s trying to help Ana become more independent and make friends here. She’s not eligible for a work permit yet but is eager to start rebuilding her life.
“It’s important for all of us to support them and help them navigate systems that are difficult for even those of us who have lived here for decades,” she said. “These are life and death situations.”
The school district says it has partnered with several organizations to work with new students, including Heartland Alliance and Catholic Charities. And, before the new migrants arrived, it enhanced support for bilingual students. The budget for this school year includes $3 million in new funding for more dual-language program coordinators and more bilingual teachers, as well as the formation of bilingual advisory councils.
CPS also said it reviews individual school requests, noting, for example, that Haugan, which added 60 migrant students, recently got two new teachers.
But Sylvelia Pittman, a teacher at Nash Elementary in the city’s Austin neighborhood, said her school has not received any additional funds to serve newcomers, and that staff is “making do with what we have.” The school has welcomed about two dozen migrant students this year, with the majority enrolling after Christmas break.
The school is 82% Black and 12% Latino. While there are no dedicated bilingual teachers on staff, at least two employees speak Spanish and can help translate. One science teacher offers English lessons four days a week to kids. Another teacher works with the parents twice a week.
“Everybody is stepping in because it’s not right and not fair,” Pittman said.
She said the school is getting a bilingual teacher next fall. But in the meantime, teachers and staff are struggling to connect with newcomers, many of whom likely endured stressful or traumatic experiences en route to the U.S.
None of the clinicians on staff are bilingual. Pittman said it took months for one child to warm up to her and crack a smile at school. “We are so focused on trying to get them to speak English and we’re not even thinking about the trauma,” she said.
Pittman wants the district to provide resources to help non-Spanish-speaking students communicate with their new peers.
“Building that relationship between Black and brown (students) would really help our community,” she said. “That’s unity.”
She said the kids appreciate that she’s trying to learn Spanish to better communicate with them and that it makes them feel more connected to the school community.
“That’s how we win them over,” Pittman said.
This story is updated to correct a reference to a teacher’s name. She is Sylvelia Pittman.