INCLUDEnyc Voices

School in NYC for Newly Arrived Students

It’s an understatement to say that we live in fraught times with regards to immigration. New York’s public schools stand out as a safe haven from the tumult of the immigration policies. Regulations state that any student, regardless of where in the country or world they arrive from, can enroll and remain in school up until age 21. It was therefore very surprising that the older sister (J.) of a recently-arrived 19 year-old young man with an intellectual disability encountered unexpected obstacles when she referred her brother for special education services and school enrollment.

Students in class

J started by visiting the Committee on Special Education (CSE) office in person, planning to submit a recently completed independent evaluation that diagnosed her brother, C., with an intellectual disability. CSE staff declined her request for referral, however, sending her to the Family Welcome Center instead. She followed that advice and tried to enroll C, following the same process any new New York City resident would follow. But she met a dead end here, too. It appears that because her brother was 19 and had no high school credits from his home country, the Welcome Center judged he wouldn’t be on track to earn a diploma. They suggested C apply for ACCES-VR services, which offer job-skills training for people with disabilities instead of attending school.

These outcomes were frustrating for the siblings, whose goal was school placement. J contacted us for advice. We learned that the CSE office declined to accept the referral because they assumed J did not have have the standing of a parent or guardian, even though they had not asked. But she did meet the definition of a parent under the IDEA, which states that a parent could be someone “acting in the place of a birth or adoptive parent, including a grandparent, step-parent, or other relative, with whom the child resides or a person who is legally responsible for the child’s welfare.” J also had a notarized letter from their father before he left the U.S. that confirmed her parental role.

We advised her to develop a document folder, which included her proof of address, the notarized letter from her father, her letter of referral to the CSE and C’s independent evaluation. She returned to the CSE with the folder only to face another surprise: without asking questions or requesting records,the CSE again declined to accept the referral. J called us on the spot, and our prompting led to the documents’ review and the referral being accepted. Ultimately J was found eligible for special education services and programs and it is likely he will remain in school through age 21, as the law promises.

But why was it so difficult?

  • There is a crack in the architecture for students with disabilities who arrive in the US over-age (say, between 17-21) and under-credited. You can expect that if you’re an older student who is not on a diploma bound track, the Department of Education might steer you to high school equivalency prep (TASC) or job-skills training (ACCES-VR) instead of school. It’s important to understand the perspective of people who work in these offices—they see a young person who lacks a viable path to obtain the credits and regents scores needed to earn a diploma, and no one path is right for all students.
  • If the student has a disability and you believe enrolling in school and obtaining special education services is the right path, be persistent. Earning a high school diploma is not the only reason to attend school. For example, C has an intellectual disability and would benefit from a school program that builds his adaptive and independent living skills in preparation for adult life, and which provides support for an English Language Learner (ELL). Every case is different. Parent Centers like INCLUDEnyc can help families understand and compare options.
  • If you are not the parent, anticipate the need to establish a parental role. Legal documents that establish your role like those noted above are helpful. In cases where documentation doesn’t exist, you can submit documents that show you’re providing for the ‘welfare’ of the young person, such as a lease or other proof of payment for food, clothing, and shelter. Assembling an organized document folder like J did and presenting this folder to the DOE/CSE can make all the difference. As in this case, staff may not prompt you to share this information, so be prepared to present it yourself.

What if you are a youth living in uncertain housing, without a parent or legal guardian?

  • A recently arrived minor without a parent or guardian, known as an unaccompanied youth, has no one with legal standing to act on his or her behalf. Uncertain housing means you are living with friends, relatives, others, or at a shelter or hotel because you have nowhere else to go. Unaccompanied youth in uncertain housing have the right to enroll themselves in school, and help is available if a school does not believe your status. The McKinney-Vento Act provides a liaison at each school district, and you can attend school until the appeal is decided. Call NYS-TEACHS at 800-388-2014 for more information.

- Colin Montgomery