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Aug 31, 2023 | Dashiell Allen

NYC Schools and Head Start: What Immigrant and Undocumented Parents Need to Know

Members from our WhatsApp community who are immigrants have asked Documented to explain how to enroll their children in schools or childcare programs if they were born abroad.  

Also Read: How to Apply for Child Care Subsidies If You Are A Low-Income Undocumented Family

NYC has a variety of programs for children of all ages, and in many cases enrollment takes place all year. Here is what you need to know. 

Lee este articulo en Español: Cómo inscribir a tu hijo en una guardería o escuela pública en NYC

In short: 

  • All the programs listed are open to all New York City children, regardless of their immigration status.
  • Families with children up to four years old can apply for free Head Start or Early Head Start programs through a Department of Education (DOE) website. The same website is used to apply for pre-k and 3-k. 
  • There is a limited number of child care vouchers available for children under 13 that meet an income threshold. 
  • Parents or guardians need to visit a Family Welcome Center to enroll their children in public school, but are recommended to reach out to schools they are interested in beforehand.

Applying to daycare

The NYC Child Care Resource & Referral Consortium can help you identify and apply for child care programs. To contact them, fill out the form on this website, or call 1-888-469-5999 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The form will ask for your name, email address, phone number, which borough you live in, and whether you are looking for child care or a voucher. 

Parents who work can leave their children in daycare programs. Gregory Brender, the Chief Policy and Innovation Officer at the Day Care Council of New York, explained that families can apply to Head Start or other programs.

Head Start day care programs run throughout the year for a minimum of eight hours per day. They are open to families with children ages 3 and 4 regardless of their immigration status. Families with children aged 0 to 2 can apply for Early Head Start programs. Families must meet one or more of the following requirements to qualify: 

  • Have a family income that falls within the federal poverty level
  • Live in temporary housing
  • Receive HRA Cash Assistance
  • Receive SNAP benefits 
  • Receive SSI (Supplemental Security Insurance)

“Families can probably find a spot if they qualify,” Brender said. “There are vacancies in most of these programs.” 

Parents or guardians can look for schools and day care programs for their children to attend through the MySchools website. Families must apply through the MySchools portal, where they can find a database of available programs. 

How to create an account in MySchool: myschools.nyc/en

How to view a database of programs: myschools.nyc/en/schools

You can search using your child’s address. To find Head Start programs, click on “3-K,” then  “more options,” then scroll down to YEAR-ROUND 3-K PROGRAMS and select “Head Start.”

The MySchools website allows parents or guardians to search for programs close to where they live or work.

Brender emphasized that people will need to list several choices as they might not get the first choice. “It will go through DOE centralized enrollment, so they may get an offer for their second or third choice or even one that they hadn’t applied to.”

Undocumented immigrants can also apply for Promise NYC child care subsidies, although these benefits are limited to 600 families. Read more about Promise NYC in Documented’s guide. The program is available for children aged 0 to 13. 

Applying to pre-k and 3-k 

Pre-k for 4-year-olds and 3-k for 3-year-olds runs from September through June. Check the public school calendar for specific dates. 

The deadline to apply is in March of each year. Families that missed the deadline can add themselves to the waiting list of specific programs using the MySchools website and can also reach out to the programs directly. Watch this video from the Department of Education for more information.

Applying to public schools 

School enrollment takes place year-round and is mandatory for students ages 6 to 17. 

Natasha Quiroga, Director of Education Policy and InsideSchools at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, told Documented that families should visit the Department of Education Family Welcome Center nearest to them to enroll their child. The centers are open Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Friday from 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Families can also call the DOE at 718-935-2009 for assistance enrolling in schools from Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Press 6 for Spanish. 

Visit this page to see the current Welcome Center locations

To find the schools close to where you live, type your child’s address into this website. You can then filter the results based on grade level. You can also search using the MySchools website

“Wherever you live there is a zoned elementary school,” said Quiroga, meaning families living within a specific geographic area are assigned to specific schools. 

“But families don’t have to go to that zoned elementary school. They can go to an un-zoned school” in a different part of the city, she said. That option could be more convenient for parents or guardians with a job in a different part of the city from where they live. 

Families can also search for schools through InsideSchools, a nonprofit organization that maintains a database with information about each school’s demographics, academic performance and more. 

Parents or guardians need to provide documents verifying their child’s age and their residency in New York City. Quiroga said that requirement is dropped for families living in temporary housing. 

Quiroga recommended the following tips for visiting Welcome Centers:  

  • Prepare a list with several potential schools your child could attend because your first choice might not be available
  • Contact the schools you would like your child to attend, to ask if there is space available. In some cases the school can provide a referral that parents can bring to their Welcome Center.  
  • Ask for an interpreter if you speak a first language other than English
  • Ask “What services or programs does this school provide for children who are learning English? Is this a dual language program?” 
  • Let the staff know if your child missed any school years while traveling to the United States
  • Ask what transportation options are available for the student to travel to school 
  • Ask what vaccines and immunizations are required

What programs are there for students not fluent in English? 

Children who are not fluent in English have the option to be placed into a variety of English Language Learner programs.

They will either be placed in a dual language or transitional bilingual program, where they will be taught in their first language, or in an English as a New Language (ENL) program, where they will be taught in English by a teacher that speaks their language. 

Quiroga recommends the parents or guardians of high school students consider applying to public international high schools which serve recently-arrived migrants.

Also Read: Mentorship Opportunities for Immigrant Youth in New York

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