DC Public Schools faces seat shortage, funding issues due to immigration crisis


Parents Defending Education filed a Freedom of Information Act from District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) requesting emails discussing the district’s handling of newly-arrived migrant students. Emails received in response to the request demonstrate a strain on DCPS due to increased arrivals of immigrant students in 2022 and 2023.

The earliest indications of stress on the DCPS school system appear in an email dated 9/12/22, in which an employee from the Office of Elementary Schools requests staff support for “English Language Learner programs” due to “an influx of ELL students who do not speak English.” A response to the email notes that the English as a Second Language (ESL) team “is currently short-staffed” but “the need is great.”

An email dated 11/23/22 with the subject “Increased challenges with school placement for Migrant Students” notes that after more arrivals, district employees are “finding that seat availability in all of the grades needed is very challenging.” The email goes on to say that one principal “help[ed] us place three siblings at Browne even though there was no seat availability for one of the grades.” The employee also mentions “I reached out to several principals yesterday about placement of students in grades that are at or beyond capacity” as “we will be back [at the hotel housing immigrants] next week and expect a similar number of new students.”

A chart dated 12/14/22 details the enrollment and projected additional enrollment of migrant students thus far that school year; the “most up-to-date” enrollment numbers include 155 migrant students across four schools, with 120 more projected.

On January 13, 2023, a resource strategy officer sent the Interim Associate Chief Financial Officer a request for the approval of funds to hire ten new employees to support the influx of immigrant students. The request totaled $940,198, and the employee notes that “the specific enrollment reserve set aside for FY23 has been depleted at this time, but ORS requests approval for these PS resources to be quickly accessed.” The request cites the numbers from the migrant student enrollment chart to demonstrate the necessity of additional staff. On 2/7/23, an internal email notes that the request had not yet been formally approved, in part because “we are far over our budgeted enrollment reserve amount for the year, and require OCFO to approve an alternative fund source to get these resources quickly to the schools.” The request was approved by the Associate Chief Financial Officer on 2/8/23.

As the district struggled to secure funding to support the influx of students, capacity limits still presented a challenge. A chart called “Notes on calls to schools: 2/21/23” shows that four schools have “surpass[ed] their enrollment goal” with 70, 50, 80, and 25 migrant students already enrolled at each school, respectively; most of the four schools schools did not “have additional capacity at this time.”

An email from the Deputy Chief of the Language Acquisition Division on March 10, 2023 claims that the district is “expecting an additional 100 students between now and the end of the year.” The email requests “any help that could be provided to facilitate transport for this District Emergency” and notes that the employee will be reaching out to a principal to “assess the current grade level seat availability and to engage with her about how we want to proceed when we exceed class capacity.”

A report titled “Urgent Update on Migrant Students, Enrollment Challenges, and Requests” on April 26, 2023 shows that the district “is struggling to find available seats/school placements within 45 minutes of the temporary hotel sites” as “the number of families arriving in DC with children in need of immediate supports has increased more rapidly than anticipated by DHS or the Office of Migrant Services, making the need for the additional enrollment reserve more urgent.” The report notes that in April 2023, “DCPS has supported 65 students with intake and screening” and “some students are waiting for confirmation of seat availability. The report also includes a chart showing the grades at  schools that no longer have seats available, with the majority of grades at the district’s schools beyond capacity. In addition, the report notes that only one additional staff member had been hired despite the request for funds to hiring funds being approved.

Most recently, in response to an inquiry from the mayor’s office about the number of migrant students in DCPS, the Director of Communications and Outreach of the DC Department of Human Services estimated that approximately 386 migrant students enrolled between October 2022 and October 11, 2023, when the email was sent.