Morad Majjad greets every single student he works with in West Springfield Public Schools by name. He knows how many siblings they have, and what grades they’re in. He knows their parents, their countries of origin, and their stories.
For just under a year, Majjad, who speaks five languages, has worked as the school district’s family liaison, rushing from school to school to translate for teachers and families, help migrant students with their studies, or coordinate access to social services.
“I see them as my kids, I want them to succeed,” Majjad, 24, and a native of Morocco, said. “I feel it’s a good job, a noble job, helping these families.”
The problem is, there’s only one of him.
As Massachusetts experiences an influx of migrant families that has pushed its emergency shelter system to a breaking point, the wave of new arrivals has also placed a strain on the resources, staff, and infrastructure in school districts across the state. Some districts are struggling, such as West Springfield, which now has more than 270 migrant or refugee students, many of whom need extensive academic and social emotional support. In the past three months alone, nearly 60 migrant students enrolled.
To accommodate the students, schools are fronting significant costs for transportation and hiring more staff. While the state provides some reimbursements and offers a number of grants through the Office of Refugees and Immigrants, some school officials say it’s not enough to provide all the services and support the students require.
In West Springfield, district leaders say they need more coordination of wraparound services for families, increased funding for training and transportation, and most importantly, more personnel — translators, counselors, and paraprofessionals. District staff say their departments are spread so thin that the situation is unsustainable.
“Even though we’re showing up and we’re doing the best we can to have a smile and support the kiddos, we’re actually not doing what we need to be doing for the kids, because we can’t,” said Jen Brennan, the director of social emotional learning in West Springfield Public Schools.
Migrant students living in shelters or hotels have the right to immediate enrollment in school even if they don’t have the documentation, including immunization and school records, that is normally required. Still, the district is responsible for collecting those records, or trying to, as soon as possible, a job that has fallen to West Springfield’s homeless liaison, Jackie Bedinelli.
Bedinelli contacts state agencies to try to get documentation for those students, and to connect them with MassHealth or local primary care providers for immunizations.
Each student also needs a comprehensive assessment, ideally in their native language, to decide which classes and support services are most appropriate for them.
“The challenge and yet the responsibility of the school is to provide education that meets a student where they’re at . . . but keeping with their age, so we’re not going to have a student who is 18 with 11-year-olds, even if that’s where they’re at educationally,” said Sharlene DeSteph, the district’s English language learners director, who enlisted a team of English as a second language teachers to conduct the assessments outside of school hours.
While some children can be placed in general education classrooms and receive varying levels of ESL instruction, many students need far more intensive support.
In one classroom at West Springfield Middle School, flags from countries around the world line the walls. Four of the students are from Afghanistan, two come from Haiti, and others are from Venezuela, Iraq, and Syria.
They attentively listened to a lesson on adjectives on a sunny September afternoon when Majjad dropped in to check on them. Their faces lit up as he quietly stopped by each desk.
Speaking in Arabic to 12-year-old Remeya, he asked how she’s doing and how the lesson was going. She eagerly showed him her work. He nodded encouragingly, and seamlessly switched to a mix of French and Spanish to check on 12-year-old Abigaille. Abigaille’s family speaks Haitian Creole, but now also speaks Spanish after spending significant time in Mexico on their journey to the United States, according to Majjad.
Remeya, Abigaille, and their classmates are part of SLIFE — students with limited or interrupted formal education — at West Springfield Middle School, a program for students who need concentrated academic instruction to catch up.
Last year, the district designated classrooms at the middle school and high school for the program. This year, the district added an elementary classroom. Although the district hired four more ESL teachers, staff say they are overwhelmed.
“We are all here because our hearts are bigger than ourselves and because we want to do and provide more for families,” said DeSteph. “So it’s really a struggle for us . . . to have limitations of any sort.”
Many of the migrant students have experienced significant trauma, and the district says they need more therapists to provide emotional support.
“Before you can even get to the part of the brain where learning is, we have to get them back to where they feel safe,” said Michelle Longey, who works as an ESL instructional support specialist in the district. For younger students, sometimes that means focusing on expectations and appropriate behaviors at school, and how to share and play safely. Sometimes it means helping them process trauma.
As a classroom exercise, a teacher asked students whether they would choose to go forward or backward in time.
“A lot of them wanted to go back in time,” Longey said as tears welled in her eyes. “ ‘I want to be in my country with my people,’ one of the girls said and then another one said, ‘I want to see my grandmother.’ ”
Staff in the district said seeing the children eventually thrive keeps them going.
Longey recalled a 10-year-old boy from Iraq who progressed from kindergarten level to third grade in just 11 months.
“It’s extremely rewarding to see the growth in these kids,” said Longey.
The state is reimbursing districts at a rate of $104 per migrant student per day. For students living in specific hotels or shelters, the state also offers districts a one-time payment of $1,000 per student.
The state also provides a reimbursement rate specifically for the cost of transporting students experiencing homelessness, including migrant students who are living in hotels or shelters, to school.
Under federal law, those students have the right to remain enrolled in their “school of origin” even if they move during the school year; the student’s original district and their new district are responsible for sharing the cost of the student’s transportation.
In 2023, West Springfield has spent about $550,000 just on transportation for homeless students, according to district staff. So far, the district says, it’s received about $367,000 in state reimbursements specifically for migrant students, but it’s not enough to cover the additional training and staff the district needs. Even if the state were to provide more funds, the statewide teacher shortage would likely make it challenging to hire qualified teachers, let alone more translators like Majjad.
Grants from the Office of Refugees and Immigrants are helping to bridge some of the gaps, including paying for Majjad’s position and a new full day pre-k program with priority for some spots given to migrant families.
To help with communication, the district uses a platform called TalkingPoints, which allows teachers to send photos and automatically translated messages directly to parents.
“We are doing the best we can,” said West Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Stefania Raschilla. “We want to be welcoming, but we also need help.”