Asylum-seeking children play "the taxi game" outside the 15th Chicago Police District station after a school day | Francia Garcia Hernandez

The start of the new school year has opened up a new opportunity for dozens of kids who arrived to Chicago in search of a better life. Asylum-seeking children, mostly from Venezuela, who sheltered or currently shelter at Chicago Police Department police stations, have enrolled into nearby public schools.  

Vanessa is a 5-year-old asylum-seeker attends Oscar DePriest elementary school in Austin. The school is not far from the 15th Chicago Police District station where she shelters with her family. Growing Community Media, owners of this publication, is withholding the real names of asylum-seekers interviewed to protect their identities. 

“I study, I draw and I play,” Vanessa said in Spanish. She likes her teacher, but she doesn’t know her name, she said. When asked if her teacher speaks English or Spanish, she said she did not know, but she enjoys going to school and hanging out with her friends. She also enjoys eating lunch at school – panquecitos (Spanish for little muffin), arepas and apples are some of the foods she has, she said.  

Taking her kids to school every morning is a relief for her mother, Marlene.  

She traveled thousands of miles from her native Venezuela just so her two daughters could have access to education, she said in Spanish. 

“I want them to study, there [in Venezuela] they couldn’t,” she said, explaining the country’s dire political and economic situation has left schools severely underfunded and understaffed.  

Marlene and her husband completed the month-long from the South American country to reach the United States. In itself, it is a challenging and expensive journey — even more complicated when traveling with children, she said. They did not plan to come to Chicago, but were bussed after being admitted into the country at the Texas border. For nearly a month, they have sheltered at the 15th District police station on Madison. As the family awaits to complete their immigration process, the parents said they desperately want to receive their work permit so they can afford a home of their own.  

In the meantime, volunteers from the Police Station Response Team helped Marlene and other asylum-seekers enroll their children into nearby Chicago Public Schools. As more families arrive, they will continue to enroll children into local schools. Other asylum-seekers who have settled in the nearby communities of Forest Park and Oak Park have also enrolled their children in local schools. 

Federal and state laws guarantee access to all children in the United States to public elementary and secondary schools, regardless of their immigration or citizenship status. The Illinois State Board of Education’s enrollment guidance also states that school districts must refrain from collecting information about a child or parent immigration status during the enrollment process. This means children can attend public schools while their immigration cases are resolved.  

Local schools follow these laws and recommendations when enrolling newly arrived students who live in their school coverage area. As many of them live in shelters, they may also qualify to be enrolled following each school district’s process for children and youth experiencing homelessness. 

Chicago Public Schools “is continuing to enroll students at or near schools, parks, hotels, police stations, and the district’s pilot Welcome Center located at Roberto Clemente High School,” said a CPS spokesperson in a statement. CPS will continue to work with school leaders and staff “to ensure students in temporary living situations (STLS), including many new arrival students, are able to immediately enroll in school and begin accessing resources.” In the last school year, CPS enrolled about 5,300 English learner students, officials said. Because the district does not track students’ country of origin, it is not possible to know how many students are asylum-seekers from Venezuela or other Latin American countries.  

Veronica Acuna, a volunteer for the Police Station Response Team, said she helped near 15 children sheltered at the 15th District police station enroll into Chicago Public Schools. Acuna, who works as an educator, walked to the nearby elementary school Oscar DePriest with parents and children to help them enroll. The school’s staff and leadership have been welcoming and provided some resources like backpacks, she said. Though the school does not have a dual language education program, some staff speak Spanish, she said. CPS officials said all Austin schools provide a Transitional Program of Instruction and eight schools provide Transitional Bilingual Education.   

Children and youth can immediately enroll into school even if they lack “health, immunization, or school records, proof of guardianship, proof of residency, or any other documentation normally required for school enrollment,” CPS officials said. The city’s school system works with the Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois Department of Human Services, and the Department of Family Support Services at Shelters to support student enrollment in schools near hotels or shelters.  

To complete required immunizations and physical examinations for asylum-seekers, Loyola University volunteers visited the 15th District police station. The younger children have more easily integrated into local schools, though it is a “little harder” for some older children, Acuna said. 

This school year, Oak Park Elementary School District 97 registered 21 new immigrant students who come from countries like Colombia, Venezuela, Russia and Ukraine, district officials said. Last year, the district had 79 immigrant students. Immigrant students are students ages 3 to 21, who were not born in the United States, D.C. or Puerto Rico and have attended U.S. schools for less than three full academic years. When registering in person, the district offers translation and interpretation services if needed.  

Forest Park School District 91 schools have also welcomed a small number of immigrant students this school year, though the district does not have records of how many, said Director of Engagement Nurys Uceta-Ramos.