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Silence, empty seats and solidarity in Colorado schools for a “Day Without Immigrants”

PHOTO: Roy Barnett
Some McGlone Elementary School students wore stickers at school Thursday to show their solidarity with the national "Day Without Immigrants" protest.

At McGlone Academy in northeast Denver, Thursday began with one minute of silence during morning announcements. Some classrooms in the heavily Latino school had just six or eight students. Staff members wore stickers that read, “I stand with Immigrants #togetherwearestronger.”

The strong sentiments — and empty seats — were evident at schools across Colorado as communities took part in a nationwide protest called a “Day Without Immigrants.”

Several districts reported a spike in absences as students joined with others across the country in sending a message about immigrants’ contributions to society. Staff absences were higher at some schools as well. One school district sought to dispel rumors that district staff were urging students to stay home because of anticipated federal immigration enforcement actions.

Denver Public Schools deputy superintendent Susana Cordova alerted staff on Wednesday to the potential for widespread absences, noting that word of the protest has “has been all over Spanish-language media and social media.”

“In DPS, we want all of our students and staff to feel welcome every single day and we believe that the best place for students is in school,” Cordova wrote. “We know that, in many of our schools, a large majority of our students and some staff members come from different parts of the world. Please continue to show support to all of our students and their families.”

Attendance in DPS schools was down about five percent districtwide, although district officials cautioned that those numbers were preliminary and some schools saw many absences.

Jeffco Public Schools officials said districtwide numbers wouldn’t be available until Friday, but confirmed that handful of schools experienced large-scale absences.

More than 40 percent of students at both Jefferson and Alameda Jr./Sr. high schools were absent, and about 30 percent of students at Emory Elementary were absent. The schools have significant Latino student populations.

Absences were up districtwide in Boulder Valley schools, with about 91 percent of students attending compared to the usual 95 percent. The same was true in Greeley District 6, where attendance was at 86 percent Thursday, compared to 95 percent the day before.

Westminster Public Schools — a district where about 85 percent of the 9,600 students are minorities and almost 40 percent are English learners — reported student absence rates were at about 35 percent compared to 10 percent Wednesday.

Westminster High School and two middle schools had the highest percent of students missing. One elementary school, Fairview Elementary, reported attendance rates of 67 percent, down from 96 percent the day before.

Steve Saunders, a spokesman for the Westminster district, said district officials sent a notice to the district’s leadership team Wednesday about a possible spike in absences.

“As a matter of policy, we encourage students to be in class every day possible, but we will not be proactively telling families how to respond to this form of peaceful protest,” said the letter signed by superintendent Pam Swanson.

Nancy Hernandez of the Westminster Public Schools Foundation, who works with undocumented students in the district, said it’s important for all districts, especially those with many students of color, to take the extra step of sending messages to their families.

“Silence just makes people anxious,” Hernandez said. “It makes families wonder.”

At Kenton Elementary School in Aurora, emotions were running high Thursday because of the school’s personal connection to the story of Jeanette Vizguerra, a Denver mother who has received national media attention for her decision to take sanctuary in a Denver church to avoid deportation. Last year, her children attended Kenton.

About 185 students of the school’s 580 students missed class Thursday, up from a normal of about 30 absences per day, principal Heather Woodward said. Woodward said she believes families wouldn’t pull their kids out of school if they didn’t feel it was important.

“The value of education in our community is extremely huge,” Woodward said. “They totally understand learning is important.”

Aurora Public School officials said district-wide attendance rates would not be available until Friday.

A note sent from Boulder Valley School district officials to families ahead of the protest provides a window into how quickly fear and misinformation are spreading. The email, with the subject line “Important news – false rumor,” read:

“Please be aware that there was a rumor today that has been communicated to local media that some BVSD school administrators were advising immigrant students to stay home tomorrow, February 16, out of concern for a possible immigration enforcement action on Thursday. This rumor is false. No BVSD administrator has advised any student not to attend school tomorrow.”

Other school district officials were less enthusiastic about the protest. Greeley spokeswoman Theresa Myers said the district supports its immigrant and migrant families but was unhappy students were included.

“We understand organizers are trying to show the impact of immigrants on our society, but really, only our students suffer when they are kept out of schools,” he wrote via email. “That is unfortunate,”

Myers said it was left up to principals whether student absences resulting from the protest would be counted as excused or unexcused. She said that she expected most to be counted as unexcused.

At one charter school in northwest Denver, STRIVE Prep at Lake, teachers incorporated the protest into lessons the class was already working on.

Burgess LePage, an English teacher at the school, was teaching students about historical documents and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotts. Students compared and annotated a copy of a leaflet that was used at the time to flyers passed out for Thursday’s protest.

“You could hear a moment of when there were these nods of understanding,” Le Page said.

Students who showed up to school, about 10 of her 29 students, in general said they supported the protest but didn’t want to put their education on hold for it.

The lesson will continue Friday as the students who skipped class return.

Although McGlone Academyin Denver’s Montbello neighborhood was half empty Thursday, some of the students who did attend — mostly fifth- and sixth-graders — chose to protest by wearing school-provided stickers reading, “Today I am protesting through SILENCE.”

Principal Sara Gips Goodall said she’d visited the school’s older students the day before to tell them about the silent protest option and also shared information with their parents.

By not using their voices, she told them, “That’s a day without you as an immigrant.”

Gips Goodall said the various displays of protest and solidarity were both empowering and sad. It was heart-warming to see non-immigrant students don silent protest stickers in unity with their immigrant classmates, she said.

At the same time, there was a void. One third-grader asked, “Where are all my friends?” she said.

“We’re missing our kids and families,” she said, “and our classrooms are not the same without them.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred incorrectly to McGlone Elementary School. It is McGlone Academy.

cause and effect

Trump’s proposed AmeriCorps cuts would trim .03 percent of the federal budget — but slash support at 11,000 schools

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
City Year corps member doing service in a ninth-grade algebra classroom at Denver’s North High School. From left: student Alaya Martinez, corps member Patrick Santino and student Dorian Medina.

From when the first students arrive until the last ones leave, eight young adults in white AmeriCorps T-shirts are a constant presence at Denver’s North High, a comprehensive high school where “Viking Pride” has not traditionally translated to academic success.

The corps members, part of a program called City Year, help run North’s social justice and writing clubs, hold kids accountable for their attendance and behavior, and team up with teachers to make math and literacy skills stick with ninth-graders.

All of that could vanish next year. President Donald Trump is set to propose slashing the AmeriCorps program from the federal budget, according to a document obtained by The New York Times. That would cost more than 11,000 schools support that they use to help students who’ve fallen behind, build playgrounds, and offer after-school programs.

On a recent morning, North High School Principal Scott Wolf watched a City Year corps member pull four struggling students out of an algebra classroom and into a hallway, where he sat with a whiteboard explaining how to identify the intersection points of two variable equations.

“A student in those classrooms, they may otherwise just be checked out, sitting there not knowing what to do,” Wolf said. “The corps members allow us to provide supports we could not otherwise offer our kids. Our students open up and can relate to them.”

AmeriCorps has been threatened before, but members and supporters have good reason to fear this time could be different. President Trump has promised significant cuts to government programs, and Republicans control Congress and can easily sign off on them.

The prospect of the elimination of federal funding has brought uncertainty to the 80,000 working AmeriCorps members and the schools and communities that rely on them. It has also mobilized the organization’s leadership and supporters to make their case to Congress that the relatively modest investment — just .03 percent of the federal budget — is worth it.

“We are prepared for this,” said Morris Price, vice president and executive director of City Year Denver, which works in nine city schools. “We have to make a case every year anyway. Now we have to make that case not just at the local level but at the congressional level, of the impact we have. We can’t get lazy. This reminds us of that.”

The proposed cuts target the Corporation for National and Community Service, a $1 billion-a-year agency that finances programs run by AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, a volunteer organization for people over 55.

About half of the agency’s grant funding goes to education-related work, officials said, making it a significant player in school improvement efforts across the country. Its programs include City Year, College Possible, Playworks, Citizen Schools, the National College Advising Corps and a school-based foster grandparent program through Senior Corps.

“We are lucky that for more than 50 years, successive administrations of both parties have engaged with this concept of national service,” said Samantha Jo Warfield, spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service. “We know the best solutions come from outside Washington where ordinary citizens are doing extraordinary things.”

That federal support is leveraged to raise money from other sources, including private foundations, school districts, universities and colleges, and corporations. The end result is an additional $1.25 billion — more than the federal contribution, according to the agency.

AmeriCorps, however, has long been in the sights of conservative budget hawks and those who don’t believe it’s the government’s business to subsidize public service. (Corps members are not volunteers. They receive a stipend to help with living expenses, health insurance, and another $5,800 after the completion of each year to pay for additional education or to help pay off student loans.)

Blue Engine teaching assistant Alexandra DiAddezio helps 10th-grade geometry students with a project.

In cities ranging from New York to Denver and Memphis to Detroit, roughly 3,000 City Year corps members work alongside teachers and school leaders in long-struggling, high-poverty schools.

At Denver’s Manual High School, which is trying to reinvent itself yet again after a series of reforms, City Year corps members are integrated into all aspects of school life, principal Nick Dawkins said.

In addition to logging 875 hours helping students with literacy and math this year, corps members have surprised teachers with coffee and donuts, served free breakfast to students, and played chess and Monopoly with kids during tutoring, Dawkins said.

Part of the philosophy of City Year is that corps members — 18 to 25 years old — are not far removed from school themselves, allowing them to forge stronger relationships.

“In a tighter budget picture, I would hate to see programs like this go away,” Dawkins said. “I just think they are great kids and are great for school culture.”

In some cities, the possibility of losing funding for programs is throwing plans into question.

In Memphis, the school district is piloting an after-school tutoring program launched through City Year. Now in two Memphis schools, it is designed to grow to five schools and 50 AmeriCorps members by next school year.

Project director Karmin-Tia Greer said it’s too soon to tell what gutting AmeriCorps would mean for students in Memphis. Currently, AmeriCorps provides about 25 percent of the project’s funding.

“We hope that Congress will continue to support AmeriCorps, which has shown to positively impact students and schools in a cost-effective way,” she said.

In New York City, home to the nation’s largest school district, more than 250 City Year corps members serve in 24 public schools with about 13,000 total students, officials said. AmeriCorps members have also served in the city’s community schools and through programs like Blue Engine, Harlem Children’s Zone, and Teach for America, whose corps members use stipends to help pay for their master’s degree programs.

Through another AmeriCorps program, Citizen Schools, 41 corps members act as teaching fellows in high-needs middle schools in Harlem and Brooklyn, where they also help mobilize community partners to volunteer, said Wendy Lee, executive director of Citizen Schools NY.

“Our entire operating model is based on having AmeriCorps service members in schools,” Lee said. If funding were cut, she said, “We’d either have to rethink staffing or rethink the way our model is delivered.”

As AmeriCorps staff and supporters make their case to Congress, they will point to results.

A 2015 study examining three years of educational outcomes in 22 cities found that schools that partner with City Year were up to three times more likely to improve on math and English assessments.

In Denver, three-quarters of the schools with City Year corps members have moved up in the city’s rating system. That includes North High School, where Wolf, the principal, credited City Year for helping with the turnaround.

Brittanyanne Cahill, 26, who is in her second year of City Year Denver service, reports similar progress at the Hill Campus of Arts and Science.

The suburban Atlanta native majored in special education in college, did a stint student teaching, signed on as a corps member at Hill last year and came back this year as a “senior corps member” mentoring first-year corps members and working with students.

“My eyes have been opened,” she said. “There is so much hardship. Schools around the country are not able to provide the support that all students need to succeed.”

Eric Gorski reported from Denver and Cassi Feldman reported from New York. Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman in Memphis contributed reporting.

'making american education great again'

Betsy DeVos, reportedly opposed to rolling back protections for transgender students, defends the changes

If Education Secretary Betsy DeVos opposed rolling back protections for transgender students behind the scenes this week, she wasn’t letting it show Thursday when she spoke to many of the country’s staunchest conservatives.

“This issue was a very huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach, to suggest a one-size-fits-all, federal government approach, top-down approach, to issues that are best dealt with and solved at a personal level and a local level,” DeVos said.

“I have made clear from the moment I have been in this job that it’s our job to protect students and to do that to the fullest extent that we can,” she continued. “And also to provide students, parents, and teachers with more flexibility around how education is delivered and how education is experienced, and to protect and preserve personal freedoms.”

The remarks, which DeVos made at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, came the day after the Trump administration officials rescinded federal guidance instructing schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms of their choice. The New York Times reported that DeVos — who faced tough questions in her confirmation hearing about her support for gay rights — had opposed the changes, but lost a power struggle with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump.

DeVos’s statement about the changes on Wednesday emphasized that she was committed to “protecting all students, including LGBTQ students.” States, districts, and schools that have established their own protections for transgender students will be able to continue to enforce those.

But some see the changes as an unnecessary blow to students vulnerable to bullying and whose rights to spaces like bathrooms aren’t specifically protected in many parts of the country.

“Supports for transgender students in K-12 schools change and save lives, and hurt no one,” Dr. Eliza Byard, the head of GLSEN, an advocacy group focused on the rights of gay students in schools, said in a statement.