United stance

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.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.