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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.

2018

Salazar won’t run in governor’s race featuring strong education storylines

PHOTO: Denver Post File
Former U.S. Senator and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Ken Salazar’s decision not to run for Colorado governor takes one prominent Democrat out of a still-developing campaign that promises to prominently feature public education as an issue.

The former U.S. senator and interior secretary cited family reasons for his decision to sit out the 2018 Democratic primary. Salazar, who is closely involved in raising a granddaughter who has autism, could have been a voice on public education for children with disabilities.

In a Denver Post commentary explaining why isn’t running, Salazar took a broad view of the challenges in education.

“Colorado’s education crisis needs to be solved from pre-kindergarten to college,” Salazar wrote. “It is sad that Colorado has defunded higher education and abandoned the great tradition of leading the nation with our great colleges and universities.”

Salazar’s announcement could set other plans in motion quickly in the Democratic field.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston, a prominent education reformer, and entrepreneur Noel Ginsburg, CEO of Intertech Plastics, have already announced they are running.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Arvada told the Denver Post on Thursday the “chances are very good” he will run, and could declare his candidacy soon.

Former state treasurer Cary Kennedy said she is seriously considering running, and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder said he has not ruled it out, according to the Post.

Among the Republicans mulling a run: District Attorney George Brauchler, state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton.

how's it going?

She’s no Tony Bennett or Glenda Ritz — Jennifer McCormick is charting her own course as Indiana’s schools chief

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

For years, Indiana’s state superintendents have made huge political waves while in office.

Tony Bennett was a major Republican proponent of choice-based education reform. Democrat Glenda Ritz led an administration filled with political clashes with then-Gov. Mike Pence, a staunch conservative.

But this could be changing with Indiana’s newest schools chief, Jennifer McCormick.

More than two months into her administration and more than halfway through the 2017 legislative session, educators and advocates are praising McCormick’s focus and remain optimistic about her tenure.

“The general perception is people are finding her and her staff are good to work with,” said Betsy Wiley, head of the Indiana Institute for Quality Education, a local school reform organization that made large donations to McCormick’s campaign. “I think she’s been working really hard on making sure people know that her door is open.”

As a Republican official taking office under a Republican governor, McCormick is better positioned politically to accomplish her goals. Her relationship with Gov. Eric Holcomb has appeared relatively tension-free so far. They’ve made joint announcements about state initiatives related to STEM education and workforce development, and McCormick has been on-board with his budget proposal.

McCormick said that so far, there has been lots of talking.

“We’re not always going to agree, but at least the conversations are happening,” she said. “We have our hands and eyes and voice in a lot of the education bills that we’re concerned about, so we’ve been right there at the table offering amendments” to legislators.

But mostly, McCormick has been quiet when it comes to public state policy debates.

“I think she’s learning the ropes, and rightly so,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said. “She and her team are working closely with the state board, so I consider it very good — No controversy of any kind.”

Yet McCormick’s approach doesn’t sit as well with Minority Leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. He said he’s worried she’s leaving too much power to top GOP lawmakers in charge of education and not taking enough initiative at the department of education.

“I’m not familiar with any of the work that she’s doing,” he said. “The work that is happening on education is happening in the House and Senate chambers … If it’s her aim to just be ‘go along, get along, whatever Rep. Behning says or Sen. Kruse says is A-OK,’ I don’t know that she’s going to have a major role to play.”

Bosma and Pelath’s difference in opinion reflects some of the debates occurring in the Indiana General Assembly this year about whether to make the state superintendent an appointed or elected position. Part of the conversation inevitably centers around how people view McCormick’s role and it’s purpose.

It’s not clear yet if McCormick will step forward with ideas of her own or be more of an administrator who solely implements the policies of lawmakers, which GOP leaders repeatedly. But she has supported Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plan to make the role an appointed one.

McCormick has testified once this year before the Indiana Senate. During that hearing last week, she expressed concerns about testing and teacher evaluation that routinely were dismissed when Ritz was in charge, such as advocating for “computer-adaptive” tests. She also told senators there should be more conversations about how test scores are tied into teacher evaluations and whether that provision should be removed.

McCormick isn’t — and never has been — in lockstep with other Republicans on education policy. That was clear during her campaign, when, despite having mostly school choice advocates and Republicans as donors, she disagreed with GOP policies and instead advocated for changes to the school funding formula and seriously evaluating the impact of state-funded vouchers for private school.

Wiley said that although McCormick hasn’t shown herself to be an aggressive supporter of all school choice policies, such as vouchers, Wiley still thinks her organization made a good investment in backing her.

“She knows she has at least four years in that role, and she intends to do and get stuff done,” Wiley said. “If she doesn’t get credit for it along the way, I just don’t think she cares.”

Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he’s heard from school leaders that they’re seeing more timely responses to phone calls and emails with the department of education.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she’s appreciated the time McCormick has made to talk with ISTA members, and she has no reason to believe she’s not going to support public schools — she’s “cautiously optimistic.”

Despite accusations during her campaign that she’d be too much like her Republican predecessor, Bennett, McCormick has not aligned herself with one particular education philosophy or camp. David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, said that independence is admirable.

“She is clearly her own woman, and I think there were some expectations,” Harris said. “She has been pretty clear that she’s going to follow the agenda and approach that she thinks is best.”