Newcomers

Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The Newcomer school serves students in their first year in the U.S. who are learning English.

It’s first period on a Wednesday, and Alejandra is chewing gum, bouncing her foot and goofing with friends in a reading class for students learning English. The teacher — a substitute for the morning — writes vocabulary words on the whiteboard: “improves,” “silence,” “activists.” When she gets to “dangerous,” Alejandra springs to life. “Not safe!” she bursts out.

Danger is familiar for Alejandra, who declined to use her real name because she was involved with gangs in her home country of Honduras and is afraid for her safety even now — months after moving to Indianapolis and enrolling in the city’s first dedicated program for immigrant students.

In Honduras, Alejandra was involved with the gangs that have made that country perilous for young people. She lived with her father’s family after her mother fled the country when she was 2, and her father was murdered by a gang before she was 10. After leaving school as a child, Alejandra first worked taking fares on a bus before starting to sell drugs.

Now, she takes the bus to school, walks with her boyfriend between classes and practices graphing equations.

It’s exactly the experience that Indianapolis Public Schools officials wanted immigrant students to have when they launched the newcomer program this school year. They expected about 80 children to enroll, but so far there are 200 students in grades 7-9, with more teens arriving nearly every day. All are in their first year in the United States.

Read: Should undocumented students be afraid? These are their rights.

At a time when President Donald Trump’s administration is attempting to close the door to many immigrants, the school is a place of welcome for teenagers who are refugees, asylum-seekers and other recent immigrants. The aim is to give students who speak little English — and often had little formal education in their home countries — the skills to graduate from high school and thrive in the U.S.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Administrator Jessica Feeser looks at a student’s drawings at the Newcomer school.

For some students, Trump’s recent executive orders barring refugees and pushing for a wall at the Mexican border have inspired fear, said Jessica Feeser, who oversees IPS programs for English-language learners. They are afraid they will be sent back to countries riven by violence — afraid they will be killed.

“It is very, very emotional,” Feeser said. “Honestly, how do you teach when you know that children are fearful (for) their lives?”

What educators do is talk with students about their fears, she said. They tell them the school is a safe place and teachers and others at the school will do everything they can to help them achieve their dreams.

Like many students at the newcomer school, Alejandra came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor, traveling north from Honduras by bus and on foot with a friend. When she reached the U.S. border, Alejandra was detained by immigration officials and sent to Indianapolis to reunite with her mother, she said.

It was a relief for her mother Paula, who also declined to use her real name, when Alejandra finally made it to the U.S. For years, Paula had thought about bringing her daughter from Honduras but had feared her former husband’s family, who wanted Alejandra to stay, she said. It was only when she learned her daughter was involved with gangs that she changed her mind.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the newcomer school speak at least 14 different languages.

Now, Alejandra lives with her mother, stepfather and 10-year-old brother in Indianapolis. Her mom still cries thinking about what they went through, she said. But Paula also has started to dream for her daughter’s future.

As Alejandra tells the story of her life in Honduras, she ducks her head and lets her long bangs slide in front of her eyes. But occasionally, when the story is funny, her face lights up and she bursts into laughter.

At the same time, she said through a translator, it’s hard being a student here in the U.S. She had power in Honduras, and when she had conflicts, she would fight with other people. Now, she has to control herself when other people upset her.

“If somebody is screaming or using bad words with me, I just keep control,” she said, “because if I want to be the best person, I need to have control.”

When Alejandra started the school year, she was at Northwest High School. But she said she struggled to pay attention, often falling asleep or playing on her cell phone during class. At the newcomer school, she seems in her element. She is friendly and vivacious, chatting with other students in Spanish and greeting teachers in the hall. When two new students are brought into history class, she volunteers to help them.

And she jokes about taking as long as she can to learn English, so she can stay at the newcomer school.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
In science class at the newcomer school, students study adverbs and adjectives as well as the science of volcanoes and other subjects.

But that won’t be possible. Students can only stay in the newcomer program during their first year in the country, so soon, Alejandra will need to choose a school for next year.

Alejandra’s story is stunning, but she’s not the only student at the newcomer school who saw a relative murdered before fleeing her home country, according to staff. She’s not the only student who was involved with gangs before fleeing Central America. She’s not the only student who didn’t finish her elementary education.

These are the everyday challenges that students and staff at the newcomer school must grapple with: Many students have been through unimaginable trauma, are far behind academically and are just beginning to learn English.

The newcomer school offers many typical middle and high school subjects, from algebra to earth science. But every class is also an English class: In math the walls are lined with Spanish translations for math terms. In science, students start the class by practicing adjectives and adverbs. And in history, they are learning not only the concept of appeasement during World War II but also the names of European countries.

Amanda Clayton, who runs the newcomer school, was expecting those challenges when she started the year. But still, she was stunned to see the amount of trauma that some of their students had suffered.

“Every day we have more kids who have seen their fathers shot,” she said. “Then they walk for three weeks, and then they just arrive at our doors.”

College Access

Tennessee lawmakers advance bill to give undocumented immigrants in-state tuition

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students visit the Tennessee State Capitol with local immigrant advocacy groups in support of a measure that would ensure all Tennessee students get in-state tuition.

While President Donald Trump is considering scrapping protections for undocumented students, Tennessee lawmakers advanced a bill on Wednesday that would make it easier for them to go to college.

A proposal to give undocumented immigrant students in-state tuition passed the Senate Education Committee with a 7-2 vote and little debate.

The move was fairly unusual, given Tennessee lawmakers’ typical hardline stance on undocumented immigrants — the state outlawed “sanctuary cities” in 2009 — and the president’s focus on the issue. But the bill’s Republican sponsor, Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, has steered clear of national politics and focused instead on how the proposal would continue the state’s push to get more of its young people into college.

“We know that if more Tennesseans have a college degree, the whole state is better off,” he said. “By allowing more Tennesseans to enroll in college, we can fill crucial labor shortages and expand the overall tax base.”

Sixteen states, and four other state university systems, offered in-state tuition to undocumented students in 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Six states explicitly bar those students from receiving it.

Advocates say the policy can make a big difference for families. Out-of-state tuition to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is $30,914, compared to $12,274 in-state. And for community colleges, the difference is even greater: out-of-state tuition at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis costs more than $15,000, while other Tennessee high school graduates can attend for free through Tennessee Promise.

Undocumented students can’t access federal Pell grants to pay for college, nor do they qualify for the state’s free community college program, which relies on federal grants.

Making sure students who have lived in Tennessee most of their lives can graduate from college means a better return on taxpayers’ investment, Gardenhire said.

“We invest in these students throughout their K-12 education,” he said. “But then they get to college, and they have to pay three times the in-state rate.”

The bill still has several hurdles to overcome before becoming law, since it hasn’t been heard yet in the House and Tennessee’s legislative session is nearing its end. But its sponsor in the House, Rep. Mark White, a Republican from Memphis, said he is optimistic about the bill’s chances there as well. Gov. Bill Haslam has said in the past that allowing all Tennessee students in-state tuition “has merit.”

On Wednesday, dozens of immigrant students attended the hearing to watch the vote. Many remembered a similar bill that died in the House two years ago, just one vote short.

Many were heartened by the vote, according to Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director of Tennessee Immigrants and Refugee Rights Coalition.

“We are optimistic that subsequent committees will vote to support Tuition Opportunity and that undocumented students in the class of 2017 will be able to graduate with greater opportunity to enroll in college this fall,” she said in a statement.

#immigrantsrock

Dear Mr. President: Immigrant students in Denver tweet to Trump about why their families make America great

PHOTO: Katie Wood
Alejandro Moya, left, and Salvador Garcia look at tweets together that students were adding to a Google Doc as drafts before tweeting them out. Students from Bruce Randolph School tweeted messages to President Donald Trump on Wednesday.

Spread out over large tables, the students of Room 228 cluster together in front of their laptops, typing out messages to the president of the United States.

The sixth and seventh graders at Bruce Randolph School in northeast Denver are the sons and daughters of immigrants. For almost a week now, they have been learning in their English language development class about the contributions of immigrants, President Donald Trump’s rise to power and the vocabulary behind his favorite mode of communication: Twitter.

Those lessons culminated Wednesday when the students’ messages to the president about how their friends and families make America great were posted on the social network via a new classroom account.

“Who used the hashtag, ‘immigrantsrock?’” says teacher Mandy Rees, who came up with the idea of tweeting at Trump. “That makes my heart happy. That’s wonderful.”

Trump’s election and hard-line executive orders on immigration have stoked fears in immigrant communities in Denver and across the country about raids and mass deportations. With so many children of immigrants enrolled in public schools, the classroom has become a forum to meet those fears head on, with educators providing moral support and teaching moments.

This week’s classroom exercise at Bruce Randolph began with a challenge. Principal Cesar Cedillo and another school administrator are headed to a conference in Washington, D.C., this month and arranged meetings with members of Colorado’s congressional delegation.

Teachers were asked to come up with an assignment that would produce something the school leaders could take to the nation’s capital to share with the delegation.

“I kept thinking, ‘How does Donald Trump communicate?’” Rees said. “Well, he communicates through Twitter. This is the best way.”

Last week, the students watched the film “A Day Without a Mexican,” which takes a satirical look at what would happen if all of California’s Mexicans suddenly disappeared. They watched a short PBS “Frontline” piece about Trump’s ascendancy. And they learned the language of Twitter — character counts, how to tweet at people, how hashtags work.

The students spent part of Monday writing drafts of their messages, and refined them Tuesday. Although Rees said the main point of the assignment is to tell students, “You’re important, your voice matters, and it doesn’t feel like that right now,” it’s also a reading and writing exercise.

More than seven in 10 middle school students and nearly eight in 10 high school students at Bruce Randolph are English language learners. Some of the sixth and seventh graders in Rees’s classroom are reading in English at second- or even first-grade level. Many of the students’ parents and relatives are undocumented.

During third period Wednesday morning, students in Room 228 type their 140-character-or-less messages into a shared Google Doc.

One of the two teachers — Rees or Carrie Cisneros — checks them for accuracy and moves them to Twitter, at times tagging Trump’s Twitter handle.

“OK, you guys,” Cisneros says. “I’m ready to tweet another one.”

The tweets — which Rees plans to compile so school leaders can take hard copies to Washington — come in rapid fire. The students summon the teachers for help with calls of, “Miss, miss.” One boy asks whether it’s possible to use a burrito emoji.

The students were told to keep it positive on Twitter, Rees says, not be mean like Trump can be.

“Don’t forget to capitalize ‘America,’ friends,” Cisneros says.

Eating lunch in class after the period ends, a group of sixth-grade boys share their feelings about President Trump, immigrants’ role in society and the assignment they’ve just completed.

“It makes me mad because he is saying we are worthless and we don’t help the U.S.A.,” says student Sebastian Soto. “My dad, he builds houses. My mom, she cleans and cares for us.”

The boys say they hope their messages, whether Trump sees them or not, make a difference in how people think and act. They hope no immigrants are deported, or hurt.

How does it feel to share their experiences with the president?

Says one boy, “I feel proud.”