Newcomers

They waited years to come to America. Now, this Indianapolis school is teaching them how to succeed here

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Mbeomo and Tosha Msambilwa with their older brothers. The Msambilwa's are refugees and students at the newcomer school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Mbeomo and Tosha Msambilwa spent the first years of their lives waiting — for food, for clothing, for a home. The brother and sister were born in a refugee camp in Tanzania after their parents fled the Congo. More than two decades after the Msambilwa parents arrived in the camp, their wait came to an end last year, when their family finally settled in Indianapolis.

For Mbeomo and Tosha, that marked the beginning of another journey: Learning English.

Mbeomo, 15, and Tosha, 12, are enrolled in the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program, which serves students in their first year in the U.S. who are learning English. The school, which opened this year, has seen explosive growth — going from about 55 students when they opened their doors to almost 200 kids, and new students arrive each week. The aim is to help students catch up to grade level and become fluent in reading, writing and speaking English so they can succeed in school and beyond, said Jessica Feeser, who leads the district’s English language learner programs.

“We had less than a 50 percent graduation rate for newcomers in IPS,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that we are equipping our students to graduate from high school.”

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

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
At the newcomer program, even art class is an English lesson.

About three dozen of the students in the newcomer program are refugees who fled war in their home countries or — like Mbeomo and Tosha — grew up in camps that were meant to be temporary.

When refugees arrive, they are paired with resettlement agencies that help them adjust to life in America and tackle problems like finding schools and work. The Msambilwas worked with Exodus Refugee, which helped Mbeomo and Tosha enroll at the newcomer school.

In the refugee camp, the Msambilwas’ parents didn’t have work, so the family relied on food and necessities from international aid. Every four months they received new supplies, Mbeomo said. In the weeks that followed, they would stretch the food to make it last until they were given more. In the camp, the family of nine — Mbeomo and Tosha have three adult siblings and two younger siblings at a nearby elementary school — lived in a small house with an outhouse instead of a bathroom.

The family left all that behind earlier this year, when they took a bus from the camp to a nearby town where they boarded a plane to the capital of Tanzania. From there, they flew through Switzerland to Chicago. Their settlement in Indianapolis was bittersweet, however, because Mbeomo and Tosha’s father became ill and died in the camp in Tanzania just months before they left for the U.S.

In some ways, the Msambilwa family was well-prepared to come to America: When they were selected by the U.S. State Department, aid workers in the refugee camp taught them about life in the U.S., from how to greet people to how to wash cloths, Mbeomo said. They even taught them how to board a plane.

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

But life is still different in the U.S. Now, instead of a house, their family lives in an apartment. Their older brothers and their mother work in factories. The biggest differences between schools in the camp and in Indianapolis, they said, are that teachers in Tanzania hit students when they make mistakes and students in the U.S. use their cell phones in class.

The newcomer school offers a rare community for African migrants in Indianapolis. The Msambilwa siblings speak Swahili and their parents’ Congolese language of Kibembe, and there are at least 14 languages spoken at the school. But the Msambilwas have made friends with other students who speak the same language and other students who grew up in refugee camps.

It’s a relief to spend time with other people he can communicate with, said Mbeomo. But he is reluctant to spend time with them because it takes him longer to learn English, he said.

Ask either sibling about the future — what they want to be when they grow up, what they dream for their family — and their answer is the same. They will start thinking about the future once they have mastered English.

Immigration

Trump administration says DACA protections will stay for now — a temporary win for undocumented educators, students

PHOTO: TFA
Teach For America's DACAmented corps at its 2016 convening

The Trump administration said “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, will remain protected for now — a short-term win for educators who had entered the classroom thanks to the new protections and for students worried about deportation and losing a path into the workforce.

Although the ultimate fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, is unclear, a fact sheet posted by Department of Homeland Security says recipients of the program will “continue to be eligible” for renewal and that “no work permits will be terminated prior to their current expiration dates.”

Nearly 1.5 million people had requested to participate in DACA by the end of 2016, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The decision to keep DACA comes after multiple petitions from schools chiefs and education leaders across the country asking for the protections established during the Obama administration to continue. The program has allowed some undocumented people to become educators, including through Teach for America, which has developed a support program for them. (Read more about that program here.) Some teachers who earned work permits under the program now have a path to citizenship, too.

In Colorado, one of TFA’s “DACAmented” teachers said the program put her in position to help other Hispanic students and families.

“This is the first time in a classroom where I can have a conversation about race and immigration without feeling sick to my stomach,” one student told her.

The decision also comes alongside news that the Trump administration is rescinding another Obama-era program granting citizenship to parents whose children are citizens or residents of the U.S., commonly referred to as DAPA. A 2014 report estimated that up to 3.6 million unauthorized immigrants were eligible for protections from deportation and entry into the workforce under DAPA.

Seeking distance

Aurora school board: Judge us by our actions, not one board member’s words

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

The Aurora school board sought to convey Thursday that the controversial statements of one of its members should not overshadow the board’s actions to support immigrant and refugee families.

Board president Amber Drevon sent a statement to reporters trying to shift attention back to a board resolution last month that underscored district policies about responding to immigration enforcement actions and emphasized “inclusive practices.”

The resolution was meant to allay fears in immigrant communities. Although the vote for the resolution was unanimous, board member Cathy Wildman’s remarks during the board’s deliberations continue to cause challenges for the school district.

Widlman at that meeting called the resolution unnecessary and argued that it singled out a group of students she called rule-breakers. After being criticized by education reform groups and speakers at this week’s school board meeting, Wildman read a lengthy statement that emphasized the importance of following rules and included an assurance that she wants students to feel safe. She declined to answer questions from Chalkbeat at the meeting.

Here is the full text of the statement Drevon shared, which she said in an email was on behalf of the board:

“The Aurora Public Schools Board of Education values holding open conversations with our community. The Board is comprised of individual members who are entitled to voice their own opinions. We voted unanimously on May 16, 2017 to pass ‘A Resolution to Reaffirm Aurora Public Schools’ Inclusive Practices and Beliefs for all Students Regardless of Documentation Status.’ The vote and text of the resolution, not the comments of any one member, speak to the Board’s commitment to upholding the policies, core beliefs and practices already in place to support our immigrant and refugee families. Our focus remains on providing the best educational opportunities for every APS student.”