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.

safe schools

Aurora school board approves resolution to protect immigrant students, though some raise questions

File photo of rising second-graders at Aurora's Jewell Elementary.

The Aurora school board unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday aimed at helping immigrant students feel safer, but not before fault lines emerged over its title and intent.

The board debated whether the resolution supported all students or just some, and one board member suggested immigrants in other parts of the country were making people feel unsafe.

The resolution, proposed and written by a group of parents and community members, largely reaffirms district policies for dealing with federal immigration enforcement actions.

“We have a legal obligation to serve all students no matter their documentation status,” board member Dan Jorgensen said.

The resolution was spearheaded by RISE Colorado, a local nonprofit. Parents, students and community members who worked to write the resolution spoke to the board at a meeting earlier this month and said they needed to know the district supported them so they could feel a little safer.

“It would send a message that the district is on the side of families,” one mother wrote in a letter that was read to the board.

Students, parents and community members supporting the resolution wore buttons that read, “Keep APS Safe.”

The resolution directs the school district to ensure officials are not collecting information about the legal status of students or their families, that they keep schools safe for students and families, and that a memo the district sent to school leaders in February gets translated and made available to all families and all staff.

The memo outlines the procedures Aurora school leaders should follow if interacting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a school.

The resolution also calls for district officials to write a plan for how to react if an immigration enforcement action prevents a parent from picking up a student from school.

But before voting, school board members discussed the resolution’s title and whether the resolution was for all students.

Aurora school board member Cathy Wildman said Aurora already has enough policies creating safe schools by prohibiting discrimination. She said the resolution was about one group of students, and not really for all students.

“I guess I feel that we are setting aside, or creating additional rules and policies in some ways where people broke the rules,” Wildman said.

She added that some immigrants have made some areas of the country unsafe and said in one instance her nieces traveling to southern California were told to turn around because it would not be safe for them.

Board member JulieMarie Shepherd argued that the title of the resolution — “A resolution to keep Aurora Public Schools a safe and inclusive school community” — was too broad and made it sound like the resolution helped all students, when it doesn’t, she said.

She gave the example of a gender non-conforming child, saying, “this resolution does nothing to protect them.”

Board member Jorgensen argued that the resolution was for all students, saying that many of the community members who helped write the resolution only did it for the safety of other children, not their own. He added that he wants his own child to be in a school where all children feel safe.

“By serving the kids on the fringe, we serve all our kids,” Jorgensen said.

The final resolution approved was changed to be called “A resolution to reaffirm APS’ inclusive practices and beliefs for all students regardless of documentation status.”

After Tuesday’s vote and discussion, parents said they felt some of the board members’ comments were rude, but said they respected all opinions and said they were happy the resolution still passed.

Districts across the country, including in neighboring Denver, have passed similar resolutions, often with stronger language that specifically prohibits district staff from giving information or cooperating with immigration officials.

A spokeswoman for Denver Public Schools confirmed recently that the district received a request for information in April from federal immigration officials. She could not say more specifically what information was requested, but said the district did not comply.

Aurora’s city council Monday night passed a resolution stating Aurora is not a “sanctuary city,” and that it will comply with all immigration laws. City officials expressed concern about losing federal money after the Trump administration said they would withhold funding from jurisdictions that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

taking initiative

Parents, students press Aurora school district to pass resolution assuring safety of immigrant students

A reading lesson this spring at an Aurora family resource center. (Kathryn Scott, The Denver Post).

As a mother of four U.S.-born schoolchildren, but being in the country illegally herself, Arely worries that immigration agents might pick her up while she is taking her kids to school one day.

But what worries her more is that her children could be picking up on her fears — and that it might hurt their focus in school. She’s also concerned for those immigrant students who could be at risk for deportation.

“There are a lot of us who are looking for the security or reassurance from the district — most of all, that our children will be safe,” said Arely, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used because of her immigration status.

Dozens of Aurora students and parents, including Arely, are pressing the school board of Aurora Public Schools to adopt a proposed resolution for “safe and inclusive” schools that they say would help. While the Denver school board adopted a similar resolution in February, their peers in Aurora have yet to act.

“Knowing that Aurora doesn’t yet have a resolution makes me feel insecure,” Arely said.

A district spokesman said in an email the resolution won’t be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, on Tuesday, but that it would be “part of the Board’s open dialogue.”

“Anytime the Board is contemplating a community request, the Board first openly discusses their interest in a public forum,” spokesman Corey Christiansen said. “If there is interest, the Board would decide to move forward at a future meeting to issue a statement.”

Two board members reached for comment Wednesday — Dan Jorgensen and Monica Colbert — both said they supported the resolution.

“I believe that not only do we have a legal obligation to serve all students, more importantly, we have a moral obligation to make sure that all of our students are in safe and inclusive environments,” Jorgensen said. “This resolution is about doing the right thing, including providing a public statement of support and directing reasonable action on behalf of all children in our schools.”

Colbert said not supporting the resolution would deny the strength of the district’s diversity.

“In a district like Aurora where our biggest strength is our diversity, for us not to adopt a resolution such as this would be not well serving of our students,” Colbert said.

The document presented by parents and students would direct the school district to ensure officials are not collecting information about the legal status of students or their families, that they keep schools safe for students and families, and that a memo the district sent to school leaders in February gets translated and made available to all families and all staff.

The memo outlines the procedures Aurora school leaders should follow if interacting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a school.

The resolution also calls for district officials to write a plan within 90 days for how to react if an immigration enforcement action prevents a parent from picking up a student from school.

The parents and students started sharing concerns at end of last year after President Trump’s election stoked fears in immigrant communities.

Working with RISE, a nonprofit that works with low-income parents to give them a voice in education issues, the parents and students researched other school district resolutions and worked on drafting their own.

“We didn’t want any words that seemed as if they were demanding,” Arely said. “We just want equality for our children.”

Anjali Ehujel, a 17-year-old senior at Aurora Central High School, said she has seen her friends suffering and worried a lot recently. The most important part of the resolution for her was making sure her fellow students were no longer so distracted.

“This is important because we all need education and we all have rights to get education,” Ehujel said.

Another student, Mu Cheet Cheet, a 14-year-old freshman at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, said she got involved because she saw other students at her school bullied and depressed as they were teased about the possibility of being deported.

“For refugees they would just watch because they didn’t know how to help,” Cheet said. “When I came here, I also wanted to feel safe.”

Cheet, who came to the country as a refugee from Thailand seven years ago, found that working on the resolution was one way she could help.

More than 82 percent of the Aurora district’s 41,000 students are students of color. The city and district are one of the most diverse in the state.

“We really hope APS approves this resolution given it’s the most diverse district in the state,” said Veronica Palmer, the executive director of RISE Colorado.

Here is the draft resolution:



FINAL Resolution to Keep APS Safe and Inclusive 4 21 17 (Text)