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.

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.”