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.

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.”

Newcomers

Should undocumented students be afraid? These are their rights.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

For many who have immigrated to the United states, President Donald Trump’s call for the U.S. to build a wall at the Mexican border, cut off funding for “sanctuary” cities and ban refugees have ignited fear and uncertainty.

For undocumented students, or those who have undocumented relatives, these fears are particularly salient.

At a Indianapolis Public Schools board meeting last week, Manuel Martinez, an IPS parent, called on the district to support families and help them learn about their rights. Parents and grandparents of IPS students are afraid they will be deported, he said.

“This is producing a toxic environment that doesn’t allow for kids to learn or succeed academically. Many parents are worried about being separated from their children,” Martinez said. “There is a sense that this could happen at any time.”

Here are some basics on the rights of undocumented students and what the district could do to support their families.

What is a “sanctuary” city, university or district?

Some U.S. cities and counties that have adopted policies meant to protect undocumented immigrants are known as sanctuaries. These areas often have policies that discourage law enforcement from asking about immigration status or prevent jails from holding people at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But the term “sanctuary” is ambiguous, and its use is different in the context of schools and universities, where it typically focuses on limiting ICE access to student information and campuses.

Could IPS become a “sanctuary” district?

Amid growing fear for the rights of immigrants, school districts joined cities and universities across the country in declaring themselves sanctuaries for undocumented students.

The National Immigration Law Center prepared a model resolution for school boards that includes a range of policies to protect the rights of immigrant families. The resolution aims to limit federal immigration authorities from gaining access to student information and campuses. It also provides resources for undocumented families.

Last week, board member Kelly Bentley suggested IPS should consider joining their ranks.

“We’ve got some families that probably feel quite vulnerable right now,” Bentley said. “We need to do everything we can to let our families know they are welcome in this district and that we are going to do everything we can do protect them.”

Some of the policies from the National Immigration Law Center, however, might be illegal in Indiana. Under a 2011 state law, a governmental body may not have a policy barring employees from communicating with federal officials about immigration status.

Even if the district does not adopt new policies, however, students already have protections.

Do undocumented students have a right to an education in K-12 schools?

Children are entitled to a free, public education regardless of their immigration status. That was decided more than three decades ago in the U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler vs. Doe, according to Michael Olivas, a professor at University of Houston Law Center and acting president of University of Houston Downtown.

“A student is a student is a student,” he said. “The protections are exactly the same.”

In fact, undocumented students are required by truancy laws to attend school, said Olivas, who wrote a book on the influence of Plyler.

While school districts occasionally hinder undocumented students from enrolling, those issues are typically resolved when attorneys step in, he said.

“As confusing as the system is,” Olivas said, “there have been no recent governmental actions that would affect K-12 students who may be out of status or whose parents may be out of status.”

Can school officials ask about immigration status?

School officials are not allowed ask students about their immigration status as a condition of enrollment or require children to provide Social Security numbers. Officials may ask students about their immigration status, however, if they have a legitimate reason, such as if a student is eligible for a scholarship they can only receive if they are in the country legally, Olivas said.

Can ICE agents get information from schools or come to a campus to detain students?

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act forbids schools from sharing identifiable student records without parental permission, and undocumented students have the same privacy rights as their peers. But law enforcement officers, including ICE agents, can still access student information in some situations.

“As long as a legitimate law enforcement claim is issued, than a school district or for that matter a college or university, must turn over data,” Olivas said.

Law enforcement officers could also detain children while they are at school if they have a tangible government interest, Olivas said. Although there have been some ICE raids of parents at schools, ICE policy discourages action at sensitive locations, including schools.

“School districts are not the place where we play out these pageants,” Olivas said. “Children are off limits.”

Chalkbeat reporter Shaina Cavazos contributed to this story.