sanctuary schools

As anxiety grows after Trump’s executive orders, what protections do immigrant students have in NYC schools?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
New York City students walk out of class and march to Trump Tower to protest the results of the presidential election.

When students in Abeda Khanam’s class in Long Island City, Queens sat down to take a practice Regents exam last Monday, she noticed that some of her students’ minds were far away from the biology questions in front of them.

After class, she learned why. Her students were fixated on President Trump’s recent executive order, now temporarily halted, that barred refugees and some immigrants from entering the country. One student’s family is from the Philippines and awaiting permanent residency status in the United States, another has an uncle trying to move to America from Montenegro.

“All my students who have anything to do with immigration are anxious,” Khanam said. “You can see it on their faces.”

While New York City schools are meant to be safe spaces, they are also places data and documents are collected. The city and advocates are working to make sure that information stays private — and that immigrants feel protected.

Days after Trump’s most recent order, the Department of Education sent a letter home to families explaining the protections that students have in schools. The letter promises, among other things, that schools would not ask students about their immigration status. If they learn a student’s status, they will not record or release that information.

The letter also make it clear that all students, regardless of their country of origin, religion or immigration status are welcome in city schools.

“Whether your or your family arrived 100 years ago or 100 days ago — you are all New Yorkers — and we stand with you,” reads the letter, signed by schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Commissioner Nisha Agarwal of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

The letter states ICE officials are not permitted to access schools without “proper legal authority.” That authority is determined on a case-by-base basis, according to education department officials, and might include, for example, a subpoena for student records.

If ICE officials do visit schools, they will be referred to principals to take “appropriate action,” the letter states. Education department officials said that means the principal will contact the senior field counsel, an attorney who assists school administrators, and await further instructions.

But Rishi Singh, director of youth organizing at DRUM, an organization that helps South Asian immigrants in New York City, thinks the Department of Education could go further.

“We would like to see the Department of Education take a stronger stance, saying that they would not comply with federal policies if it were targeting their students,” Singh said. “That would ease the fears and tension that young people are facing right now.”

In addition to the restrictions on revealing immigration status, the letter also seeks to reassure families that schools will not share any student information unless “required to by law.” That means the city might have to release it if there is a subpoena or a health and safety emergency, education department officials said, though typically it would require parental consent.

But advocates worry that if a school were legally required to release information, even with no explicit record of immigration status, there could be revealing information in a student’s file. For instance, some families provide immigration papers when registering children for school, which sometimes get photocopied and put in a student’s file, said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children.

While this item may not say whether a child is undocumented, it could provide a clue as to status since undocumented families often have no other proof of identity, age or residency, she said. She hopes the city will consider removing any unnecessary documentation in student files.

New York state also collects information about a child’s country of origin and ethnicity. While parents should be aware this information is out there, the data is unlikely to expose undocumented students, said Amelia Vance, education policy counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum, an organization dedicated to promoting good data practices.

“It’s certainly is something to keep an eye on,” Vance said. “But it’s not something that people should be really afraid of right now.”

Regardless of the actual threat level, the president’s rhetoric puts immigrants on edge, advocates say, and the city should look for additional ways to safeguard them.

New York City is far from the only city grappling with this issue — and districts across the country are taking action. For instance, Pittsburgh Public Schools declared itself a “sanctuary” campus, which means immigration agents will not be allowed on school grounds without permission from the district’s law department and the superintendent. And Oakland vowed to notify legal aid groups if immigration authorities request to visit a school. While some of these gestures are largely symbolic, the message itself can be reassuring.

“The chancellor’s letter and the policy that’s laid out … are good first steps,” said Midha. “I do think that in the current climate, families really do need to feel reassured that New York City schools are a safe space and a welcoming space for them.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”