cutting for a cause

Here’s what three student protesters had to say about immigration, education and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
New York City high school students protest on Tuesday in Foley Square in Manhattan.

Hundreds of New York City high school students walked out of class on Tuesday to protest President Donald Trump, filling Manhattan’s Foley Square with chants of “No hate! No fear! Refugees are welcome here!” and “We love public school! Betsy DeVos is a fool!”

The new U.S. education secretary, who was confirmed as students amassed, was not the teens’ only target. Many said they had ventured into the cold rain to stand in support of immigrants and against Islamophobia.

“School is very important to most of us. And skipping something that is required just shows that we care about this protest a lot,” said Samira Mautushi, 16, a junior at NYC iSchool in Manhattan.

It was the second walkout that Beacon School senior Hebh Jamal, 17, helped organize since Election Day.

“Even at our age, we should be able to demand things,” she told Chalkbeat ahead of the rally. “Students, collectively, care.”

Here is what the young protesters had to say about the president’s recent immigration orders, federal education policy and what it’s like to be Muslim in Trump’s America.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Samira Mautushi

Samira Mautushi was concerned about Trump’s recent executive order suspending the country’s refugee program and blocking travel from seven majority-Muslim nations. (The order has been temporarily halted as it makes its way through the courts.)

“My family is Muslim. Most of the people I know are Muslim. Because of the Muslim ban, a lot of my family members and friends have been getting scared. It’s causing a lot of emotion among people I know, and it just felt right for me to come here and protest against what Trump’s been trying to do.

“Sometimes I’ll see people, on social media especially, I see people who are against people of my color and people of my religion … They need to learn about equality. Just because we look different than you and we come from different countries doesn’t mean we’re worse than you.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Galen Oettel (center)

Galen Oettel, 18, is a senior at NYC iSchool. He decided to join the walkout to show support for his classmates.

“We have a lot of friends at school who are undocumented immigrants and Trump puts them at risk. We want to stand up for their rights as citizens, and we have a lot of Muslim friends who we also want to stand up for.

“All his policies affect us in so many ways that he wouldn’t understand as a rich, white male. All his policies are so wrong to so many people. And he’s not supported by a majority of the population.

“I think it’s really important to stay angry at everything that’s going on. And it’s be really easy to not be angry because it might not affect me personally as a white male. But I realize that it affects a lot of other people.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Omer Rondel

Omer Rondel, 14, is a freshman at Brooklyn Latin School. He called Betsy DeVos an “elitist” and was generally worried about Trump’s cabinet picks.

DeVos is “super unqualified for the job: Never been to a public school. Never sent her kids to public school. Wants to funnel money into private, Christian and Catholic schools. Just a horrible, horrible choice.

“Millions and millions of kids get their education from public schools. It’s the future of America, it’s the future of the world and you’re destroying people’s lives.”

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.


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.”