in their own words

As crisis over Trump’s immigrant order mounts, what America’s teachers of refugee students want you to know

PHOTO: Charlie Nye / The Star
May Oo Mutraw, president of the Burmese Community Center for Education, works on spelling with six-year-old Ngae Reh in 2015.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order late Friday that blocked refugees from coming into the U.S. for 120 days and bars refugees from Syria from entering indefinitely.

The order — and subsequent detentions of refugees and other legal immigrants arriving in U.S. airports — prompted dramatic protests across the country and an emergency, late-night court ruling temporarily suspending part of Trump’s decree.

Among the many people who will spend the coming days trying to make sense of the shifting, uncertain terrain facing refugee families are the teachers who, in increasing numbers, have been working with their children.

Before and after Trump’s order this week, we asked several of those teachers to tell about their jobs, their students, and what has them worried right now. Here’s some of what they told us.

Louise El Yaafouri helps teachers learn the best ways to reach refugee education in Denver and Aurora, Colorado. She recently wrote this piece about teaching a student who had come to the U.S. from Iraq.

“I was just visiting some former students who are now in middle school, and they’re very cognizant of what’s going on. Families come in waves [to the U.S.], and many have family members that are still in that process of being approved. That creates is a lot of anxiety around, am I going to get to see my family again.

For our students, it’s not safe for them to go back. That saying, ‘Nobody leaves home unless home is the mouth of shark,’ that’s the situation. None of these families would volunteer to come to America. These aren’t families that that was their goal. None would have chosen to lose their homes, their culture, language, food.

I’ve been [around] refugee camps and watched this process of resettlement. It’s often long and terrifying ordeal. The U.S. is known for having a long and stringent process. And in the Denver community, those [countries targeted by Trump’s recent executive order] are seven populations we receive the most.

"Most of the families from Iraq are not refugees but asylees who volunteered to help the U.S. in their country."

A lot of students I get from those countries are not Muslim to begin with! And most of the families from Iraq are not refugees but asylees who volunteered to help the U.S. in their country.

We’re just starting to see our first Syrian kiddos here. [My former school] Bridge Academy got about five.

Our families, they have such a deep love for their home country. I’m an American and I love my country. This is different. It’s the idea of community and family so embedded in every aspect of life. To come to a place like the States … I feel, from my families, there’s a deep sense of isolation and detachment. The Syrian students tend to exhibit more symptoms of traumatic shock.

Syrians are also among the most literate people anywhere. Academically, it doesn’t take a long time for them to be ready to go. Even with disrupted schooling, the chance of them having literacy in their home language is really high. Kudos to those parents.

I work with the whole field of service workers in the refugee context. Working with people from the State Department, Lutheran Family Services, our African Community Center — having a network of people is crucial. We share all this information as it’s coming out and brainstorm and problem-solve. This community is really mobilized to dedicate ourselves to the people we serve. If it were me as an island, it would be too overwhelming.”

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Emily Ramirez teaches English as a second language in a diverse Dallas high school.

“We had an influx a few years ago from Myanmar, more recently we’ve received students from the Congo. Just in the past year, we’ve had a lot of placements from Syria and Iraq. Most of those students have refugee status. And then there’s a pretty sizable community from central America, a lot who are fleeing pretty violent situations.

"A lot of people complain that refugees put strain on schools. That is true"

I do have a few students [from Syria and Iraq] who are here, but they might still have a brother or an uncle they’re hoping they can come here. For one student, that might be changing — the likelihood of his brother being able to join his family.

We talk about ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. So, why did you leave? And, why did you choose America? For the descriptions of why people left, I got a pretty wide variety. A lot of people from Syria wrote, civil war, war, dying, dead people. When I asked, why America, why not Canada, France, Turkey? They say, I don’t know. We just ended up here.

The placements happen so fast. I had a class that reached 38 students speaking 17 languages. You just keep on welcoming people. A lot of people complain that refugees put strain on schools. That is true, and it can be difficult on schools. But it’s what I do, it’s what I love.”

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Tonya Powers is a long-term substitute teacher near Lubbock, Texas.

“I’m a speech and debate teacher. This is a fairly wealthy district, so a lot of this is about teaching them how to accept and communicate with people who are not like them. Lubbock is the home of Texas Tech, so there are graduate students especially who have children and go to school in the area. I’ve had a student whose family was in the process of applying for political asylum who has been trying to figure out how that would affect his chances at college. This area is built on cattle and farming, which means a lot of migrant workers.

Most days are pretty normal, but this last week has been rough on them. After the election, we had a horde of eighth-grade boys walking down the hallway chanting ‘Trump, Trump, Trump.’

I want people to know that these are just kids. Kids don’t make the choices they’re so afraid of. Even teenagers don’t. None of these kids I have ever been afraid of becoming terrorists.

It worries me when people talk about immigrants and refugees in broad strokes and have never even talked to one. If you could look your own child in the eye and say they didn’t deserve an education, you’d be heartless. And I think most people are better than that. But I think people don’t remember that immigrants and refugees are kids, too.”

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Carol Salva is a teacher and consultant working with newcomer students in Houston.

“In one of our more affluent areas, one of the apartment complexes struck a deal with Catholic Charities to resettle refugees there. Before [the nearby high school] could realize what was happening, they were flooded. There were over 30 kids who were coming from Somalia, Burundi, Egypt.

"For the last year or more, so many people in our community have been enriched."

They’re middle schoolers, full of hormones, there were all kinds of issues with behavior. We had refugees in in-school suspension every day. They kept loading them into this one class, and they had no good models for how you act in schools.

These kids are so mad by October. And in October, I went back into the classroom, and took over the class.

One of the teachers quit. But it all turned out really, really well. We watched tape of class, like football players. What did we do wrong? What did we do right?

The kids are learning more English every day, so you can explain things. You start talking about perseverance and grit. ‘You could help prove how fast refugees can learn.’

Most of the school is scared of them … then they started learning. And they bring perspective that you don’t have and I don’t have. Who wouldn’t want that for their child? I moved my kid to this school so he could be part of it.

I don’t mean to romanticize their hardships. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But their perspective is huge and what we want for every classroom.

Their appreciation for education kept blowing us away over and over again. I don’t know if you know any middle schoolers, but their appreciation for education can be rather low. To have a student ask, why do we have a week off? And I would say, it’s spring break, it’s what we do. And he actually said, I don’t need a break. I’ve been on break my whole life.

I teach brand-new newcomers in high school now, and over half the class is from Syria. Their math and science is way beyond ours.

I’m deeply saddened. For the last year or more, so many people in our community have been enriched. You would want these people to be your neighbors.”

Do you teach refugee students? We’d love to hear from you. Tells us where you work and what you’d like other Americans to know about that experience at [email protected]

the final countdown

State legislators are down to the wire to pass the budget. Here are the education items to watch

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address.

By the end of the week, lawmakers (may) have a deal on the big education funding issues facing the state, including how much to spend on public schools and whether college will become tuition-free for some New Yorkers.

It’s still unclear how everything shake out, especially as the state faces the prospect of federal budget cuts.

“In general, the policy issues are not the problem,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday afternoon, including college affordability in the mix of nearly settled policy issues. “The problem is spending.” (The speaker of the Assembly, on the other hand, said it was premature to consider anything settled since policy and spending are interconnected.)

The final details will decide whether the “foundation aid” formula will survive in its current form, if the city’s charter school cap will be lifted, and what rules the legislature will apply to any prospective tuition-free college plan. It is also unclear if the budget will pass before the deadline this year, since it could be delayed by federal upheaval or by legislators’ feud with the governor.

As lawmakers haggle and race toward an end-of-the-month deadline, here are the education issues we are watching.

Will the federal government interfere with education spending?

Cuomo cast doubt on whether the state could shoulder big spending increases, since it’s unclear whether the Republican-controlled federal government will slash New York’s overall funding. If that happens, one large increase that could be on the chopping block is education spending, Cuomo said.

“My position is we can handle modest adjustments in the budget,” Cuomo said. “We cannot handle dramatic increases.” The “two main areas” of spending, he noted, are Medicaid and education.

The governor has also raised the prospect of an “extender budget,” that could postpone action on spending.

The state devoted almost $25 billion to education spending this year. Cuomo’s proposed increase for education spending is $1 billion, which is lower than the increase proposed by the Senate ($1.2 billion), Assembly ($1.8 billion), or the state’s policymaking body ($2.1 billion).

The governor’s proposal also makes controversial changes to the “foundation aid” formula, which was designed, in part, to provide a boost to needier schools. Advocates call Cuomo’s change a “repeal” of foundation aid, though Cuomo’s office rejects that language.

Will the governor get his big free tuition package?

The governor indicated on Tuesday afternoon that college affordability was almost decided, saying “we basically have an agreement.”

But what’s in the deal?

The governor’s proposal, which he unveiled as his signature budget item this year, would provide free tuition at state schools for families making less than $125,000 per year. The Senate and the Assembly both presented different college affordability packages.

Leaders in the Senate suggested increasing the state’s current Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which can be used at both public and private colleges.

The Assembly’s budget allows students more flexibility to qualify for aid. Currently, the governor’s plan requires students to be full-time in order to receive funding, which is defined as averaging 15 credits per semester. The Assembly’s plan would allow students to take two 12-credit semesters.

The Assembly’s budget would also let students reserve a third of their Pell grants to pay for non-tuition expenses, instead of requiring that students use Pell grant money to fund tuition first. It would also let families making up to $150,000 per year take advantage of the plan in the fourth year of the program.

What’s at stake for charter schools?

The governor proposed lifting the charter school cap in New York City and creating one cap for the state. Charter school tuition could also be unfrozen this year.

The sticking point for both measures is the Assembly, whose budget rejects the governor’s proposals to provide more help to charter schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio also spoke out against the changes, arguing they shifted costs to the city “to an exorbitant degree.” (Charter school advocates reject that analysis.)

Additionally, the governor’s budget would provide more money to charter schools moving into private space.

Anything else that’s interesting?

Of course.

State officials will decide whether to provide more money for My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative to help improve the education of boys and young men of color. Last year, the program got off the ground with $20 million and state officials said they’re looking for the same this year.

The State Education Department made a wish list of things they would like to see from the legislature. Among their priorities are changes to testing, including reinstating world language Regents exams and creating some project-based assessments.

Whether the legislature honors the Regents’ priorities is important because Chancellor Betty Rosa suggested her vision for rethinking education policy in New York state hinges on the ability to get funding from the legislature.

“As policymakers, we are very actively involved in saying: These are the areas that we are very concerned [about],” Rosa said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “We want to make sure that these are the areas that we get funding in order to move the educational agenda for the state forward.”

Funding fight

In Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Colorado’s teachers union finds a useful face for the opposition

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is working to fuel opposition to a bill that would boost charter school funding by associating it with U.S Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The union on its Facebook page published an image of DeVos and branded Senate Bill 61 as a “Betsy DeVos-Style Privatization Bill.”

The bill, which has bipartisan sponsors in both chambers, would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools. It was recently approved by the state Senate — but not without a fierce fight from a bloc of lawmakers who taught in district-run public schools.

The union isn’t the only group using DeVos’s image to oppose legislation making its way through the statehouse. A new political nonprofit, Colorado Children Before Profits, launched its own website linking DeVos and President Donald Trump to the charter school funding bill, and two other bills that would change the way Colorado funds schools.

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who has long supported charter schools and vouchers for private schools, became an unexpected political lightning rod early in Trump’s administration.

PHOTO: CEA/Facebook
The Colorado Education Association posted this image to its Facebook page earlier in March.

In Colorado, the union and a group of parents protested outside U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s downtown Denver office, urging him to oppose her confirmation. Gardner ultimately voted to confirm DeVos.

DeVos has no formal role in the push for Senate Bill 61, which soon will be considered by the state House of Representatives.
But “there’s a natural tie,” argues Kerrie Dallman, CEA’s president.

“Betsy DeVos has long been connected to the movement to radically expand charter schools, as well as grow education vouchers and tax credits,” Dallman said. “We’re concerned because there is so little accountability in that movement, and a lack of transparency.”

Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform organization, said the union’s use of DeVos is “typical D.C.-style politics.”

“The teachers union’s latest propaganda campaign is shameful,” Ragland said in a statement. “They are spreading demonstrably false information in an attempt to politicize an issue that has had longtime bipartisan support in Colorado. Senate Bill 61 is a uniquely Colorado solution, supported by local leaders in both parties.”