words matter

Aurora school board member facing criticism for comments about immigrants: “We have rules for a reason”

A classroom at the Edna and John W. Mosley P-8 in Aurora. (Photo by Anya Semenoff, The Denver Post)

Facing criticism for her recent comments about immigrants, an Aurora school board member Tuesday offered a lengthy, emotional response that emphasized the importance of following rules and included an assurance that she wants students to feel safe.

Last month, board member Cathy Wildman expressed concern about a school board resolution supporting immigrant students and families. She called it unnecessary and argued that it singled out a group of students she called rule-breakers.

Although Wildman ultimately joined her colleagues in approving the resolution, her comments have come under fire from education reform groups doing work in Aurora and others.

On Tuesday, Wildman spoke at length about her thinking, making references to the Ten Commandments and the Declaration of Independence. She said that she, too, is an immigrant. More than once, the school board president interrupted Wildman to ask her to speed up.

“I’m a rule follower,” Wildman said Tuesday. “I obey the rules and the laws. This morning I noticed how many rules I followed as I went to the gym. We have rules for a reason.”

Wildman, a former teacher, said her goal “is that all students feel safe and included,” Wildman said. “When I go back to the meeting in question, I wanted people to recognize that we have policies in place. In no way did I ever say immigrants are not welcome.”

The resolution was drafted by parents, students and community members who asked the board to pass it to help them feel safer in the wake of concern about heightened immigration enforcement. More than 82 percent of Aurora’s students are students of color, and the city has a large population of refugees and immigrants.

“I guess I feel that we are setting aside or creating additional rules and policies in some ways for people who broke the rules,” Wildman said last month. “When you talk about safety with people that have come across, they have made it unsafe.”

Cathy Wildman

Parents at that board meeting called the comments rude.

In the following days, the pro-education reform group A-Plus Colorado published a blog post criticizing Wildman and calling on her to connect with the communities she represents. The co-founder of a conservative education reform group, Ready Colorado, published an editorial in the Aurora Sentinel calling on her to resign.

On Tuesday, two students and one Aurora resident spoke during public comment to criticize Wildman’s comments.

“I want to say don’t be scared of immigrants and refugees because they are just humans like us,” said Vestine Niyonkuru, a sophomore at Aurora Central High School. “We are not wild animals.”

Niyonkuru called out the board for not speaking up.

“Why don’t you speak up when one of your board members says something negative?” Niyonkuru said. “Don’t stay quiet. Speak up.”

Kristen Pough, an Aurora resident and graduate of Aurora Central High School, told Wildman during public comment that her comments added to a “dangerous narrative that fuels hate.”

Pough asked that the board receive diversity and sensitivity training.

Following the meeting’s public comment period, Wildman read her statement.

After listening to Wildman’s response, Pough said she didn’t believe there was an apology.

“I just didn’t feel that was a sincere response,” Pough said. “I just saw her say, ‘I’m a great citizen because I do x, y and z,’ and not really apologizing.”

When asked by Chalkbeat about the comments and the requests the community is making of her, Wildman referred to her statement and declined further comment.

Wildman was reelected to a second term on the school board in 2015 to serve through 2019.

The Aurora teachers union, which backed Wildman’s reelection, released a statement in response to her comments and the subsequent criticism.

“As educators, we are leaders who work tirelessly to end racial and economic injustice and will not condone insensitive remarks about race or prejudice,” it stated. “We here at the Aurora Education Association believe in diversity, inclusion and equity and believe that every child, no matter their race, their religion or their address deserves a world class public education.”

Uncharted waters

From passionate to politics-free, here’s how Colorado school districts responded to Trump’s DACA decision

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver students walk to a rally September 5, 2017 to protest President Trump's decision to end DACA.

Even before the Trump administration announced the rollback of an Obama-era program that provides protections to young undocumented immigrants, Tom Boasberg didn’t hold back.

The longtime Denver Public Schools superintendent fired off one pre-emptive statement saying that ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, would “cruelly rip the American dream” from young immigrants’ grasp. He joined other civic leaders for a news conference under the Capitol dome to call for the program’s preservation.

When DACA’s imminent demise was announced Tuesday, the DPS communications staff was ready with a statement, in both English and Spanish, decrying the move as “shortsighted, heartless and harmful.”

In Aurora Public Schools, Superintendent Rico Munn, a lawyer and former head of the State Department of Regulatory Agencies, conferred with staff about a more measured response.

Two days after the Trump White House put DACA on notice, APS emailed the school community a newsletter reiterating district policy about immigration enforcement and linking to a school board resolution passed earlier this year meant to allay community fears. The district statement did not mention DACA, nor was it signed by Munn or anyone personally.

The contrasting responses – from passionate and personal to informational and politics-free – provide a window into how school districts view their responsibilities when a divisive national policy change carries profound implications for many Colorado students and their families.

In Colorado’s urban, suburban and rural areas, officials in districts with large numbers of immigrant students are attempting to support kids at a trying time without over-promising security they may not be able to guarantee. How districts respond hinges on intensely local factors, from the political climate to leadership style and school board makeup.

“This is uncharted waters,” said Kathy Escamilla, director of the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. “… It’s incumbent upon all school districts to say ‘This issue is complex, it’s not just legal and illegal.’ And they need to inform their communities about the complexities about dealing with these thorny issues.”

Roughly 800,000 people in the U.S., including nearly 17,300 people in Colorado, are enrolled in DACA. Begun in 2012, the program offers work permits and temporary reprieves from deportation to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as young children.

Trump has given Congress six months to tackle immigration issues broadly before DACA is undone. He also has indicated that he may act on DACA if Congress does not.

Susana Cordova, deputy superintendent of Denver Public Schools, said leaders of the 92,000-student district felt they had no choice but to speak out.

“The conditions have been thrust on us,” she said Friday.

Cordova added that DPS leaders believe “this is a fundamental moral obligation we have to support our Latino students in general and in particular, take a stance on what we believe is a very misguided, poorly thought-out and detrimental decision.”

Some Denver school principals also spoke out publicly. A group of more than 90 school leaders wrote an opinion piece in The Denver Post calling on Congress to pass the 2017 DREAM Act to provide permanent protections for immigrants.

“Principals have real power in communities,” said author James Cryan, who is founder and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter school network in Denver and Aurora. The group, he said, wanted to use that power “to stand with folks who, in many cases, … don’t feel safe.”

The Aurora Public Schools statement sought to tamp down concerns about imminent immigration actions and said the “safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is our top priority.”

Munn said in an interview that there is no “right response” to news like DACA’s rollback, and that it varies by community. Asked about the more pointed statement from Boasberg and DPS, Munn said neither he nor the district has a track record of putting out such statements.

“We have tried to stay focused on serving our kids and making sure our kids and our families know at a very practical level what the impact is on their lives,” he said. “For us, it’s important not to be a distraction in that communication. In other communities, it makes all the sense in the world to handle it differently depending on how you relate to that community.”

Judith Padilla, an Aurora mother of three, said Friday she didn’t receive the district’s communication on immigration this week, but wishes she had more resources from the schools.

“All of us need more information about what help our schools can or can’t offer us,” Padilla said. “They need to support everyone. I am worried about what’s going to happen.”

Other suburban Denver districts, many of them with large and growing Hispanic populations, also gave a variety of responses.

In Jeffco Public Schools, Superintendent Jason Glass was quick to post on his blog about DACA, striking a tone that falls somewhere between Denver’s and Aurora’s statements.

Glass noted the opportunities DACA provides to undocumented students “who have much to contribute to our community, state, and nation.” He also linked to more information and a “do and don’t list” for educators.

In an email to Chalkbeat, Glass expanded on the district’s strategy, noting that leaders must take into account residents, boards and community values in deciding if and how to engage on issues with political dimensions.

“For Jeffco, that meant reassuring potentially impacted members of our community that our schools remain open and welcoming to them, and that we would monitor and work with our Congressional delegation in an effort to not limit opportunities for our children,” he said. “In other communities, that engagement can mean something else.”

Westminster Public Schools sent an internal communication last week to principals with “key talking points,” and reminders to staff of policy on social media, teaching controversial topics and interactions with immigration officials.

“We do not collect or share information on a student’s legal status and that will not change,” the memo said, echoing the message of many other school districts. “Westminster Public Schools values ethnic and language diversity in our district and we view diversity as a strength.”

Javier Abrego, the superintendent of the Adams 14 School District in Commerce City, put out a more pointed statement — in English and Spanish — on DACA on Wednesday.

“To be sure, the elimination of DACA will not only have a dramatic economic impact on our state and nation, it will have devastating impacts on our schools and communities,” he wrote. “Our community and schools will lose employees, coaches and school support staff. Our educational systems are already in dire need of great support and resources; the elimination of DACA just compounds an already alarming situation.”

Abrego also joined a handful of other superintendents in calling for Congress to act.

In Greeley-Evans School District 6, Superintendent Deirdre Pilch put out a one-paragraph statement Tuesday acknowledging that changes in DACA will “cause worry and concern for some of our students, families and our own staff.” It concluded by encouraging families to voice their concerns to national elected officials and expressing hope that Congress will find a solution.

Earlier this year Pilch was one of several Colorado school and district leaders who signed a letter to federal officials in support of DACA.

But not every district leader felt compelled to speak out about DACA this week.

In St Vrain Valley School District, where 30 percent of the district’s 32,000 students are Hispanic, district officials released no statement or resolution on DACA.

“I don’t know what a piece of paper would do,” said Superintendent Don Haddad. “For us, we don’t change our approach with kids and our community every time a politician says something. We care about our kids 24/7, every day of the week.”

Rural Colorado is far more diverse than most other U.S. rural areas, with significant Latino populations in some areas. Districts there, too, are grappling with responding to DACA.

In the Roaring Fork School District, Superintendent Rob Stein released a one-page statement critical of the DACA announcement on Tuesday — the district’s first day of school.

In a separate letter to district staff and board members, Stein acknowledged that immigrant rights is a political issue and said everyone should make their own choices about how to get involved. “At the same time,” he wrote, “we have a safe haven resolution as a school district that states, in part, ‘We will act where we have influence and make a difference wherever we can.’”

The 1,000-student Lake County school district has yet to send any formal communication about its stance on DACA to parents, said high school principal Ben Cairns. Instead, they’ve deferred to the community’s Latino organizations.

However, the high school is encouraging students to participate in the immigration policy debate. On Tuesday, about two dozen students in three vans traveled to a rally on Denver’s Auraria Campus.

Cairns said he’s aware of potential backlash from other community members but that hasn’t stopped him from supporting the needs of his students.

“It’s complicated,” he said. “But it’s our role to help kids process these big moments in their lives.”

Defending DACA

‘I consider myself American.’ A New York City Dreamer reflects on what losing DACA would mean for him

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
William as a senior in high school

William came to the United States as a child more than a decade ago, and still remembers his first impressions of New York City: towering buildings, modern cars, a jumble of cultures on the crowded sidewalks.

Now 19, he grew up in a remote indigenous village in the mountains of southern Ecuador, where he had limited schooling. His parents emigrated to New York when he was a baby, leaving him with family and friends until he was in elementary school and they could afford to send for him.

“My thought of coming to America was getting a chance to see what was beyond the mountains,” he recalled. “But also finally meeting my parents and living with them.”

William is one of more than 30,000 New Yorkers who benefit from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program for young undocumented immigrants now slated for termination by the Trump administration. His life, like those of many in the program, was thrown into turmoil by Tuesday’s announcement.

William was less than two weeks into his freshman year at a local CUNY college when he heard the news from a fellow student in his international studies class. “I completely lost focus the entire day,” he said. “I was literally crying and having an anxiety attack.”

The DACA decision felt like a betrayal by the president, he said, and reminded him that his future in this country is not assured.

“I’ve grown up here. My friends are here. I consider myself American,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do if I were to be sent back to Ecuador. I’ve lost touch with the culture. I’ve lost most of my family over there.”

William, an only child whose father installs floors and mother is a personal trainer, describes his early years in New York City as a mixture of excitement and fear. He remembers once riding the subway and accidentally sneezing on a police officer. Unable to apologize in English, he stood there mutely, staring up at the angry cop until his mother realized what had happened and spoke on his behalf.

Since her own English was still rudimentary, she sent William to a public library in Queens most days after school, where he was tutored by teenagers and practiced his English with the librarians. His mother suggested that he attend the storytime for younger children so he could hear how words were pronounced.

“I didn’t want to go because there were younger kids who would sit there, literally toddlers,” he said. “Sometimes when they would see me sitting there for storytime, they would laugh.” He felt awful, he said, but it paid off; he was soon fluent in English.

His mother also made sure he didn’t settle for his local high school, pushing him to look beyond his home borough for school. He ended up at Beacon, a selective high school in Hell’s Kitchen. Now aware of his undocumented status, he shared it with people who could help him apply to college — his guidance counselor, for instance — and a nonprofit called Sponsors for Educational Opportunity.

“I’d been hiding my identity for such a long time,” he said. “At that moment, starting to reveal my true self was kind of frightening.”

DACA status — which he first received four years ago and will have for nearly two more years under the current guidelines — proved essential. It gave him a social security number, allowing him to get a state I.D. and learner’s permit, apply for a credit card, and find a part-time job at a supermarket. It’s “helped me kind of blend into my American life,” he said.

But it doesn’t open every door. Even with DACA, he explained, can’t study abroad or participate in certain internships. “My classmates have opportunities I don’t have,” he said. “Whenever I think about that, my world kind of breaks down because there’s so many things I’d like to do.”

The fear that fell over him Tuesday was tempered in part by a visit to his college’s immigration center, where he was advised not to panic. For now, his plans to become a diplomat or lawyer are still on track. His DACA status is secure until it expires and his college scholarship through a program for Dreamers is safe for now.

With questions still swirling about the future, he said, the staff at the immigration center was mostly providing emotional support. “They told me that I’m not alone,” William said. “There’s so many other people who are also experiencing the same thing.”

Correction: This story has been updated with William’s mother’s current job.