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.”

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”

 



disaster ready

Here’s how New York City schools are preparing to serve students impacted by Hurricane Maria

Just weeks after Hurricane Maria traced a deadly path across the Caribbean, The New American Academy Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn got a call.

It was a family member looking for a school for two young relatives after their home on Dominica was wrecked, along with most of the small island.

Before long, the students were enrolled in kindergarten and first grade. The school quickly gave the family a scholarship for after-school care and provided free uniforms — even including new shoes, socks and underwear.

“They lost everything,” said Lisa Parquette Silva, the school’s headmaster. “As soon as I heard these two students needed a place, it was not a question.”

New York City is preparing to potentially welcome an influx of students fleeing Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after the powerful hurricane struck in September, knocking out power grids and flattening homes. The leaders of the country’s largest school system insist they are ready for whomever comes.

“We are going to do whatever we can to support and accommodate them,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a recent press conference, “starting with our public schools.”

Hundreds of thousands could flee Puerto Rico. As home to some of the largest Caribbean communities on the mainland, New York City is a logical place for many of those people to land. They are likely to bring with them an untold number of children who need to enroll in schools — though officials say it’s hard to know how many until they actually arrive.

Already, the Orlando school system reported enrolling almost 300 students from Puerto Rico as of last week. In Miami-Dade, the number was around 200, according to The 74.

In New York City, schools have not yet seen a significant uptick in enrollment, officials said. The few students who have arrived have landed in Bronx and Brooklyn schools, they added.

Serving those students will likely require a host of extra resources. The Miami-Dade school system is expecting to spend $2,200 for every student the district takes in, according to the Wall Street Journal.

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city has sent representatives to Puerto Rico to understand how the situation there could impact schools. Meanwhile, the education department has begun to survey principals here to find out which schools have space to take in new students — and assured those schools that they would get extra funding. Guidance counselors are being trained to meet storm survivors’ unique needs.

“Money will be allotted to those schools to be able to service those children,” Fariña said at the press conference, “understanding in many cases there may be extra support needed for families and trauma.”

The state education department recently put out guidance for schools, saying children who have fled a disaster are likely protected by federal law for homeless students. Under the law, districts can waive documentation requirements for school enrollment — which the city is doing at its Family Welcome Centers — and students are eligible for free meals.

Nicholas Tishuk, executive director of Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings charter school in Brooklyn, said he is already fielding calls from people who are looking for schools as they consider whether to bring over family members from Puerto Rico.

The independent charter school recently packed a van with donated lanterns, batteries and water to be shipped to the island. School leaders have also put the word out that they are ready to enroll students impacted by the storm.

If the school runs out of space, Tishuk hopes it can still serve as a clearinghouse to put families in touch with other local options.

“A school can be a very powerful place to get extra resources,” he said, noting that New Beginnings has a bilingual staff that regularly collaborates with social-service agencies. “Even if it’s not our school, you should reach out to a school that can help you connect to those resources.”

Schools that take in displaced students will most likely have to offer bilingual classes and provide counselors who can support children who have been separated from their parents and are living in the city with relatives.

Eve Colavito, director of schools for DREAM charter school in East Harlem, said one of the most important things schools can provide is stability. The pre-K through ninth-grade school enrolled a middle school student from Puerto Rico this week.

“Our goal initially,” she said, “is to make school as normal and predictable as possible for them.”