Trump’s immigration policies leave empty seats at an Indianapolis school

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Amanda Clayton with a student in the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program opened its doors last year, there was a burst of enrollment, with new students trickling in throughout the year.

But with the Trump administration’s months-long ban on refugee admissions, the school — and the students it serves — are facing new challenges this year. Fewer students than expected are enrolling in the program, and many of the families at the school are living in fear of deportation.

“We felt like kids were coming out of the woodwork because this place had been built for them,” said Amanda Clayton, who runs the program. Now, she said, “I feel like a lot of our families are having to go back into the shadows.”

The changed circumstances of the newcomers program — the district’s attempt at making immigrant children feel more welcome, as well as improving their chances of success in the system — is a reflection of how much the immigration picture in the United States has shifted since the election of President Trump. For some, it is a window into the lives of immigrant children and their families at a time when the country is riven over how wide to open its doors and what to do with those already here.

The newcomer program is designed to help students who are new to the United States acclimate and learn English before transitioning to other IPS schools. Most of the students are Spanish speaking immigrants and asylum seekers, but a large minority are refugees from around the globe. Now in its second year, the campus added elementary grades this year, expanding to include students in 3rd to 9th grades.

The program prepared for up to 300 children, Clayton said, but this year enrollment has been slower than staff expected. Currently, it has 160 students. (It admits new students throughout the year, however, and its enrollment has grown by about 42 children since July.)

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students in the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program finger paint.

It’s hard to predict enrollment at the school because it depends heavily on immigration to the city, Clayton said. There are other reasons behind the low enrollment, she said, such as lower than expected interest in the elementary program because many families are happy with neighborhood schools. But one of the most significant reasons enrollment is unexpectedly low is because there are far fewer refugees resettling in Indianapolis.

Since President Trump took office, the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. has plummeted. From January through September 2017, about 28,000 refugees were admitted to the country — fewer than half the number that were admitted during the same period in 2016, according to State Department data.

The decline in refugees coming to Indianapolis steepened this summer when the administration stopped processing new refugee applications, said Elizabeth Standiford, director of development and communications for Exodus Refugee Immigration of Indianapolis. Although some refugees were still allowed in the country, resettlements in Indianapolis fell drastically, she said. Last October, for example, Exodus resettled 164 refugees. During the same month this year, the agency resettled just seven people.

In an interview in September, Jessica Feeser, who oversees English language learning for IPS, said she expected to see enrollment grow again with the admission of more refugees to the U.S.

“When that, hopefully, ban is lifted, we will be able to welcome families to IPS,” she said, referring to the halt on refugee processing. “I think this is temporary.”

In fact, President Trump lifted the suspension on admitting new refugees on Oct. 24. But the administration is imposing additional restrictions on refugees from 11 countries, and it has also drastically lowered the number of refugees it plans to admit.

It’s unclear how those changes will affect Indianapolis or the newcomer program. Exodus is expecting the number of refugees resettled in the city to remain relatively low over the next few months, Standiford said.

“We don’t really know how quickly the program will get going again with the new restrictions,” she added. “We have the worst refugee crisis the world has ever seen, right, and the U.S. has pulled back on welcoming refugees.”

Since Trump took office in January, the administration has waged a campaign to reduce immigration to the U.S., arguing, among other things, that public safety and jobs for natural born Americans are at stake. Much of the resistance also has been focused on concerns about public spending for immigrants, particularly those who have entered the country illegally.

Indiana politicians have supported similar positions in recent years, including under the governorship of Mike Pence, who is Trump’s vice-president. In 2015, Pence refused to resettle Syrian refugees in Indiana, a move that was blocked by a federal appeals court following a case brought by Exodus. In 2011, state lawmakers barred governmental bodies from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The newcomer school, however, has not been the focus of vocal criticism. Several state lawmakers who have introduced legislation to prevent education institutions from becoming “sanctuary” campuses declined to comment on the program.

In contrast to state policymakers, Indianapolis leaders have vocally welcomed immigrants. The IPS school board approved the newcomer program unanimously, and it has passed two resolutions in support of undocumented students over the last eight months. That support has also been financial: Despite the lower than expected enrollment in the newcomer program this year, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has maintained the school’s funding and staff.

The support the program has gotten from the district sends a message to the community, Clayton said, including, “We are not going to close our doors on this population.”

But many families are still afraid, Clayton said. Once they turn 18, students seeking asylum in the U.S. routinely come to school with ankle bracelets so immigration officials can monitor their location. One mother’s children missed several days of school because she was unsure where the bus stop was, and she was afraid to leave her home to find it.

“Last week, one of our student’s dads, he was deported,” she said during an interview in September. “She didn’t know that day that she was going to go home and that was going to be the case.”

But despite the challenges that federal immigration policy has imposed on the newcomer program’s families and staff, the slow start to the school year had advantages, Clayton said. Classes were smaller (about 15 students per class in high school), so it was easier to show students how the school works. Teachers were able to get their bearings.

As Clayton walked through the school on a Friday in September, the halls were quiet and calm. But inside classrooms, students were boisterous and friendly.

When Clayton walked through a high school advisory period, students clustered around her to show off their grades. Many of the students at the school aren’t familiar with grades, so the teachers use emojis to help translate which are good.

“B is good?” one boy asked Clayton. “Yes,” she said. “A B is good. Yes.”

The school is designed to be small, so staff can build close relationships with students. And as Clayton walks through classes, it’s clear that she knows what’s going on with most of the teens. She knows why the students came to the U.S., who they are living with, and where they used to go to school.

Clayton comes across another boy who started at the newcomer program last year. His grades jumped this year, she said.

“This is amazing,” she told him. “I’m really proud of you”

The atmosphere is a contrast with the high schools where these students would likely enroll if they were not in the newcomer program, said Katherine Hinkle, a literacy coach at the school. Hinkle used to teach at Northwest High School, a large, traditional IPS campus that serves many newcomer students. The campus wasn’t equipped to support those teens, she said.

At newcomer, students can get personal attention and slowly acclimate to school in America, she said.

“Kids are coming in and this is their first impression of school in the United States,” she said. “The culture is automatically, ‘everyone works. Everyone tries. It’s O.K. to make mistakes. This is how we do things.’ ”

language learning

Westminster district signs agreement to better serve students learning English

Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Teachers in Westminster schools will get new training for educating students who are learning English as a second language, and the district will have to create a way to evaluate how they are providing that education.

Those are just two of a long list of changes the district will make after the superintendent signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to change the way Westminster Public Schools educates students who are identified as English language learners.

The settlement agreement is the result of a federal investigation in which the U.S. Department of Justice claimed the district was in violation of non-discrimination laws. According to a brief summary online, federal officials, “examined whether the district was identifying and serving its English learner students in compliance with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act,” and entered into the agreement “to resolve the District’s noncompliance” and “ensure that (English learner) students receive the support they need to succeed.”

The original complaint was not immediately available. The agreement also notes that the district disputed the claims and argued its schools were in compliance with the law.

School district officials were not available to comment on the agreement.

Other districts in the region have had issues with the federal government related to educating English learners. Adams 12 officials signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010. The Adams 14 district reached a settlement agreement in 2014 after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. Denver Public Schools has been under a court-ordered agreement for more than 30 years.

In the current school year, about 40 percent of Westminster’s almost 9,500 students are identified as English learners. The agreement, however, suggests that the district might not have properly identified all the students who need English language services.

As a whole, the Westminster district has struggled academically on state criteria. The district was one of the first to face state accountability hearings last year and was put on a state-ordered plan to show improvement.

In the latest round of state test data, the Westminster district was one of the only districts in the metro area where English language learners had worse growth scores than native English speakers in both math and English. In the previous round, there was no gap in growth scores on English tests.

When it comes to graduation rates, the district’s English learners outpace the district overall. In 2017, for instance, 59.3 percent of students who speak limited English graduated in four years, compared to 57.8 percent of all district students. Looking at six-year graduation rates, the district’s English learners also outpace the state’s English learners.

Among the most detailed changes in the settlement agreement are changes to how teachers are trained to work with students who speak a language other than English.

The agreement states that “all English language development instruction will be provided by a CLDE-endorsed teacher or one who is “on-track” to complete” the state certification.

According to data provided by the district in December, 83 district staff members at that point had that state certification to teach culturally or linguistically diverse students. The district has more than 1,000 staff members including about 500 teachers. The agreement lays out a timeline for when teachers must complete the certifications, when the district must revise their internal training for new teachers and when they must complete their training program for existing teachers.

The training materials for those programs must be submitted to the federal government for review within 60 days of the agreement.

Some of the other requirements laid out in the agreement:

  • Within 45 days, the district must identify students who after five years of services have not yet become fluent in English, and must ask the parents whether they want their children to get additional help.
  • The district will have to train employees to review whether parents need translation services, and will train them on how to explain to parents how they may get access to qualified interpreters.
  • Except in an emergency, the district is not to use students, family, or friends of parents for interpretation or translation services.
  • The district must review its procedures for identifying students who are English learners — including students who are new to the country, and students who are long-term English learners — and must review files of all students enrolled in the district during the last four years to find students who might have qualified as English learners and who weren’t tested or identified.
  • The district must also staff each school with a specialist with a state endorsement for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students, including at the district’s Colorado STEM Academy and Westminster Academy for International Studies, in order to “provide an equal and meaningful opportunity for (English learners) to apply” and participate in the schools.

Read the full agreement below.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.