helping hands

How one Queens high school became a safe haven for children fleeing Central America

PHOTO: Aleksandra Konstantinovic
Principal Carl Manalo's small high school in Queens enrolled more than 100 new Central American immigrants.

Two years ago, then 13-year-old Franklin A. stood on the side of the road in Mexico, staring at the wrecked truck that had been transporting his family. Their truck had crashed and flipped over, six days after they began their flight from the violence in El Salvador, through Guatemala, and then Mexico. Franklin, his mother and siblings escaped unharmed, but without a way to continue their journey.

They had fled their El Salvador home after gang members murdered Franklin’s father. And now, despite the most recent blow, they were determined to push forward, certain that their best chance for safety still lay in the United States. Once they eventually made it to the border by foot and another truck, they were held in a detention center before being sent to New York.

Franklin arrived in Queens in 2014 with an influx of young immigrant children, many of them unaccompanied, escaping violence and danger in their home countries. More than 1,000 of these children have come to Queens since then, all with variations on a similar story — some took planes rather than trucks, a handful already had visas. Many traveled by themselves, but some met up with a parent already living in the U.S. on a visa, whom they might not have seen in years. After crossing the border, they allowed themselves to be apprehended and held in detention centers, primarily in Texas. Those who had relatives in other states were sent to join them to await the court dates that would determine their right to stay.

Franklin, whose last name is being withheld to protect him and his family, was among the first of these immigrants to enroll at the Queens High School for Information, Research and Technology, a small, struggling school with a large and growing percentage of English learners.

The school, known simply as QIRT, would ultimately take in a huge number of new Central American immigrants. In 2013-14, before the influx, the school’s roughly 400 students were approximately 39 percent Hispanic with 14 percent of students in an English Language Learner program. By the start of the 2015 school year, the demographics had shifted: 47 percent of students were Hispanic, and over a quarter of students were in an ELL program. This past school year, there were about 110 Central American immigrants, representing approximately a quarter of the school.

The school became known as a safe space, according to Principal Carl Manalo, and that was part of the draw for young immigrants.

Since Franklin first arrived, the old Far Rockaway High School building that houses QIRT has transformed into a hub aimed at filling the needs of this new immigrant community. The annual coat drive provides winter clothes to the families, who have arrived primarily from tropical climates. A food pantry supplements their groceries. A daycare downstairs, though several decades old, is meant to keep teenage girls who get pregnant — there’s a handful each year — from dropping out.

Adults can take English as a Second Language classes and earn computer certifications alongside the teenagers. There’s personal support as well, as parents flock to Manalo and Spanish teacher Jomarie Figueroa for help navigating the complex, bureaucratic systems of their new country.

Spanish teacher JoMarie Figueroa doubles as an unofficial advisor to the new influx of Central American immigrant children.
PHOTO: Aleksandra Konstantinovic
Spanish teacher Jomarie Figueroa doubles as an unofficial advisor to the new influx of Central American immigrant children.

But for immigrant students, there are also problems the school can’t solve, like the coyotajes who need to be paid off. Figueroa said bribing one of these clandestine guides who transport people over the border has cost her students between $5,000 and $20,000 per person, depending on the length and difficulty of the journey.

One student in her class, speaking with Figueroa as a translator, said his family paid a coyotaje $7,500 for him to travel from El Salvador to the Texas border on his own. The trip stretched to over two months, from April to June, as he ended up detained in a juvenile facility for 30 days once he’d crossed the border. He arrived at his father’s house in Queens on Father’s Day 2014.

To pay the debt once they’re in the United States, students as young as 15 go to work. Many have typical after-school jobs like babysitting or bagging groceries. Still others, Figueroa has learned, work overnight shifts of 8 to 12 hours at businesses that hire them without documentation and pay them in cash.

Manalo is aware that students take these under-the-table jobs because their families need the money. He has heard the names of businesses that hire them without documentation and at depressed wages, but he doesn’t know how to put an end to the practice without endangering his students. Deportation is a real fear among some of these students, as is not being able to pay the rent, or leaving their families back home without cash.

“If they believe their families back home are in danger, how do we convince them not to work?” he said, referring to the threats that follow unpaid debts to the guides and to corrupt officials in their home countries. “How do we help them?”

The majority of these working students still attend classes despite their full-time jobs, Manalo said, at least for a while. But some still see these immediate, cash-upfront jobs, not education, as the key to unburdening their families.

Manalo said an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on one of these businesses had some students too scared to come to school, dropping the school’s attendance rates, normally in the high 80s, down to 77 percent. Any white van, any knock on the door, Manalo said, had students too afraid to leave home.

Despite its small size and unimpressive test scores, QIRT draws immigrant families seeking a safe environment. During the last round of immigration raids, Manalo personally went around to classrooms to reassure students that they couldn’t be pulled out of school and arrested without a warrant.

“And a warrant is only if you’ve done something really terrible,” Manalo assured the students.

As a poster image of Steve Jobs looks on, Principal Carl Manalo speaks with a teacher in the hallway of QIRT.
PHOTO: Aleksandra Konstantinovic
As a poster image of Steve Jobs looks on, Principal Carl Manalo speaks with a teacher in the hallway of QIRT.

In a classroom buzzing with Valentine’s Day candy sales, Figueroa questioned if the tiny high school is the right place to handle the influx of immigrants that pushed English Language Learner rates from 14 percent in 2012 to over 26 percent three years later. Only about 55 percent of QIRT students will graduate from high school in four years, and 28 percent will go on to college. The school offers few Advanced Placement classes, although some classes can be taken for State University of New York credit.

When the young immigrants and unaccompanied minors first started enrolling in the school two years ago, there were few teachers who spoke Spanish. That meant that up until this year, the non-English speaking students were all lumped together in one class, Figueroa said, no matter if they were beginning or intermediate learners.

Further complicating the placement of these students is the fact that some arrive with an interrupted education, or no formal education whatsoever. They often can’t be placed in grades solely according to their age given how far behind they are in the material. One student, according to Manalo, who recently arrived in the country and enrolled in the school within a matter of days, will age out of this neighborhood school before he has a chance to graduate — a common problem at QIRT. The new student would do best at a transfer school for older students, but there simply isn’t one in the area.

The school is beginning to adjust to its changing demographics. Starting last year, Regents subjects at the school were co-taught by a subject-area teacher working with an English as a Second Language aide in a kind of dance of strengths that ESL coordinator Jenna Ponomarova says works well. Better, certainly, than teaching multiple classes of immigrant minors on her own, which is what she did in past years.

In one ESL classroom, students sit together in a circle and chatter in Spanish as their teacher quiets them down. Some have only recently arrived in the country. The majority of them miss their homes in El Salvador, Guatemala or the Dominican Republic, but want to stay in the U.S. for the economic opportunities. They’d go home for a visit, perhaps, but they say it’s too dangerous to stay there permanently. One student in the back of the room, however, sitting apart from the group, shakes his head no without looking up: he’d like to go back home.

An ESL classroom at QIRT, where 26.2 percent of students are in an ESL program. The borough of Queens has the highest number of ELL students, at 29.5 percent.
PHOTO: Aleksandra Konstantinovic
An ESL classroom at QIRT, where 26.2 percent of students are in an ESL program. The borough of Queens has the highest number of ELL students, at 29.9 percent.

Valerie Cruz believes she’s lucky. Although she arrived in the United States around the same time as the unaccompanied minors, Cruz traveled with her mother, taking an airplane from El Salvador to New York City, with visas in hand.

Cruz spoke nearly fluent English upon her arrival thanks to private school back home — she now often accompanies other students to the nurse’s office to translate as the school still lacks nurses fluent in Spanish. Her first memory of New York is standing in Times Square for New Year’s Eve, shivering in a sweatshirt and leggings better suited to a winter in El Salvador.

She tested out of the ESL classes, and is part of the school’s model United Nations, as well as a program exploring climate change hosted by the New York Times. She’d like to attend Columbia University in a few years. But she says she’ll need scholarships and, like many of her peers, she expects to also get a job to help her mother and sister.

“I’ll need to work to help pay the rent,” the junior said, with a smile held tight by braces. “It’s just a reality I have to accept.”

As a sophomore at QIRT last year, Franklin, the teen who fled El Salvador after his father’s murder, consistently earned praise from his principal and his teachers for his fluent English and his dedication in class. He’d like to stay in New York City for the time being, and one day, join the Air Force as a pilot.

“It was difficult. I was depressed,” he said about the months after his father’s death. “But here at school, my teachers, they wouldn’t have known it.”

This story originally appeared in School Stories, a publication produced by students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Editor’s Note: This post has been corrected with updated figures on the number of newly arrived immigrant children in Queens.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.