Who Is In Charge

Undocumented teens struggle to balance high school with working the night shift

PHOTO: Aleksandra Konstantinovic
Students who work overnight jobs sleep for just a few hours before heading into classes at a Queens high school.

Waves of heat flooded the factory floor of an industrial kosher bakery as workers opened and closed the doors. Commercial mixers whirled a thick dough that would soon be braided into challah rolls and baked to a golden brown. In the midst of this noise and heat, Luis, a 17-year-old high school student, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, began his shift. It was a weeknight, 3 a.m., and the Salvadoran teen was supposed to be in class in just five hours.

He poured flour, salt and yeast into the mixers, and rolled out the finished dough. The flattened product he’d hang on racks, where other workers – mostly Central American immigrants like himself – would carry it to the ovens to bake.

Luis is undocumented, having fled El Salvador two years ago. For two months in winter, he spent six nights a week in Zomick’s Kosher Bakery on Long Island, working from 9 at night to 5 in the morning, making approximately $8 per hour – under the state minimum wage of $9. He typically went to bed immediately after getting home from school at 3 p.m., waking up in time to have dinner and go to work. Most mornings, he said, he could still make it to school on time after resting his eyes for another hour. But he was often too tired to focus on schoolwork.

“It’s heavy work. It was too much on me,” said Luis, speaking through a translator, his teacher at Queens High School for Information, Research and Technology (QIRT). He ended up leaving the job after two months to find work without overnight hours.

But other students at the Far Rockaway, Queens public high school work, or have worked, at the same bakery, often on these long, overnight shifts. This past school year, approximately 25 percent of the student population of QIRT was composed of recent immigrants from Central America – mostly unaccompanied minors who crossed the border in record numbers in 2014. Many of these students had been in the country for the two years necessary to obtain legal status – but new immigrants arrived at QIRT weekly. This population of students is most likely to take overnight and underpaid jobs.

It’s a familiar situation for English teacher Joan Mazur. She estimates that about a quarter of her students last year, some as young as 15, were working essentially full-time jobs of 40 hours or more each week while attending high school. In addition to the bakery, students were employed in factories throughout the neighborhood, while others worked in local grocery stores and restaurants.

New York State labor laws regulate how many hours minors can work. During the school year, 14- and 15-year-olds are allowed to work three hours per day on school days and up to eight hours per day on weekends. Their 16- and 17-year-old counterparts can work four hours per day Monday through Thursday, and eight hours per day on Fridays, weekends and holidays. The younger group can only work between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., while older teenagers can work between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The restrictions are relaxed when school isn’t in session, or if a teenager has dropped out of school.

Although students like Luis work outside of the allowed hours, the few teachers who know about these jobs hesitate to report the businesses for a violation of the labor code. If a student loses his income, they fear, it could lead to a lost home. The students also become more vulnerable to deportation raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on their 18th birthdays, though some young workers might be eligible for a U visa, which guarantees protection for victims of certain crimes.
The complexities around their students’ working lives leave teachers unsure of how to help.

“We don’t tell them to quit,” Spanish teacher Jomarie Figueroa said. “But we’ll tell their parents that they need to be in school.”

Some students have told Mazur and Figueroa that they need the money to help their parents pay rent and bills. Some also still owe money to the coyotajes who arranged for them to cross the border after fleeing violence in their home countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. Figueroa said that these long, perilous journeys have left families in up to $20,000 worth of debt per person. And typical of a teenager, Luis also wanted to save his own money for a cell phone.

Immigration expert and attorney Allan Wernick wasn’t surprised to hear of these undocumented young people working overnight. Echoing the teachers, he said it’s particularly difficult to convince them not to work when the money is needed. And Wernick questioned whether there was any value for the students in taking on the businesses that hire them. “Unless there’s a financial remedy or they get some benefit out of it, what’s the point of suing?” he said. “Yes, [the students] have a right to recovery, but not a right to the job.”

Meanwhile, however, these overnight jobs can cause issues at school, leaving the students tired and unprepared in class, Mazur said. Some will leave classes early or stop attending altogether in order to accommodate their work — a problem at a school where only 55 percent of students graduate in four years.

It’s particularly concerning for students who may have come to the school from other countries with only a few years of formal education. Missing additional classes means they fall further and further behind. In a recent English class, some struggled to complete worksheets designed for much younger children, which asked them to identify cartoon drawings of cats and houses by their English names. Mazur said some seem dejected when they fail to quickly grasp English. Other students believe their jobs are simply more important than coming to class, and are usually forthright about why they were late or absent.

During one lesson, Mazur wrote the names of her students’ home countries on the board – El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala – and asked for the capital cities. Her students shouted out the answers as Mazur wove into the lesson a recent soccer game between Honduras and El Salvador that had been popular entertainment in the class. But despite some students’ enthusiastic responses, others had their heads in their arms, too tired to focus.

Mazur sees students who make a tremendous effort to juggle both work and classes. “The reality is, the kids who are most motivated to work like that are also the ones most interested in learning,” Mazur said.

QIRT’s attendance rates were approximately 85 percent school-wide last year, according to business manager Parris Morris, compared to a citywide average of 92 percent. Phone calls and home visits can motivate students to attend, she added. But Mazur sees that even when they do attend, many students with jobs aren’t as engaged.

“It’s not so much the attendance, it’s when they get here, their heads are on their desks,” Mazur said.

Jackie, a student who works at the same bakery where Luis just quit, packs baked challah from late afternoon to approximately 1 a.m. – about 48 hours each week. She said she’s paid $9 per hour, and began working when she was just 15. Her name has also been changed due to fears about her job and her immigration status.

Both Jackie and Luis said everyone in their family has a job. As of March, Jackie, who came from Honduras last year, was still going to court every month or so as part of the process that she hopes will legalize her status. She lives with her mother and two cousins in an apartment in Far Rockaway. Luis also contributes to his household income, but with his family more established, he’s able to spend his earnings on clothing and electronics. He said he also likes working because it provides some independence.

“It’s all about money,” Figueroa said, marking a student absent for the third time that week.

Zomick’s Kosher Bakery was the subject of a lawsuit filed last year that claimed it had paid the three adult plaintiffs, all of whom worked 72 hours per week, less than minimum wage.

Lawyers for the owners of the bakery denied each claim. The lawsuit, filed in March of last year, was dismissed in January 2016.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not return multiple requests for comment, while lawyers for the defense declined to discuss the case, saying the resolution was confidential. However, attorney Aaron Solomon of Kaufman, Dolowich and Voluck, who represented the bakery during the lawsuit, did state that all of Zomick’s employees are of legal age.

Solomon also stated that Zomick’s complies with the requirements of the Immigration Reform and Control Act by requiring employees to provide documentation that they are authorized to work in the United States.

Mazur believes her working students receive checks made out to cash, and take them to check cashing stores. Figueroa has asked them whether it’s worth it to make so little, and then pay for transportation to and from work, along with a fee to get the cash. A solution to the truancy and the overnight jobs, she speculated, might be to make school attendance a requirement for obtaining immigration papers. She’s seen many of her students leave school for work once they know their place in the country is secure.

“I was horrified,” Mazur said, regarding some of her students’ jobs. “Nobody that young should be working like that because they feel like they have to.”

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

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”

Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says

“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Full circle

On her first day as Denver superintendent, Susana Cordova visits the school where she was a student

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova addresses students at Barnum Elementary School on Jan. 7, her first day as Denver superintendent.

At a morning assembly marking the first day of Susana Cordova’s tenure as Denver schools superintendent, the most telling moment was not the speeches from current and former mayors pledging their support, or even the remarks from Cordova herself.

It was when Cordova whispered in the ear of third-grader Grace Sotelo. Grace was one of four students chosen to present Cordova with gifts, including a bouquet of flowers. Afterward, the third-grader stepped up for a brief turn at the microphone.

“Doctor — ” Grace said, then paused.

“Cordova,” the new superintendent whispered to her.

“Cordova,” Grace said. “We are proud of your success of being our — ”

“Superintendent,” Cordova whispered.

“Our superintendent,” Grace said. “We know you’ll be the best superintendent we’ve ever had.”

The interaction served as a reminder that the district’s new superintendent started her career in the classroom, teaching students like Grace.

The location of the event was also symbolic. It was held at the school that Cordova, a lifelong Denver resident, attended as a child: Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver. A printout of her fourth-grade school photo — straight-cut bangs, dimples, and a striped turtleneck — hung on a wall behind the risers.

PHOTO: Courtesy Denver Public Schools
Cordova in fourth grade

“When I was a student here at Barnum, one of my very favorite things to do was read,” Cordova told the first-, second-, and third-graders sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor.

“One of my favorite authors was a woman named Judy Blume. And she wrote a lot of good books. Maybe you’ve read some of them. But Judy Blume also said something that I think is really important. She said, ‘Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.’

“That’s what education does. It touches lives. And I want to make sure that our fingerprints — all our fingerprints — are forever part of the story, so that our students are successful.”

Cordova, 52, officially assumed the role of superintendent of Denver Public Schools on Monday, making her the top boss of Colorado’s largest school district with about 93,000 students. Cordova was selected by the school board last month after a four-month national search. She succeeds Tom Boasberg, who served as superintendent for nearly 10 years.

Cordova was an internal candidate. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, she has worked for the district since 1989 as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. For the past two years, she served as deputy superintendent under Boasberg.

Cordova was the sole finalist for the top job, a decision that sparked accusations from some community members that the search was a sham. In choosing her, the school board noted her depth of experience, her willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and how she fit many of the criteria students, parents, and teachers wanted in the next superintendent.

Among them: Cordova is an educator. The previous two superintendents came from the business world. She is also Latina. The previous two superintendents were white men. Only 25 percent of Denver students are white, while 54 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Cordova is also bilingual in English and Spanish, and started her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher. Currently, more than a third of Denver students are learning English as a second language. The most common first language spoken by students is Spanish.

Denver students, on the whole, have made academic gains over the past decade. Many people credit the progress to controversial strategies such as replacing struggling schools.

But Cordova faces several big challenges as superintendent, including narrowing persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones.

Last year, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on state literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families. About two-thirds of Denver students belong to the latter category.

While Cordova has emphasized the importance of closing those gaps, she said on Monday that her sole focus for the next two weeks will be reaching an agreement on teacher pay with the Denver teachers union. The two sides have been negotiating changes to the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, for more than a year. The union has threatened to hold a strike vote if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 18.

The union and the district are set to return to the negotiating table Tuesday for the start of several all-day bargaining sessions. Cordova said she plans to attend every one, a departure from her predecessor’s approach to contract negotiations.

“I’m very optimistic we can get to a good solution,” Cordova said in an interview following the event at Barnum. “My closest friends are DPS teachers. I deeply understand and know the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in the district.”

Toward the end of the interview, after the students had returned to class and the custodial staff was stacking the chairs, Cordova was approached by two women with district lanyards around their necks. They introduced themselves as teacher’s aides who’d worked for the district for more than 20 years each. One of them held out her cell phone.

“Could we have a picture with you?”

Yes, Cordova said. In the gymnasium of her old elementary school, festooned for the occasion with yellow and blue crepe paper, the new superintendent stood between them and smiled.