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.

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”


Tennesseans reflect on Candice McQueen’s legacy leading the state’s schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with Arlington High School students during a school visit Tuesday that kicked off a statewide tour focused on student voices.

As Candice McQueen prepares to leave her role as Tennessee education commissioner in January, education leaders, advocates, and parents are weighing in on her impact on the state’s schools.

McQueen 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January after about four years under the outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam administration.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy. But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Here are reactions from education leaders and thinkers across the state:

Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and programs at Conexión Américas:

“It was her commitment to transparency, equity, and strong accountability that helped create a nationally recognized framework that places students at its center. Commissioner McQueen’s commitment to inclusion and engagement meant that our partners across the state had the opportunity to weigh in, share their experiences, and to ask hard questions and conduct real conversations with policymakers. Tennessee continues to lead the nation in innovation and improvement in K-12 education, and that is due in no small part to Commissioner McQueen’s leadership.”

Shawn Joseph, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, who in August co-penned a letter declaring “no confidence” in state testing:

“Since joining MNPS just over two years ago, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Commissioner McQueen and her team. She has been a strong advocate for Tennessee’s children, and I especially want to thank her for her support of the work that is taking place in Nashville. We send her our very best wishes — and our hearty congratulations for accepting her new role.”

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee:

“Commissioner Candice McQueen is one of the most visible members of the Haslam Administration. She took over the department during a dark period in public education, and she made a significant difference within the department, particularly in the infrastructure. Those changes are not readily noticeable, as they include systems, processes and human capital. There are some exceptional people within the Department of Education working to make public education a success in our state. It is unfortunate that online testing continues to be a point of contention, but the state is moving in a positive direction. The next Commissioner of Education and the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will need to make adjustments in student assessment as we move forward.   We will always be grateful to Commissioner McQueen for her unwavering support of increasing teacher salaries and commitment to student literacy.”

Sharon Griffin, leader of the state-run Achievement School District:

“I have truly appreciated Dr. McQueen’s leadership and vision for the Department of Education.  From a distance and even closer in recent months, I have clearly seen the integrity and passion she brings to the work of improving student outcomes.  We have absolutely connected around our shared belief in how what’s in the best interest of students should guide our work.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of SCORE:

“Tennessee students have been served very well by the steady and strong leadership of Commissioner McQueen. Her priorities have been the right ones for our children: improving student achievement, with a specific focus on reading skills; advocating for great teaching and supporting teachers to deliver high-quality instruction; and emphasizing that students and schools with the greatest needs must receive targeted focus and support in order to improve.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift:

“Memphis parents want decision makers to be accessible, and we appreciate that Commissioner McQueen made a point to build relationships and hear concerns from the entire community. Hopefully, the next education commissioner will bring parents to the table for conversations about our kids’ education.”

Mendell Grinter, leader of Memphis student advocacy group Campaign for School Equity:

“In our collaborative work and position in the educational landscape, we have witnessed firsthand how Commissioner McQueen has served as a tireless advocate for students and families in Tennessee. Over the past two years her leadership has inspired school leaders, and teachers alike to recognize the sense of urgency for improving school equity and academic outcomes for more students.”

Andy Spears, author of Tennessee Education Report and vocal critic of state test, TNReady:

“After what can charitably be called a rocky tenure at the helm of the Tennessee Department of Education, Candice McQueen has miraculously landed another high-level job. This time, she’ll take over as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, an organization apparently not at all concerned about the track record of new hires or accountability.”

Beth Brown, president of Tennessee Education Association:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”