chalk talk

‘Nobody wins’ when immigrants are blocked from college, says Memphis author

PHOTO: Karen Pulfer Focht/The Commercial Appeal
Isaias Ramos stands in the doorway of Kingsbury High School in Memphis, where reporter Daniel Connolly embedded himself to chronicle Isaias' journey and the challenges facing America's immigrant students.

Daniel Connolly spent five years reporting and writing about Isaias Ramos, an exceptionally bright Memphis high schooler and son of Mexican immigrants.

When Isaias graduated in 2013 from Kingsbury High School, he had to choose between applying to big schools like Harvard University or staying home and painting houses with his father — a choice that Connolly said reflects the lives of many immigrant children across America. Connolly’s 2016 work, The Book of Isaias: A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America, follows Isaias during his senior year. 

Daniel James Conolly

A Memphis native and graduate of White Station High School, Connolly is fluent in Spanish and German and has reported on immigration issues as a journalist in Alabama, Arkansas and now Tennessee. Since 2006, he has been a reporter for The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis.

Connolly says that providing opportunities for immigrant children — and access to higher education — is a growing societal issue in America. It’s especially relevant in Tennessee as the state legislature considers granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students, many of whom can register legally under DACA but still can’t access that education benefit. The measure failed in the House two years ago by one vote and was shelved last year.

Chalkbeat recently sat down with Connolly to talk about the challenges. Here are the highlights, condensed for brevity:

Tell us about The Book of Isaias. What’s your ‘elevator pitch’ for the book?

The book gives a real sense of how we got here with immigrants in America and where we’re going. I wanted to help people understand the history of illegal immigrants. I think knowing that creates a lot more empathy and understanding with where we are now.

The book follows a bright child of Mexican immigrants through his senior year of high school. Isaias is choosing between going to college or staying home to help his family with their painting business. I was imbedded in Kingsbury High School during the 2012-2013 school year, which was Isaias’ senior year. The DACA program had just come through, and Isaias was able to register for a social security card and work permit through that program. He assumed, like many immigrant children, that in-state tuition would be available for him when he went to college. But that’s not how DACA works.

What are your thoughts on Tennessee’s in-state tuition bill?

Isaias, even with legal documents, would have to pay out-of-state tuition if he went to school in Tennessee. That’s $20,000-plus in yearly tuition versus a much much lower cost for in-state. And he’s not eligible for scholarships. That part is really important.

Who benefits from that? There’s no reason he shouldn’t be allowed to attend college at a reasonable cost as any Tennessee resident would. A significant point of the book is what’s lost by children of immigrants not having equal access to opportunities. There’s so much lost potential, and no one, not our economy or society, benefits from that.

Elections get decided at a primary level. Anyone who holds a Republican seat is very worried about a challenge from the right during the primaries. They are worried a campaign ad against them would read “you helped illegal aliens” if they supported something like the in-state tuition bill.

I definitely support something like this bill, but I think the politics are very different, maybe even impossible right now.

You mention the impact of guidance counselors in your work. Tell us more about that.

When I go around the country to present this book, this is something I always talk about. Counselors have a big impact on guiding students in their post-high school choices. If you don’t have enough counselors in the school, you lose out on those opportunities.

When I was at Kingsbury High School in 2012, they had a pretty full staff of school counselors and outside-of-school organizations to help students weigh future options. I’ve heard anecdotally that there’s a guidance counselor shortage in other schools in Memphis. That can be a pivotal person that sends a child to college. And they are often some of the most overworked people in a school. Their workloads are huge.

The immigration fight won’t be resolved anytime soon. In the meantime, we can hire more guidance counselors, create mentoring programs, and find scholarships for immigrant students. There’s a lot to be done.

What’s one revelation that really stuck with you while working on this book?

That people in Memphis are stunned to learn there are majority Hispanic schools in the city. A high school like Kingsbury surprises people, and it’s just not widely known to the general public. For that reason, the perception of immigrants to most in Memphis is that it’s an issue that affects other places, but not us. Like many school systems throughout the country, Shelby County Schools have seen explosive growth in the Hispanic population. In 1992-1993, there were only 286 Hispanic students enrolled in the Memphis City Schools, (which is now Shelby County Schools.) This has changed dramatically. As of 2015, there were 13,816 Hispanic children and teens in the Shelby County schools, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Memphis has no Hispanic political power. There’s no Hispanic vote to go get because most are immigrants. There are no Hispanic officials at any level that I’m aware of. So, we have an environment where 10,000 people have no political representation. I think that helps contribute to that invisibility.

But I hope The Book of Isaias is an opportunity for people to come away from the book with a deeper understanding of immigrant law and society in general. Writing it was absolutely that process for me.

Editor’s note: Periodically, Chalkbeat conducts Chalk Talk interviews with a leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat with suggestions for future subjects to [email protected]

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.”