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

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 FariƱa, 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.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”