in their own words

As crisis over Trump’s immigrant order mounts, what America’s teachers of refugee students want you to know

PHOTO: Charlie Nye / The Star
May Oo Mutraw, president of the Burmese Community Center for Education, works on spelling with six-year-old Ngae Reh in 2015.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order late Friday that blocked refugees from coming into the U.S. for 120 days and bars refugees from Syria from entering indefinitely.

The order — and subsequent detentions of refugees and other legal immigrants arriving in U.S. airports — prompted dramatic protests across the country and an emergency, late-night court ruling temporarily suspending part of Trump’s decree.

Among the many people who will spend the coming days trying to make sense of the shifting, uncertain terrain facing refugee families are the teachers who, in increasing numbers, have been working with their children.

Before and after Trump’s order this week, we asked several of those teachers to tell about their jobs, their students, and what has them worried right now. Here’s some of what they told us.

Louise El Yaafouri helps teachers learn the best ways to reach refugee education in Denver and Aurora, Colorado. She recently wrote this piece about teaching a student who had come to the U.S. from Iraq.

“I was just visiting some former students who are now in middle school, and they’re very cognizant of what’s going on. Families come in waves [to the U.S.], and many have family members that are still in that process of being approved. That creates is a lot of anxiety around, am I going to get to see my family again.

For our students, it’s not safe for them to go back. That saying, ‘Nobody leaves home unless home is the mouth of shark,’ that’s the situation. None of these families would volunteer to come to America. These aren’t families that that was their goal. None would have chosen to lose their homes, their culture, language, food.

I’ve been [around] refugee camps and watched this process of resettlement. It’s often long and terrifying ordeal. The U.S. is known for having a long and stringent process. And in the Denver community, those [countries targeted by Trump’s recent executive order] are seven populations we receive the most.

"Most of the families from Iraq are not refugees but asylees who volunteered to help the U.S. in their country."

A lot of students I get from those countries are not Muslim to begin with! And most of the families from Iraq are not refugees but asylees who volunteered to help the U.S. in their country.

We’re just starting to see our first Syrian kiddos here. [My former school] Bridge Academy got about five.

Our families, they have such a deep love for their home country. I’m an American and I love my country. This is different. It’s the idea of community and family so embedded in every aspect of life. To come to a place like the States … I feel, from my families, there’s a deep sense of isolation and detachment. The Syrian students tend to exhibit more symptoms of traumatic shock.

Syrians are also among the most literate people anywhere. Academically, it doesn’t take a long time for them to be ready to go. Even with disrupted schooling, the chance of them having literacy in their home language is really high. Kudos to those parents.

I work with the whole field of service workers in the refugee context. Working with people from the State Department, Lutheran Family Services, our African Community Center — having a network of people is crucial. We share all this information as it’s coming out and brainstorm and problem-solve. This community is really mobilized to dedicate ourselves to the people we serve. If it were me as an island, it would be too overwhelming.”

*

Emily Ramirez teaches English as a second language in a diverse Dallas high school.

“We had an influx a few years ago from Myanmar, more recently we’ve received students from the Congo. Just in the past year, we’ve had a lot of placements from Syria and Iraq. Most of those students have refugee status. And then there’s a pretty sizable community from central America, a lot who are fleeing pretty violent situations.

"A lot of people complain that refugees put strain on schools. That is true"

I do have a few students [from Syria and Iraq] who are here, but they might still have a brother or an uncle they’re hoping they can come here. For one student, that might be changing — the likelihood of his brother being able to join his family.

We talk about ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. So, why did you leave? And, why did you choose America? For the descriptions of why people left, I got a pretty wide variety. A lot of people from Syria wrote, civil war, war, dying, dead people. When I asked, why America, why not Canada, France, Turkey? They say, I don’t know. We just ended up here.

The placements happen so fast. I had a class that reached 38 students speaking 17 languages. You just keep on welcoming people. A lot of people complain that refugees put strain on schools. That is true, and it can be difficult on schools. But it’s what I do, it’s what I love.”

*

Tonya Powers is a long-term substitute teacher near Lubbock, Texas.

“I’m a speech and debate teacher. This is a fairly wealthy district, so a lot of this is about teaching them how to accept and communicate with people who are not like them. Lubbock is the home of Texas Tech, so there are graduate students especially who have children and go to school in the area. I’ve had a student whose family was in the process of applying for political asylum who has been trying to figure out how that would affect his chances at college. This area is built on cattle and farming, which means a lot of migrant workers.

Most days are pretty normal, but this last week has been rough on them. After the election, we had a horde of eighth-grade boys walking down the hallway chanting ‘Trump, Trump, Trump.’

I want people to know that these are just kids. Kids don’t make the choices they’re so afraid of. Even teenagers don’t. None of these kids I have ever been afraid of becoming terrorists.

It worries me when people talk about immigrants and refugees in broad strokes and have never even talked to one. If you could look your own child in the eye and say they didn’t deserve an education, you’d be heartless. And I think most people are better than that. But I think people don’t remember that immigrants and refugees are kids, too.”

*

Carol Salva is a teacher and consultant working with newcomer students in Houston.

“In one of our more affluent areas, one of the apartment complexes struck a deal with Catholic Charities to resettle refugees there. Before [the nearby high school] could realize what was happening, they were flooded. There were over 30 kids who were coming from Somalia, Burundi, Egypt.

"For the last year or more, so many people in our community have been enriched."

They’re middle schoolers, full of hormones, there were all kinds of issues with behavior. We had refugees in in-school suspension every day. They kept loading them into this one class, and they had no good models for how you act in schools.

These kids are so mad by October. And in October, I went back into the classroom, and took over the class.

One of the teachers quit. But it all turned out really, really well. We watched tape of class, like football players. What did we do wrong? What did we do right?

The kids are learning more English every day, so you can explain things. You start talking about perseverance and grit. ‘You could help prove how fast refugees can learn.’

Most of the school is scared of them … then they started learning. And they bring perspective that you don’t have and I don’t have. Who wouldn’t want that for their child? I moved my kid to this school so he could be part of it.

I don’t mean to romanticize their hardships. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But their perspective is huge and what we want for every classroom.

Their appreciation for education kept blowing us away over and over again. I don’t know if you know any middle schoolers, but their appreciation for education can be rather low. To have a student ask, why do we have a week off? And I would say, it’s spring break, it’s what we do. And he actually said, I don’t need a break. I’ve been on break my whole life.

I teach brand-new newcomers in high school now, and over half the class is from Syria. Their math and science is way beyond ours.

I’m deeply saddened. For the last year or more, so many people in our community have been enriched. You would want these people to be your neighbors.”

Do you teach refugee students? We’d love to hear from you. Tells us where you work and what you’d like other Americans to know about that experience at firstperson@chalkbeat.org.

shot callers

Rico Munn’s inner circle: Meet the team leading Aurora’s district improvements

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

In five years as Aurora superintendent, Rico Munn has brought lots of change to a district that is one of the most diverse in the state and now gentrifying.

The district has become a place that is more open to charter schools, that has more flexibility for schools, and that has recently shown enough improvement to get off of the state’s watchlist for low-performance.

Recently, more change came with the election of four new union-backed union-backed board members after a campaign that saw more outside money than in any recent years.

The district still faces significant challenges, like declining enrollment and the task of improving academic achievement at several schools that are low-performing, including Aurora Central High School, which is now on a state-ordered plan for improvement.

The school board has offered Munn a two-year contract extension. A vote on that contract is set for Tuesday. Munn recently filled one of his cabinet positions after having an interim in the position since September when former chief academic officer, John Youngquist, left to return to Denver Public Schools.

With new members on Munn’s leadership team, officials are embarking on several significant projects, including writing a budget for next school year and working on a process to create a new strategic plan to guide the district through enrollment changes. Some schools have declining enrollment while the city rapidly expands on its eastern boundaries.

Here is a look at the seven people who report directly to Munn who are working on those projects, based on information provided by the district.

Marcelina Rivera

Marcelina Rivera, chief of strategic management
Salary: $160,121
Job description: To provide leadership, direction, and guidance for the chiefs of finance, human resources, support services, and the director of accountability and research. Leads the work related to how human and material resources are used to support the teaching and learning initiatives in the district. Develops clear goals, processes, timelines, and messaging to drive resource support for the academic improvement of all students. Aligns work with the chief academic officer. Drives the work in the school district’s strategic plan.

Bio: Rivera took the Aurora position in 2015. She has a law degree and previously worked at Yale Law School. Most recently, Rivera owned her own consulting firm, was an adjunct lecturer in English as a Second Language at the University of Denver, served as executive director of the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado, and was assistant superintendent and general counsel to The New America Schools.

Andre Wright, chief academic officer

Andre Wright. (Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools).

Salary: $171,000
Job description: Responsible for providing leadership, direction, and guidance for the strategic initiatives and day-to-day operations of the Division of Equity in Learning. Develops clear goals, processes, timelines, and messaging to drive academic improvement for all students. Leads the work to provide school-specific support to roll out district initiatives. Aligns work with the chief of strategic management on use of human and material resources.

Bio: Wright was appointed interim chief academic officer in September. Prior to the appointment, Wright served as a director of learning, overseeing a group of 10 schools since July 2014. Before coming to Aurora, Wright was area executive director for the Northeast Learning Community in the Atlanta-area Fulton County School System. He also served as a principal, instructional leader and assistant principal and first began his education career teaching middle school language arts.

Damon Smith

Damon Smith, chief personnel officer
Salary: $162,614
Job description: Responsible for coordinating all employment issues for the district, including overseeing all personnel budgets, troubleshooting issues, negotiating contracts with the local bargaining unit, recruiting, training, allocating, evaluating, and terminating staff. Also responsible for writing, revising, and rolling out policy and procedures, and representing the Human Resources Department on committees, boards, and councils.

Bio: Smith took over his current position in 2011, but has worked in public education for 26 years, serving as a school social worker, dean of students, assistant principal, principal, and central office administrator in the Denver and Aurora school districts. Smith earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and master’s degree from the University of Denver. Smith is also a graduate of Aurora Public Schools and has been a member of the Aurora community since 1975.

Patti Moon

Patti Moon, chief communications officer
Salary: $136,171
Job description: Provide leadership in developing, achieving, and maintaining proactive planning and communication outputs for district initiatives. Continually coordinate, analyze, and evaluate complex ideas and situations and communicate these items in easy-to-understand language. Also required to effectively communicate, negotiate, and advise. Also provides communications or public relations training, counsel, and advice to schools and departments.

Bio: Moon joined Aurora as the public information officer in March 2014. She was named the chief communications officer in February 2017. Prior to working for the district, Moon was a television journalist who worked in Colorado Springs, Oklahoma City, Chicago, and Washington D.C. She was a TV reporter and anchor working on stories on a wide range of topics including education, health, and crime. Moon earned both her bachelor and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University. She is fluent in Korean and speaks French conversationally. Moon is a Colorado native who graduated from Lakewood High School.

Brandon Eyre

Brandon Eyre, legal counsel
Salary: $162,614
Job description: Responsible for providing legal services to the Board of Education and district administration. Supervises outside counsel doing the same. Communicate to appropriate staff any changes, updates, and recent interpretations of school and employment law. Conduct legal research and draft legal documents including contracts, policies, and correspondence. Supervises the district’s internal auditor.

Bio: Eyre came to Aurora in 2012 from Oregon where he was a partner at Baum, Smith and Eyre, LLC. Eyre’s practice focused primarily on municipal law and served clients throughout eastern Oregon. He represented public sector clients such as the La Grande School District, Union Baker Education Service District and the cities of Elgin, North Powder and Joseph, Oregon. Brandon earned his degrees from Brigham Young University.

Anthony Sturges, chief operations officer

Anthony Sturges

Salary: $182,497
Job description: Responsible for providing administrative and logistical direction and leadership to create and maintain safe, adaptable, and highly functional school and work environments. Serves as incident commander of the incident response team and is the district’s liaison to City of Aurora first responder groups including police and fire departments. Supervises the operational activities of athletics and activities, construction management and support, information technology, maintenance and operations, planning, security, transportation, and facility rental.

Bio: Sturges is a graduate of Hinkley High School in Aurora. He started working as a U.S. History and American Government teacher at Denver’s East High School in 1988 and came back to Aurora in 1993 to teach Honors U.S. History at Rangeview High School and then served as the Dean of Students at Aurora Central High School. From 1998 to 2002, he served as assistant principal for Thunder Ridge High School. In 2002, he became Aurora’s human resources director. Sturges has been in his current position since 2005.

Brett Johnson

Brett Johnson, chief financial officer
Salary: $162,993
Job description: Responsible for advising the superintendent and school board on the financial and budget matters of the district. Also prepares and administers the district budget, guides the development of long-term capital financing methods, directs and supervises all business or finance functions including, but not limited to, risk management, budgeting, and grants management while adhering to district policies and procedures.

Bio: Johnson took over the district’s finance department in March 2017. Prior to working for the Aurora district, Johnson served as the director of the office of major project development for the Colorado Department of Transportation. At CDOT, he explored new methods to finance and procure major transportation projects. He has also worked as the deputy treasurer for Colorado and as the finance manager for the Governor’s Energy Office. During his time as deputy treasurer, Johnson focused on banking, investment, and accounting services. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the University of Colorado.

New Leadership

New leader at Memphis state-run school ‘best candidate’ despite domestic assault conviction

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Westside Middle students will start the next school year under the new leadership of Rodney Peterson and Frayser Community Schools.

Seven years after a domestic assault charge took Rodney Peterson out of the running to lead a Memphis middle school, he is set to become the principal of that same school this fall as it enters a new chapter run by a charter network in Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district.

Peterson officially takes the helm of Westside Achievement Middle School next year, according to leaders of Frayser Community Schools, which will take over operations of the school.

Bobby White, the CEO and founder of the charter organization, introduced Peterson on Thursday during a meeting of the Frayser Exchange Club.

“(Peterson) is the best candidate we had available to lead and operate this school,” White told Chalkbeat. “He has been in this city for six years now in different capacity and leadership roles, and is highly recommended.”

White said that a panel of eight Frayser community members selected Peterson as principal over three other finalists. White added that they had discussed Peterson’s past and determined he was ready to take lead as principal. 

PHOTO: Frayser Community Schools
Bobby White introduced Rodney Peterson during a meeting of the Frayser Exchange Club.

“He has had three leadership positions in the last six years since he left Boston,” White said. “No one has surfaced or talked about any of those things. This needed to be something [Peterson and community members] talked about. After their conversations, we were confident that this wasn’t something that would impact the role of leading this school.”

Peterson was offered the Westside job in 2012 but he withdrew his candidacy after the charges became public.

In 2011, Peterson was arrested and charged in Boston for assaulting his then-wife, Dee Griffin, a former Memphis news anchor. Peterson was then a school leader under Boston Schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson, a former Memphis City Schools superintendent. He resigned in 2012 from his Boston leadership position and served a one-year probation.

Johnson was criticized for not disciplining Peterson following the assault and later apologized. According to the Boston Globe, Johnson wrote a letter to the judge who sentenced Peterson, describing him as “among our most outstanding school leaders.” She gave him a reference when he first applied for principal of Westside in 2012. Johnson later launched an investigation into whether Peterson abused sick time policy while in Boston and revamped how the district handled criminal background checks.

I’ve dealt with the situation and moved on from it, and to respect everyone involved, that’s all that I’d like to say about it,” Peterson told Chalkbeat. “My biggest priority now is ensuring all of the families that I serve trust that I am committed to their child’s education and success. I’m excited to return back to Westside.”

He said he returned to Memphis to run his own business after leaving Boston. Peterson later was a dean at Westside Middle before becoming assistant principal at Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, a charter school. He was most recently an assistant principal at the high school run by Frayser Community Schools.

Now, Peterson will take the helm at Westside as the school is once again in transition. The school has been run since 2012 directly by the Achievement School District, but will be operated by Frayser Community Schools beginning next school year. After the handoff, the school will remain under the oversight of the state-run district.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the turnaround district (no relation to Bobby White of Frayser Community Schools), said he was aware of the appointment and attended the Thursday meeting.

Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education, could not confirm if district officials were aware of Peterson’s past charge. Charter operators are now required to notify the ASD if any employees had flags on their background checks after discovering last year that a Memphis interim principal at a different charter school had a federal felony conviction.

“Charter schools have discretion in who they hire, but we would expect that Achievement School District leadership would be involved if the charter operator was promoting an educator who had something of interest on a prior background check,” Gast said. “In this case, since this individual is a current school leader, we are checking with Frayser Community Schools to determine what process occurred.”

Frayser Community Schools was founded in 2014 by White, a former Memphis principal who started with one high school: Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School. Last fall, the homegrown charter network took control of Humes Middle School when Gestalt Community Schools, another Memphis-based network, exited the state-run district.

Since Westside was taken over by the state in 2013, the school has struggled with lagging enrollment, low test scores, and high teacher and principal turnover. Enrollment has fallen by half since 2012, and the school lost 18 percent of students just this school year.

The state-run district is looking to Frayser Community Schools to turn around the school in terms of safety, enrollment, and academics. White — who was the principal of Westside nine years ago — said he believed Peterson was right for the job.

“The community is 100 percent behind this decision,” White said. “I believe he can lead the school back to the prominence we once experienced.”

Peterson said he has built “extensive relationships” while at MLK Prep and is looking forward to bringing his experience to Westside.

“I am so thankful and excited to be able to continue to serve the kids and families in the community from which I grew up,” he said. “I have built some great relationships with many students and their families in the community, and I look forward to continuing that as we strive to help all the students of Westside Middle School achieve success.”