Newcomers

Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The Newcomer school serves students in their first year in the U.S. who are learning English.

It’s first period on a Wednesday, and Alejandra is chewing gum, bouncing her foot and goofing with friends in a reading class for students learning English. The teacher — a substitute for the morning — writes vocabulary words on the whiteboard: “improves,” “silence,” “activists.” When she gets to “dangerous,” Alejandra springs to life. “Not safe!” she bursts out.

Danger is familiar for Alejandra, who declined to use her real name because she was involved with gangs in her home country of Honduras and is afraid for her safety even now — months after moving to Indianapolis and enrolling in the city’s first dedicated program for immigrant students.

In Honduras, Alejandra was involved with the gangs that have made that country perilous for young people. She lived with her father’s family after her mother fled the country when she was 2, and her father was murdered by a gang before she was 10. After leaving school as a child, Alejandra first worked taking fares on a bus before starting to sell drugs.

Now, she takes the bus to school, walks with her boyfriend between classes and practices graphing equations.

It’s exactly the experience that Indianapolis Public Schools officials wanted immigrant students to have when they launched the newcomer program this school year. They expected about 80 children to enroll, but so far there are 200 students in grades 7-9, with more teens arriving nearly every day. All are in their first year in the United States.

Read: Should undocumented students be afraid? These are their rights.

At a time when President Donald Trump’s administration is attempting to close the door to many immigrants, the school is a place of welcome for teenagers who are refugees, asylum-seekers and other recent immigrants. The aim is to give students who speak little English — and often had little formal education in their home countries — the skills to graduate from high school and thrive in the U.S.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Administrator Jessica Feeser looks at a student’s drawings at the Newcomer school.

For some students, Trump’s recent executive orders barring refugees and pushing for a wall at the Mexican border have inspired fear, said Jessica Feeser, who oversees IPS programs for English-language learners. They are afraid they will be sent back to countries riven by violence — afraid they will be killed.

“It is very, very emotional,” Feeser said. “Honestly, how do you teach when you know that children are fearful (for) their lives?”

What educators do is talk with students about their fears, she said. They tell them the school is a safe place and teachers and others at the school will do everything they can to help them achieve their dreams.

Like many students at the newcomer school, Alejandra came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor, traveling north from Honduras by bus and on foot with a friend. When she reached the U.S. border, Alejandra was detained by immigration officials and sent to Indianapolis to reunite with her mother, she said.

It was a relief for her mother Paula, who also declined to use her real name, when Alejandra finally made it to the U.S. For years, Paula had thought about bringing her daughter from Honduras but had feared her former husband’s family, who wanted Alejandra to stay, she said. It was only when she learned her daughter was involved with gangs that she changed her mind.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the newcomer school speak at least 14 different languages.

Now, Alejandra lives with her mother, stepfather and 10-year-old brother in Indianapolis. Her mom still cries thinking about what they went through, she said. But Paula also has started to dream for her daughter’s future.

As Alejandra tells the story of her life in Honduras, she ducks her head and lets her long bangs slide in front of her eyes. But occasionally, when the story is funny, her face lights up and she bursts into laughter.

At the same time, she said through a translator, it’s hard being a student here in the U.S. She had power in Honduras, and when she had conflicts, she would fight with other people. Now, she has to control herself when other people upset her.

“If somebody is screaming or using bad words with me, I just keep control,” she said, “because if I want to be the best person, I need to have control.”

When Alejandra started the school year, she was at Northwest High School. But she said she struggled to pay attention, often falling asleep or playing on her cell phone during class. At the newcomer school, she seems in her element. She is friendly and vivacious, chatting with other students in Spanish and greeting teachers in the hall. When two new students are brought into history class, she volunteers to help them.

And she jokes about taking as long as she can to learn English, so she can stay at the newcomer school.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
In science class at the newcomer school, students study adverbs and adjectives as well as the science of volcanoes and other subjects.

But that won’t be possible. Students can only stay in the newcomer program during their first year in the country, so soon, Alejandra will need to choose a school for next year.

Alejandra’s story is stunning, but she’s not the only student at the newcomer school who saw a relative murdered before fleeing her home country, according to staff. She’s not the only student who was involved with gangs before fleeing Central America. She’s not the only student who didn’t finish her elementary education.

These are the everyday challenges that students and staff at the newcomer school must grapple with: Many students have been through unimaginable trauma, are far behind academically and are just beginning to learn English.

The newcomer school offers many typical middle and high school subjects, from algebra to earth science. But every class is also an English class: In math the walls are lined with Spanish translations for math terms. In science, students start the class by practicing adjectives and adverbs. And in history, they are learning not only the concept of appeasement during World War II but also the names of European countries.

Amanda Clayton, who runs the newcomer school, was expecting those challenges when she started the year. But still, she was stunned to see the amount of trauma that some of their students had suffered.

“Every day we have more kids who have seen their fathers shot,” she said. “Then they walk for three weeks, and then they just arrive at our doors.”

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.”

school access

Security measures at Aurora schools are supposed to protect kids, but are they scaring away some of their parents?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School students walk past the attendance office.

An additional layer of security screening in Aurora schools has raised concerns about whether a system meant to keep kids safe may be keeping away parents and other family members who are not in the country legally.

Beginning this fall, everyone who enters a school in Aurora is being asked to present ID so staff can check names and dates of birth against a public database of registered sex offenders.

Visitors may present a state-issued ID or other documents such as a passport or consulate card from their home country, district officials say.

In a climate of fear about increased crackdowns on immigration, asking for that kind of documentation can have a chilling effect, said Corrine Rivera-Fowler, a policy and civic engagement director with Padres & Jovenes Unidos, a nonprofit advocacy group for parents.

“There is a heightened awareness that the government cannot be trusted,” she said. “Now that a parent may have to come into a school and provide the school an ID, that’s only going to heighten the anxiety. Even if they present a passport or other document, in their mind that’s an admission that they don’t have a U.S. document. You feel like you’re exposing yourself.”

District officials say they are sensitive to the concerns, and have sought to clearly communicate how the system works and what it’s all about with principals and parents.

School officials in Aurora already have voiced their own concerns about the current immigration climate dissuading parents from filling out important forms — including applications for free and reduced priced lunches — or even keeping kids out of school completely.

The Aurora school board, like others across the country, responded earlier this year by passing a resolution written by community members restating existing policies for how the district deals with immigration officials.

By then, work was well underway on the new security system. The Aurora district finished rolling out the Raptor Technologies system at all its schools at the start of this school year. At least seven Aurora schools started piloting the system in 2015-2016. And some schools went out on their own to buy it before the district rolled it out.

The Raptor system is already in use across several other school districts, including the Cherry Creek School District and Adams 12 school district in Thornton.

In Aurora, concerns about the security system surfaced last week at a school board candidate forum when an anonymous audience member wrote a question about it on a notecard.

“There is a new security system in APS that requires visitors to present a government ID to enter a building,” the attendee wrote. “How will you ensure access for undocumented parents to schools?”

Most of the candidates taking part in the forum were unaware of the policy. In the room full of immigrants and refugee families listening through translators on headsets, all eight school board candidates attending raised concerns about a system that could keep undocumented parents out of schools. Barbara Yamrick, one of the nine candidates vying for four seats in November’s election didn’t attend.

“We have to change this system immediately,” said school board candidate Kevin Cox.

“I’ve got questions,” said candidate Marques Ivey. “This is something that would definitely be addressed and looked at.”

Greg Cazell, the director of security for Aurora schools, said the district has worked on rolling out the security system for four years.

“It was a huge concern throughout the process, making sure we didn’t disenfranchise that population,” Cazell said.

In August, the district sent letters to all principals explaining how the system works: Only the name and date of birth get stored. The information is only compared to the public database of registered sex offenders. No information is shared with law enforcement or immigration agencies. If a person is registered, they may be denied access to the school, but if the person is a parent of a child at a school, officials at the school are required to escort the person while in the building.

The district sent letters home to all families and made automated phone calls home in several languages. Officers from the district’s security team, including some who speak Spanish, also host meetings at schools to talk to parents about how backgrounds checks are run for volunteers and are taking the time to explain the security system too.

“Generally once it’s been explained, there are no concerns,” Cazell said. “But that’s a challenge for my department in general because we do have armed uniformed officers. We’re not here to remove anyone. Our job is school safety. We constantly want to make sure that message is getting out.”

At Virginia Court Elementary, school leaders talked to families about the new system at back to school night and have conversations about it when people walk into the school. The principal, Kim Pippenger, said parents have not raised issues about access for undocumented families.

“As people come in they wonder why — why do we have this new system?” Pippenger said. “Our answer is always about student safety. I really haven’t had anyone come in with this concern.”

Raquel Amador, a parent and leader with RISE, the nonprofit that hosted last week’s candidate forum, said concerns about the security system discussed at the forum may have given people the wrong impression. Amador also works as a secretary at Fulton Academy.

“Saying the schools are giving a hard time to parents is not true,” Amador said. “I can say this is a very secure system for our kids’ security. It doesn’t have any risk for parents.”

Still, local immigration advocates say it wouldn’t hurt for the district to be more explicit in explaining the new system to families.

Rivera-Fowler, of Padres & Jovenes, said she compared the immigration policies enacted by Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools. She said the one in Aurora is not as explicit as it could be.

Denver’s immigration resolution states the district will do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

Aurora’s immigration resolution states that “absent any applicable federal, state, or local law, regulation, ordinance or court decision,” the district “shall not disclose, without parental or guardian consent, the immigration status or other personally identifiable information of any student.”

“In DPS it was really clear the district does not collect or share immigration information. We tried really hard to make sure they say that over and over,” Rivera-Fowler said. “It’s all about building trust, so explicitly putting that into a policy and then making sure it’s communicated over and over again is necessary.”

Cazell said his office has not been made aware of any parents losing access to a school. He can, however point to instances where the system is doing its job, he said.

In one recent case, a man entered a school and was identified as a registered sex offender. The man had no child at the school. Staff then learned he had tagged along with a parent who was visiting the school. He was denied access to the school and asked to wait outside while the parent went inside.

“It’s about knowing who is coming in our schools and making sure they’re safe to be around our students,” Cazell said. “And really to track who is in the building.”