Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

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

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

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.”

Uncharted waters

From passionate to politics-free, here’s how Colorado school districts responded to Trump’s DACA decision

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver students walk to a rally September 5, 2017 to protest President Trump's decision to end DACA.

Even before the Trump administration announced the rollback of an Obama-era program that provides protections to young undocumented immigrants, Tom Boasberg didn’t hold back.

The longtime Denver Public Schools superintendent fired off one pre-emptive statement saying that ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, would “cruelly rip the American dream” from young immigrants’ grasp. He joined other civic leaders for a news conference under the Capitol dome to call for the program’s preservation.

When DACA’s imminent demise was announced Tuesday, the DPS communications staff was ready with a statement, in both English and Spanish, decrying the move as “shortsighted, heartless and harmful.”

In Aurora Public Schools, Superintendent Rico Munn, a lawyer and former head of the State Department of Regulatory Agencies, conferred with staff about a more measured response.

Two days after the Trump White House put DACA on notice, APS emailed the school community a newsletter reiterating district policy about immigration enforcement and linking to a school board resolution passed earlier this year meant to allay community fears. The district statement did not mention DACA, nor was it signed by Munn or anyone personally.

The contrasting responses – from passionate and personal to informational and politics-free – provide a window into how school districts view their responsibilities when a divisive national policy change carries profound implications for many Colorado students and their families.

In Colorado’s urban, suburban and rural areas, officials in districts with large numbers of immigrant students are attempting to support kids at a trying time without over-promising security they may not be able to guarantee. How districts respond hinges on intensely local factors, from the political climate to leadership style and school board makeup.

“This is uncharted waters,” said Kathy Escamilla, director of the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. “… It’s incumbent upon all school districts to say ‘This issue is complex, it’s not just legal and illegal.’ And they need to inform their communities about the complexities about dealing with these thorny issues.”

Roughly 800,000 people in the U.S., including nearly 17,300 people in Colorado, are enrolled in DACA. Begun in 2012, the program offers work permits and temporary reprieves from deportation to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as young children.

Trump has given Congress six months to tackle immigration issues broadly before DACA is undone. He also has indicated that he may act on DACA if Congress does not.

Susana Cordova, deputy superintendent of Denver Public Schools, said leaders of the 92,000-student district felt they had no choice but to speak out.

“The conditions have been thrust on us,” she said Friday.

Cordova added that DPS leaders believe “this is a fundamental moral obligation we have to support our Latino students in general and in particular, take a stance on what we believe is a very misguided, poorly thought-out and detrimental decision.”

Some Denver school principals also spoke out publicly. A group of more than 90 school leaders wrote an opinion piece in The Denver Post calling on Congress to pass the 2017 DREAM Act to provide permanent protections for immigrants.

“Principals have real power in communities,” said author James Cryan, who is founder and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter school network in Denver and Aurora. The group, he said, wanted to use that power “to stand with folks who, in many cases, … don’t feel safe.”

The Aurora Public Schools statement sought to tamp down concerns about imminent immigration actions and said the “safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is our top priority.”

Munn said in an interview that there is no “right response” to news like DACA’s rollback, and that it varies by community. Asked about the more pointed statement from Boasberg and DPS, Munn said neither he nor the district has a track record of putting out such statements.

“We have tried to stay focused on serving our kids and making sure our kids and our families know at a very practical level what the impact is on their lives,” he said. “For us, it’s important not to be a distraction in that communication. In other communities, it makes all the sense in the world to handle it differently depending on how you relate to that community.”

Judith Padilla, an Aurora mother of three, said Friday she didn’t receive the district’s communication on immigration this week, but wishes she had more resources from the schools.

“All of us need more information about what help our schools can or can’t offer us,” Padilla said. “They need to support everyone. I am worried about what’s going to happen.”

Other suburban Denver districts, many of them with large and growing Hispanic populations, also gave a variety of responses.

In Jeffco Public Schools, Superintendent Jason Glass was quick to post on his blog about DACA, striking a tone that falls somewhere between Denver’s and Aurora’s statements.

Glass noted the opportunities DACA provides to undocumented students “who have much to contribute to our community, state, and nation.” He also linked to more information and a “do and don’t list” for educators.

In an email to Chalkbeat, Glass expanded on the district’s strategy, noting that leaders must take into account residents, boards and community values in deciding if and how to engage on issues with political dimensions.

“For Jeffco, that meant reassuring potentially impacted members of our community that our schools remain open and welcoming to them, and that we would monitor and work with our Congressional delegation in an effort to not limit opportunities for our children,” he said. “In other communities, that engagement can mean something else.”

Westminster Public Schools sent an internal communication last week to principals with “key talking points,” and reminders to staff of policy on social media, teaching controversial topics and interactions with immigration officials.

“We do not collect or share information on a student’s legal status and that will not change,” the memo said, echoing the message of many other school districts. “Westminster Public Schools values ethnic and language diversity in our district and we view diversity as a strength.”

Javier Abrego, the superintendent of the Adams 14 School District in Commerce City, put out a more pointed statement — in English and Spanish — on DACA on Wednesday.

“To be sure, the elimination of DACA will not only have a dramatic economic impact on our state and nation, it will have devastating impacts on our schools and communities,” he wrote. “Our community and schools will lose employees, coaches and school support staff. Our educational systems are already in dire need of great support and resources; the elimination of DACA just compounds an already alarming situation.”

Abrego also joined a handful of other superintendents in calling for Congress to act.

In Greeley-Evans School District 6, Superintendent Deirdre Pilch put out a one-paragraph statement Tuesday acknowledging that changes in DACA will “cause worry and concern for some of our students, families and our own staff.” It concluded by encouraging families to voice their concerns to national elected officials and expressing hope that Congress will find a solution.

Earlier this year Pilch was one of several Colorado school and district leaders who signed a letter to federal officials in support of DACA.

But not every district leader felt compelled to speak out about DACA this week.

In St Vrain Valley School District, where 30 percent of the district’s 32,000 students are Hispanic, district officials released no statement or resolution on DACA.

“I don’t know what a piece of paper would do,” said Superintendent Don Haddad. “For us, we don’t change our approach with kids and our community every time a politician says something. We care about our kids 24/7, every day of the week.”

Rural Colorado is far more diverse than most other U.S. rural areas, with significant Latino populations in some areas. Districts there, too, are grappling with responding to DACA.

In the Roaring Fork School District, Superintendent Rob Stein released a one-page statement critical of the DACA announcement on Tuesday — the district’s first day of school.

In a separate letter to district staff and board members, Stein acknowledged that immigrant rights is a political issue and said everyone should make their own choices about how to get involved. “At the same time,” he wrote, “we have a safe haven resolution as a school district that states, in part, ‘We will act where we have influence and make a difference wherever we can.’”

The 1,000-student Lake County school district has yet to send any formal communication about its stance on DACA to parents, said high school principal Ben Cairns. Instead, they’ve deferred to the community’s Latino organizations.

However, the high school is encouraging students to participate in the immigration policy debate. On Tuesday, about two dozen students in three vans traveled to a rally on Denver’s Auraria Campus.

Cairns said he’s aware of potential backlash from other community members but that hasn’t stopped him from supporting the needs of his students.

“It’s complicated,” he said. “But it’s our role to help kids process these big moments in their lives.”