Trump’s immigration policies leave empty seats at an Indianapolis school

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Amanda Clayton with a student in the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program opened its doors last year, there was a burst of enrollment, with new students trickling in throughout the year.

But with the Trump administration’s months-long ban on refugee admissions, the school — and the students it serves — are facing new challenges this year. Fewer students than expected are enrolling in the program, and many of the families at the school are living in fear of deportation.

“We felt like kids were coming out of the woodwork because this place had been built for them,” said Amanda Clayton, who runs the program. Now, she said, “I feel like a lot of our families are having to go back into the shadows.”

The changed circumstances of the newcomers program — the district’s attempt at making immigrant children feel more welcome, as well as improving their chances of success in the system — is a reflection of how much the immigration picture in the United States has shifted since the election of President Trump. For some, it is a window into the lives of immigrant children and their families at a time when the country is riven over how wide to open its doors and what to do with those already here.

The newcomer program is designed to help students who are new to the United States acclimate and learn English before transitioning to other IPS schools. Most of the students are Spanish speaking immigrants and asylum seekers, but a large minority are refugees from around the globe. Now in its second year, the campus added elementary grades this year, expanding to include students in 3rd to 9th grades.

The program prepared for up to 300 children, Clayton said, but this year enrollment has been slower than staff expected. Currently, it has 160 students. (It admits new students throughout the year, however, and its enrollment has grown by about 42 children since July.)

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students in the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program finger paint.

It’s hard to predict enrollment at the school because it depends heavily on immigration to the city, Clayton said. There are other reasons behind the low enrollment, she said, such as lower than expected interest in the elementary program because many families are happy with neighborhood schools. But one of the most significant reasons enrollment is unexpectedly low is because there are far fewer refugees resettling in Indianapolis.

Since President Trump took office, the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. has plummeted. From January through September 2017, about 28,000 refugees were admitted to the country — fewer than half the number that were admitted during the same period in 2016, according to State Department data.

The decline in refugees coming to Indianapolis steepened this summer when the administration stopped processing new refugee applications, said Elizabeth Standiford, director of development and communications for Exodus Refugee Immigration of Indianapolis. Although some refugees were still allowed in the country, resettlements in Indianapolis fell drastically, she said. Last October, for example, Exodus resettled 164 refugees. During the same month this year, the agency resettled just seven people.

In an interview in September, Jessica Feeser, who oversees English language learning for IPS, said she expected to see enrollment grow again with the admission of more refugees to the U.S.

“When that, hopefully, ban is lifted, we will be able to welcome families to IPS,” she said, referring to the halt on refugee processing. “I think this is temporary.”

In fact, President Trump lifted the suspension on admitting new refugees on Oct. 24. But the administration is imposing additional restrictions on refugees from 11 countries, and it has also drastically lowered the number of refugees it plans to admit.

It’s unclear how those changes will affect Indianapolis or the newcomer program. Exodus is expecting the number of refugees resettled in the city to remain relatively low over the next few months, Standiford said.

“We don’t really know how quickly the program will get going again with the new restrictions,” she added. “We have the worst refugee crisis the world has ever seen, right, and the U.S. has pulled back on welcoming refugees.”

Since Trump took office in January, the administration has waged a campaign to reduce immigration to the U.S., arguing, among other things, that public safety and jobs for natural born Americans are at stake. Much of the resistance also has been focused on concerns about public spending for immigrants, particularly those who have entered the country illegally.

Indiana politicians have supported similar positions in recent years, including under the governorship of Mike Pence, who is Trump’s vice-president. In 2015, Pence refused to resettle Syrian refugees in Indiana, a move that was blocked by a federal appeals court following a case brought by Exodus. In 2011, state lawmakers barred governmental bodies from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The newcomer school, however, has not been the focus of vocal criticism. Several state lawmakers who have introduced legislation to prevent education institutions from becoming “sanctuary” campuses declined to comment on the program.

In contrast to state policymakers, Indianapolis leaders have vocally welcomed immigrants. The IPS school board approved the newcomer program unanimously, and it has passed two resolutions in support of undocumented students over the last eight months. That support has also been financial: Despite the lower than expected enrollment in the newcomer program this year, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has maintained the school’s funding and staff.

The support the program has gotten from the district sends a message to the community, Clayton said, including, “We are not going to close our doors on this population.”

But many families are still afraid, Clayton said. Once they turn 18, students seeking asylum in the U.S. routinely come to school with ankle bracelets so immigration officials can monitor their location. One mother’s children missed several days of school because she was unsure where the bus stop was, and she was afraid to leave her home to find it.

“Last week, one of our student’s dads, he was deported,” she said during an interview in September. “She didn’t know that day that she was going to go home and that was going to be the case.”

But despite the challenges that federal immigration policy has imposed on the newcomer program’s families and staff, the slow start to the school year had advantages, Clayton said. Classes were smaller (about 15 students per class in high school), so it was easier to show students how the school works. Teachers were able to get their bearings.

As Clayton walked through the school on a Friday in September, the halls were quiet and calm. But inside classrooms, students were boisterous and friendly.

When Clayton walked through a high school advisory period, students clustered around her to show off their grades. Many of the students at the school aren’t familiar with grades, so the teachers use emojis to help translate which are good.

“B is good?” one boy asked Clayton. “Yes,” she said. “A B is good. Yes.”

The school is designed to be small, so staff can build close relationships with students. And as Clayton walks through classes, it’s clear that she knows what’s going on with most of the teens. She knows why the students came to the U.S., who they are living with, and where they used to go to school.

Clayton comes across another boy who started at the newcomer program last year. His grades jumped this year, she said.

“This is amazing,” she told him. “I’m really proud of you”

The atmosphere is a contrast with the high schools where these students would likely enroll if they were not in the newcomer program, said Katherine Hinkle, a literacy coach at the school. Hinkle used to teach at Northwest High School, a large, traditional IPS campus that serves many newcomer students. The campus wasn’t equipped to support those teens, she said.

At newcomer, students can get personal attention and slowly acclimate to school in America, she said.

“Kids are coming in and this is their first impression of school in the United States,” she said. “The culture is automatically, ‘everyone works. Everyone tries. It’s O.K. to make mistakes. This is how we do things.’ ”

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 Fariña, 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.”