dreamers

‘I fought to be here.’ Amid national debate, Newark students share their immigration stories

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Hawkins Street students read their work at the book launch.

Today, Yorleny is a sixth-grader at Hawkins Street School in Newark’s Ironbound section. But not long ago, she was a young immigrant making a treacherous journey to the United States in pursuit of a better life.

“My story of how I came to America to find the American dream is a very hard one,” she wrote in a personal essay about her journey. “I gave up so much to be here. I fought to be here.”

At a time when many immigrants to the U.S. are beset by fear and uncertainty after thousands of children were recently separated from their parents at the border, Yorleny is part of a group of students and teachers at her neighborhood school, which includes prekindergarten through eighth grade, who are speaking up about their own immigration stories. More than 70 of their reflections are collected in a new, self-published book called, “The Hispanic American Dreamers of Hawkins Street School.”

The project began long before the current border crisis and President Trump’s claim this week that people trying to enter the U.S. “could be murderers and thieves and so much else.” But in that context the book has gained new significance — a way to remind the students of their own dignity and tenacity, and their right to live and dream in America.

They need to know they have a voice,” said Ana Couto, a Spanish-English bilingual teacher at Hawkins Street who led the project. “This is not a time for us to shy or hide away. It’s a time for us to show that they’re strong.”

Read excerpts from the book by the principal, a bilingual teacher, and a fourth-grade student.

The book chronicles the students’ family histories, which often entail voyages north from Central and South America, and their aspirations — to master English; to become doctors, police officers, dancers; to one day visit the countries their parents left behind. Harrowing references to violence and poverty in their past — “We came mostly for our safety because people right now are eating from trash cans,” writes a boy from Venezuela, where food shortages have been endemic — are followed by descriptions of their new lives juggling schoolwork and friendships.

In Yorleny’s case, she left behind her mother and siblings in Honduras, according to her essay, which was translated from Spanish. Traveling north with two cousins, she walked for hours at a time and slept on floors. Along the way, they were “grabbed” by immigration officers and detained for three days.

Finally, Yorleny made it to the U.S. and connected with her father. Now, she is focused on studying hard and learning English — but she still longs to spend Christmas with her family and to be reunited with her mother, who used to give her a kiss each morning before school.

“I need those kisses and hugs from my mother,” she wrote, “but someday I will have that with me.”

After Trump was elected in 2016, following vows to crack down on illegal immigration, Newark city and school officials spoke out in defense of the city’s foreign-born population, who make up nearly 30 percent of residents. Mayor Ras Baraka said Newark would remain a “sanctuary city” for immigrants who are living in the country illegally or under a temporary protected status, while the school board passed a resolution reiterating immigrant students’ rights and the district hosted an informational fair for undocumented students and families.

On Tuesday, amid the latest immigration flare-up, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order to prevent state resources from being used to support federal authorities in separating children and parents as they attempt to cross the southern border. The following day, in response to the growing backlash, Trump ordered families to be detained together rather than split up.

But even as New Jersey leaders signal their support for immigrants, it falls on individual schools to comfort students who are distraught by recent events. At Hawkins Street, many students are immigrants and 36 percent are still learning English — the highest percentage of any elementary school in the city. Incoming Superintendent Roger León, whose parents came to Newark from Cuba, attended the school.

After the presidential election, many Hawkins Street students felt like their new lives in the U.S. were threatened.

“We had students in crisis,” said Principal Alejandro Lopez, who organized class discussions about the election and provided some students with counseling. “They were literally having breakdowns because they felt that they would be deported, that their parents would be targeted.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Ana Couto, the bilingual teacher who led the project, handed out the published books to students.

The idea for the book came later, when the school held an Hispanic Heritage Month event this past November. Couto’s fifth-grade students wanted to sing or dance, but she convinced them that they would have a greater impact by telling their own stories.

The students stood on stage wearing black T-shirts that read, “Thanks to our parents, we are living the Hispanic American Dream.” One by one, with their backs to the audience to focus attention solely on their words, the students read their personal essays.

Hilary, whose family came from the Dominican Republic, talked about teaching English to her mother “who faced discrimination in getting a job” because she spoke only Spanish.

Steven recalled planting corn and beans with his father in El Salvador, before his family left to escape violent crime. Now in the U.S., his father is a cook who “makes pizzas, hamburgers, fries and salads.”

Andrea did not say where her family came from, only that her parents left because it was too dangerous.

“Now we feel safer,” she wrote in her essay. “This is now my family’s country.”

Couto, who is in her third year teaching but only her first as a bilingual instructor, decided to collect the essays in a book. She invited students from across the school to submit essays, and interviewed second-graders to get their thoughts. A team of students helped type the submissions, while a group of teachers — and Couto’s sister — helped edit.

Some staff members also contributed essays.

Principal Lopez wrote about being the child of undocumented immigrants who left the Dominican Republic when they were still teenagers. Couto, whose family is Portuguese but grew up alongside Spanish-speaking immigrants in Newark’s North Ward, wrote that she identified with the “never giving up-survivor fire” in her bilingual students.

Two teachers, Jennifer Palumbo and Catherine Moore, shared their remarkably similar childhood stories. Both were born in Bogota, Colombia in the same year and placed in an orphanage before being adopted by American parents. Both were given new names and spoke only English at home. And both would later study Spanish and try to learn more about where they came from.

“Young children think that we don’t understand what they’re going through,” said Moore, who teaches fifth and sixth-grade science, “but we may understand a lot more than they think.”

On Monday, the student authors filed into the school library for a launch party. The books, which the school’s parent-teacher organization had paid about $500 to have printed, were concealed under a Puerto Rican flag. Celebratory cookies and muffins were arrayed on a long table.

Standing at a podium, Lopez congratulated the students for sharing their stories and defying a stereotype of immigrant students as quiet and meek. Couto said she was in awe of the students’ strength as they made new lives in America even as they longed for the family and friends they’d left behind.

“We use the word ‘grit’ every day here at Hawkins,” she told them. “And now that I know you better, I see that you all have a lot of grit in you. You’re warriors, and I just lack the words to tell you how proud I am of you all.”

Then Couto handed out the books, which the students asked her to sign. A few read their contributions, including a girl whose essay will go in the collection Couto is already planning for next year — “The African American Dreamers of Hawkins Street School.”

Near the back of the room sat a fifth-grader named Adamaris. She had written about staying with her sister in the U.S. so she could continue her education, even though her mother lives in Honduras. She described how badly she misses her mother — especially on Christmas and Christmas Eve, which is also her birthday.

But now she had the summer to look forward to, when she would visit her mother and show her the book.

“I’m going to read it for her,” she said. “She’s going to be proud of me.”

Board Approved

Newark will keep universal enrollment for now — even as key dispute between charter schools and city appears unresolved

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León gave a forceful defense of universal enrollment Monday before the school board voted to continue it.

Newark will keep its universal enrollment system for at least another year, despite critics who say it poses a grave threat to the district by allowing families to easily opt into charter schools.

The city’s board of education voted Monday to preserve the controversial enrollment system, called “Newark Enrolls,” which lets families use a single online system to apply to most traditional and charter schools. Just two years ago, the board tried to dismantle the system, arguing that it drained students and funding from the district as it fueled the charter sector’s rapid growth.

But, on Monday, the board appeared persuaded by the district’s new superintendent, Roger León, who said it is their duty to make it easy for families to send their children to whatever schools they choose — even private and parochial schools, which León said he hopes to eventually invite into the enrollment system.  

“That families today go through one system and have one application makes their life a lot less cumbersome,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that whatever they choose, they get.”

However, certain key details — such as how the system will handle “overmatching,” a process in which more students than typically show up are assigned to a school to address possible attrition over the summer — appear to still be the subject of some disagreement.

León’s full-throated defense of school choice is sure to surprise some community members, who had expected the former Newark Public Schools principal to rein in the charter sector after years of swift expansion under his state-appointed predecessors. Yet León has been open about his admiration for some of the city’s high-performing charter schools and his disdain for the district’s previously decentralized enrollment system, which favored families with the wherewithal to wait in long lines for coveted district-school seats or to apply separately to multiple charter schools.

Politics also may have played a role in the current system’s survival. In recent days, charter school advocates asked state Sen. Teresa Ruiz — a Newark power broker who is close to León — to help prevent changes to the system that they oppose, according to people in the charter sector.

Newark Enrolls also may have benefited from its relative popularity. A survey of 1,800 people who used the system this year found that 95 percent were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the enrollment process. And a phone survey of 302 Newark voters last month commissioned by the charter sector found that 52 percent of respondents favored the system, while 26 percent opposed it and 21 percent were undecided, according to a summary of the results obtained by Chalkbeat.

Yet charter schools — which now serve about one-third of city students — remain a lightning rod in Newark. Critics say they sap resources from the district while failing to serve their fair-share of needy students. In March, Mayor Ras Baraka called for a halt to their expansion.

Board Member Leah Owens, a former district teacher who is critical of charter schools, argued before Monday’s vote that more was on the line than the fate of the online application system.

“This is about, What is the future of Newark Public Schools going to look like if we continue to legitimize the idea of having privately run public schools?” she said during the meeting. “When we bring these schools into our enrollment system, we are saying that this is OK and that competition will improve the schools.”

Launched in 2014, the so-called “universal enrollment” system allows each family to apply online to up to eight traditional, magnet, or charter schools. A computer algorithm then assigns each student to a single school based on the family’s preferences, available space, and rules that give priority to students who live near schools or have special needs.

In the past, the district has allowed charter schools to specify how many students they want the district to assign them. Most request more students than they have space for to account for the attrition that invariably happens as some families move over the summer or enroll in private schools.

That practice, known as “overmatching,” became a flashpoint in the recent negotiations between León’s administration and charter schools, which must sign an annual agreement to participate in the enrollment system.

León’s side revised the agreement to eliminate overmatching, according to a person involved in the talks. Some charter leaders, worried the change would leave them with empty seats and reduced budgets, considered pulling out of the system.

The threat appears to have worked. The agreement that the board approved Monday still allows for overmatching, according to people in the charter sector. (The district has not made the agreement public, and officials did not respond to a request from Chalkbeat Tuesday to release it.)

“I don’t know anything about how that happened exactly,” said Jess Rooney, founder and co-director of People’s Preparatory Charter School. “All I know is that [León] got the message that that was of great concern, and he did a lot of work to address that concern very quickly.”

Charter leaders celebrated the agreement the school board ratified Monday, which they believe protects overmatching — a process they consider crucial for filling their rosters before classes start.

However, it’s not clear that León shares their interpretation.

In an interview Monday, he said the district would only send as many students to charter schools as they are authorized by the state to serve — even if they request extra students to offset attrition. If charters lose some students over the summer, they can replace them with students from their waitlists, he added.

“The legislature determined that there is a cap that they have,” León said, “and we’re sticking with that.”

Former district officials said that relying on charter schools to fill empty seats with students from their waitlists can disrupt district schools, which may abruptly lose students whom they were assigned. But León said that was not a concern, because charters can only pull students whose top choice had been a charter school.

“They have a right to pull that student because that student is not at their preferred school of choice,” he said. “That’s fine.”

Families can begin applying to schools for next school year on Dec. 3, León said. On Dec. 8, the district will host an admissions fair with representatives from traditional and charter schools.

In the meantime, the board of each charter school that plans to participate in universal enrollment must approve the agreement. Last year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter-school operators signed on.

Michele Mason, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, said she would defer to the district on “the implementation question” of overmatching. Other charter leaders insisted that the issue had been settled, and overmatching would continue as it has in the past.

Either way, Mason said she expects the same number of charter schools to join this year. She added that she was heartened by León’s remarks at Monday’s board meeting.

“I really do believe he values the options that charter schools give students and families,” she said.

Charter Dispute

As León pushes for changes, some charters consider leaving Newark’s unified enrollment system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

Newark families could have a harder time applying to certain schools this year if changes sought by the district’s new superintendent spur some charter schools to pull out of the city’s common enrollment system, charter advocates say.

Superintendent Roger León is pushing for the system to no longer assign schools extra students to offset attrition over the summer, according to people briefed on negotiations over the enrollment system. The practice, known as “overmatching,” helps both district and charter schools plan for the coming year, but it also ensures that charter schools fill their seats — something León appears less willing to help with than his charter-friendly predecessors.

The dispute means that district and charter leaders are still hashing out rules for the five-year-old common enrollment system just weeks before applications are due to open. Now, some charter schools are considering withdrawing entirely — potentially triggering a return to the fragmented application process families faced before universal enrollment launched in 2013, charter proponents say.

“Realistically, it’s possible that could happen,” said one of the people briefed on the talks who, like the others, asked to remain anonymous while negotiations continue. “We’re really late in the game right now.”

The dustup marks another instance where León appears eager to roll back his predecessors’ policies — even if it means moving quickly, before all the potential consequences are known.

On the first day of classes, he told principals he was eliminating extra hours for struggling schools, forcing them to scramble to reset their schedules. And before even taking office on July 1, he pushed out dozens of top officials — a move the school board, which was not consulted in advance, partially blocked.

One of those officials was the district’s head of enrollment, Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. She oversaw the universal enrollment system, called “Newark Enrolls,” which lets families apply to most of the city’s traditional, magnet, and charter schools using a single application. After a chaotic launch that outraged many parents, the system today gets high marks on user surveys. Yet it remains controversial among critics of charter schools who view it little more than a ploy to funnel students into the privately managed schools.

One feature of the system is that it assigns schools — both charter and district — more students than they have space for. This “overmatching” is done to account for the attrition that occurs each year as some students leave the city or decamp to private or county schools. A former district official estimated that most schools lose between 5 to 20 percent of their assigned students that way.

Now, overmatching has become a sticking point in the negotiations, according to those with knowledge of the talks, as León has proposed ending the practice.

It is unclear why, and the district did not make León available for an interview. One possibility is that doing so might appease critics without dismantling common enrollment, which León has said he wants to keep.

But some people in the charter sector believe the superintendent, wanting to retain as many students as possible in the district, is loath to send charters extra students. That prospect has alarmed some charter school operators who fear they could end up with unfilled seats and reduced budgets, as school funding is based on enrollment.

To illustrate how overmatching works, a person connected to the charter-school sector gave an example of a high school with 100 available ninth-grade seats. In the past, the enrollment system might assign the school 115 students based on the assumption that roughly 15 students would not end up attending. If the system only matched 100 students to the school, then it could be left with 15 open seats.

“At an independent charter school, when those 15 students don’t show up, there’s no money coming from anywhere else to adjust their budget,” the person said. “That could put them out of business.”

If the district stops sending charter schools extra students, those schools are likely to start admitting more students from their waitlists. If that happens, district schools may suddenly lose students who were on their rosters. They would then have openings that are likely to be filled by students who arrive midyear, who are often some of the most challenging students to serve.

“District principals hate losing kids to charter waitlists,” the former district official said. “It creates a lot of instability.”

León met with charter-school representatives Thursday, but no final agreement was reached. Even if the two sides work out a compromise, the district’s board of education and each of the boards overseeing the participating charter schools must still vote on the plan.

They have limited time to do that without disrupting the normal admissions cycle. Typically, families can start applying to schools for the following year in the first week of December.

Newark Public Schools spokeswoman Tracy Munford said enrollment would start at the same time this year even though the district-charter enrollment agreement has not been finalized.

“This is in progress and we look forward to it being completed soon,” she said in an email.

Meanwhile, some charter school leaders have discussed the possibility of forming a separate charter-only enrollment system if they decide to withdraw from Newark Enrolls. The heads of smaller charter-school organizations are most concerned about the proposed changes, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

Last school year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter school operators participated in the joint enrollment system. (The others each handled their own admissions.) Most families who used Newark Enrolls were matched with one of the top three choices on their applications — 94 percent who applied to kindergarten got a top pick, as did 70 percent who applied to ninth-grade.

Assigning schools more students than they have space for allows additional students to be matched with high-demand schools, said Jesse Margolis, an education researcher who has studied Newark’s enrollment system. The schools end up with roughly the right number of students because some of those on their rosters never show up. And students who would have been assigned to a less popular school if the system hadn’t overmatched instead get to attend one at the top of their list.

“Overmatching is a way of helping kids get their preferences,” said Margolis, who co-wrote a favorable report about Newark Enrolls commissioned by the district’s previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf. “And it helps schools have stable, predictable enrollments.”

Correction: This story has been updated to remove an inaccurate explanation for why some charter schools are more wary of a change to enrollment rules than others.