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.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”