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.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”

Back to school

Newark officials deliver a message to students on first day: Keep showing up

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León spoke to seventh-graders at Hawkins Street School on the first day of school Tuesday.

At Hawkins Street School Tuesday morning, eighth-grade teacher Jasmine Johnson was at the whiteboard writing her students’ goals for the new school year — complete all assignments, get into a great high school — when in walked two unusual visitors: Newark’s mayor and schools chief.

Luckily for Johnson, Mayor Ras Baraka’s message was also about goals — namely, the lofty goal of perfect attendance.

“Try your best to get here and be in these seats every single day,” the mayor told the students as a phalanx of TV cameras captured his remarks from the back of the room. “It’s very, very important. The superintendent is super focused on that.”

Superintendent Roger León, who started in July and is the city’s first locally selected schools chief in more than two decades, told employees last week that he wants the district to achieve 100 percent attendance. That is a hugely ambitious, if not impossible, goal considering that the average daily attendance was 90 percent in 2016-17 and — even more troubling to experts — about 30 percent of students were chronically absent.

To assist in the effort, León has promised to rehire the attendance counselors who were laid off by former Superintendent Cami Anderson and to restore the truancy teams that in the past roamed the streets searching for students who cut class. He also ordered every district employee to call five students’ families before the start of the school year to remind them that school began Tuesday.

“It’s important for everyone to worry about student attendance,” León said during the all-staff meeting at the Prudential Center last Tuesday.

At a school board meeting that evening, district officials said that an analysis of state test data had shown a strong connection between attendance and test scores: Students who regularly showed up to class earned markedly higher scores.

Research shows the reverse is also true. Students who are chronically absent, meaning they missed 10 percent or more of school days, tend to perform worse on tests and are more likely to drop out of school and enter the criminal-justice system.

Peter Chen, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children of New Jersey who co-wrote a report on Newark’s high-school absenteeism problem last year, said in an August interview that schools often take a compliance-driven approach to attendance. After students miss a certain number of days, staffers may call or write home and inform families of the problem.

He said that a more effective, but also more resource-intensive, strategy is to analyze why certain students are frequently absent — for instance, are they suffering from mental-health challenges or struggling with school work? Then social workers and other staffers should try to help remove those obstacles that are keeping students out of class, Chen added.

He also pointed out that León’s state-appointed predecessors, including Anderson and Christopher Cerf, also came up with plans to reduce absenteeism. But top-level mandates only go so far, Chen said.

“What we’ve seen is that leadership at the top matters,” he said. “But on a day-to-day basis, what happens in school buildings is often more a function of the school-building leadership.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Seventh-graders listened to Superintendent León on Tuesday.

At Hawkins Street, Principal Alejandro Lopez said his school’s attendance task force had already devised its own plan to boost attendance.

Students with perfect attendance each week will earn “Hawk bucks,” named for the school mascot, and be entered into raffles to win prizes. Also, the three classes with the highest attendance rates at the end of the year will take a trip to Six Flags Great Adventure theme park.

Meanwhile, support staff will look for ways to help students who are frequently absent. In 2016-17, 45 percent of Hawkins Street students missed more than 10 days of school. Getting them to show up every day this year will be hard, Lopez said — but doing so is crucial.

“If you’re not present, you’re not going to learn,” he said. “There’s no substitute for that.”

After leaving Johnson’s room Tuesday morning, Mayor Baraka and Superintendent León stopped by a seventh-grade math class where teams of students were building towers out of noodles and marshmallows.

León told the class that he had attended Hawkins Street as a child, before growing up to become a teacher, principal, and now, superintendent. Baraka, another Newark Public Schools graduate and former principal, told the students he loved them and would make sure they got whatever they needed to succeed.

After the city officials left to visit two high schools, 12-year-old Angeles Rosario said she was excited about the new school year — and dance classes, in particular. That the mayor had chosen to visit her school first on Tuesday only added to her excitement, she said.

“There are many other schools in Newark,” she pointed out, “but he decided to come to ours.”