sanctuary schools

As anxiety grows after Trump’s executive orders, what protections do immigrant students have in NYC schools?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
New York City students walk out of class and march to Trump Tower to protest the results of the presidential election.

When students in Abeda Khanam’s class in Long Island City, Queens sat down to take a practice Regents exam last Monday, she noticed that some of her students’ minds were far away from the biology questions in front of them.

After class, she learned why. Her students were fixated on President Trump’s recent executive order, now temporarily halted, that barred refugees and some immigrants from entering the country. One student’s family is from the Philippines and awaiting permanent residency status in the United States, another has an uncle trying to move to America from Montenegro.

“All my students who have anything to do with immigration are anxious,” Khanam said. “You can see it on their faces.”

While New York City schools are meant to be safe spaces, they are also places data and documents are collected. The city and advocates are working to make sure that information stays private — and that immigrants feel protected.

Days after Trump’s most recent order, the Department of Education sent a letter home to families explaining the protections that students have in schools. The letter promises, among other things, that schools would not ask students about their immigration status. If they learn a student’s status, they will not record or release that information.

The letter also make it clear that all students, regardless of their country of origin, religion or immigration status are welcome in city schools.

“Whether your or your family arrived 100 years ago or 100 days ago — you are all New Yorkers — and we stand with you,” reads the letter, signed by schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Commissioner Nisha Agarwal of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

The letter states ICE officials are not permitted to access schools without “proper legal authority.” That authority is determined on a case-by-base basis, according to education department officials, and might include, for example, a subpoena for student records.

If ICE officials do visit schools, they will be referred to principals to take “appropriate action,” the letter states. Education department officials said that means the principal will contact the senior field counsel, an attorney who assists school administrators, and await further instructions.

But Rishi Singh, director of youth organizing at DRUM, an organization that helps South Asian immigrants in New York City, thinks the Department of Education could go further.

“We would like to see the Department of Education take a stronger stance, saying that they would not comply with federal policies if it were targeting their students,” Singh said. “That would ease the fears and tension that young people are facing right now.”

In addition to the restrictions on revealing immigration status, the letter also seeks to reassure families that schools will not share any student information unless “required to by law.” That means the city might have to release it if there is a subpoena or a health and safety emergency, education department officials said, though typically it would require parental consent.

But advocates worry that if a school were legally required to release information, even with no explicit record of immigration status, there could be revealing information in a student’s file. For instance, some families provide immigration papers when registering children for school, which sometimes get photocopied and put in a student’s file, said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children.

While this item may not say whether a child is undocumented, it could provide a clue as to status since undocumented families often have no other proof of identity, age or residency, she said. She hopes the city will consider removing any unnecessary documentation in student files.

New York state also collects information about a child’s country of origin and ethnicity. While parents should be aware this information is out there, the data is unlikely to expose undocumented students, said Amelia Vance, education policy counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum, an organization dedicated to promoting good data practices.

“It’s certainly is something to keep an eye on,” Vance said. “But it’s not something that people should be really afraid of right now.”

Regardless of the actual threat level, the president’s rhetoric puts immigrants on edge, advocates say, and the city should look for additional ways to safeguard them.

New York City is far from the only city grappling with this issue — and districts across the country are taking action. For instance, Pittsburgh Public Schools declared itself a “sanctuary” campus, which means immigration agents will not be allowed on school grounds without permission from the district’s law department and the superintendent. And Oakland vowed to notify legal aid groups if immigration authorities request to visit a school. While some of these gestures are largely symbolic, the message itself can be reassuring.

“The chancellor’s letter and the policy that’s laid out … are good first steps,” said Midha. “I do think that in the current climate, families really do need to feel reassured that New York City schools are a safe space and a welcoming space for them.”

NEW MOMENT

Tennessee’s struggling state-run district just hired the ‘LeBron James’ of school turnaround work

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Sharon Griffin was the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools. Starting in May, she will be the next leader of Tennessee's state-run district.

In hiring a Memphis native to save its most vulnerable schools, Tennessee is hedging its bets that she can finally get the job done.

Sharon Griffin’s new job is to fix the state’s struggling Achievement School District and use her experience to strengthen the relationships with local districts across the state.

But can she right the ship and make everyone happy?

“I know through my experience and the relationships I’ve built that we cannot only focus and prioritize our work, but strengthen the relationship [between local districts and the state] so all of our schools can be great places of learning,” Griffin said during a conference call this week.

Tennessee’s achievement district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It promised to vault the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

But as Tennessee works to make its state the national model of school achievement, naming a revered, longtime home-grown leader as point person for school turnaround is seen by many as a jolt of badly needed energy, and a savvy move in a state education system divided into many factions.

“I think it is a game-changer,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who has championed legislation to refine the achievement district. “The ASD badly needs a strong leader…. She definitely could be the bridge to bring us over troubled water in Tennessee.”


Read more about what Griffin’s hire means for the school district she is leaving behind. 


Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stressed during the call that Griffin’s appointment does not mean state-run schools will return to local control, even as she acknowledged that the district is at a turning point. It’s now the state’s tool of last resort.

“Whether that is transitioning a school back into the district when it is ready or whether it’s to intervene and move a school into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said. “This particular moment is about a person who can lead all of the state interventions as well as the specificity of the ASD.”

For Bobby White, the founder and CEO of a Memphis charter organization in the achievement district, the appointment signals a new chapter ahead. Griffin will directly oversee the district’s 30 charter schools in her new role.

He has been around for the highs and lows of Tennessee’s six-year experiment in state-run turnaround work.

“It feels like we got LeBron James, you know?” said White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. “It feels like she will have a vision and take us where we have been needing to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White has seen the highs and lows of the turnaround district.

Part of that vision will be finding new ways for charter schools and local districts to work together. In her roles as assistant commissioner of School Turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, Griffin will oversee more than just the state-run district. She will have a hand in turnaround efforts across the state, such as a new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create mini-districts that are freed from many local rules.

Griffin stressed earlier this week that building relationships and fostering collaboration are among her top strengths — efforts that the state has failed in as local districts have sparred with state-runs schools over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information.

“We have a level playing field now,” Griffin said. “I want to be clear, it’s not us against them. It’s a chance to learn not only from what ASD has been able to do alongside charter schools, but a chance to learn from each other as we move forward.”

Marcus Robinson, a former Indianapolis charter leader, said Griffin’s dynamic personality will be enough to get the job done.

“Dr. Griffin is magnetic,” said Robinson, who has helped raise money for Memphis schools through the Memphis Education Fund.

“She is the type of person who disarms people because she’s so authentic and genuine,” he said. “But she’s also experienced and wise and she knows school turnaround work.”

Griffin leaves behind a 25-year award-winning career with Shelby County Schools, the local district in Memphis. She has been a teacher and principal. She spearheaded the district’s turnaround work, and now serves as chief of schools. She will start her new role in May and will stay based in Memphis — something community members have long asked for.

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

Steve Lockwood has watched the state’s reform play out in his Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, whose schools were home to some of the first state takeovers.

When the state first started running schools in Frayser, it was with the promise that the academics and culture would improve, said Lockwood, who runs the Frayser Community Development Corporation.

“The ASD has struggled to deliver on their mission,” Lockwood said. “But the last few months have been modestly encouraging. The ASD has seemed willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings.”

Lockwood said he sees Griffin’s appointment as a commitment by the state to bettering relationships in Memphis — and added that he was surprised she signed up.

“It’s a tribute to the ASD that they have enough juice left to attract someone like Dr. Griffin,” Lockwood said.

unforced error

Mayor de Blasio says education department has culture of frivolous harassment complaints

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

A “hyper-complaint dynamic” within the city’s education department explains why so few of the harassment claims made against the agency are substantiated, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

“It’s pretty well known inside the education world of some people bringing complaints of one type or another for reasons that may not have to do with the specific issue — and this is not just about sexual harassment,” de Blasio said at a press conference.

“We have to investigate everything but it is a known fact that unfortunately there has been a bit of a hyper-complaint dynamic sometimes for the wrong reasons.”

The mayor’s comments come less than a week after the city released statistics that show nearly 500 education department employees filed sexual harassment complaints over the past four years — but just seven of the complaints were substantiated, according to the New York Times. That means only 2 percent of complaints were found to have merit — compared with nearly 17 percent at other agencies citywide.

During a question and answer session with reporters, de Blasio repeatedly said the education department has a cultural problem when it comes to reporting misconduct.

“I can’t parse out for you who was sincere and who was insincere and what type of offense,” de Blasio said. “I can’t get there. I can tell you the fact it’s unfortunately a part of the culture of an agency that is changing that we need to address.”

De Blasio quickly tried to walk back some of his comments on Twitter.

The mayor’s comments come as activists worldwide have raised awareness about sexual harassment, sparking the #MeToo movement. One element of that conversation has been the  importance of taking harassment claims seriously instead of dismissing them. More than three-quarters of the city’s teachers are women, according to the Independent Budget Office.

De Blasio’s responses drew sharp criticism from Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union. “Our teachers have a tough enough job that they don’t have time to make frivolous claims,” he said in a statement.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who was accused of gender discrimination when he was a top school district official in San Francisco, said the education department has increased the number of investigators who look into such complaints.