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How school districts around Minnesota are responding to tension over immigration issues

REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Schools often double as safe havens, offering immigrants and other marginalized youth and their families support by connecting them with community resources and creating an environment that makes them feel valued. What that commitment looks like, however, can vary greatly from one district to the next.

With President Trump talking about building a border wall, the amping up of immigration enforcement and the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — an announcement that coincided with the start of the school year — some districts have taken a more public approach to demonstrating their support of immigrant students than others.

Minneapolis Public Schools, for instance, issued a press release in which Superintendent Ed Graff declared his support for “Dreamers” and called on Congress to uphold DACA. He also reminded students and community members that his district adopted a safe haven resolution in December 2016.

“The role of a school district is not to ask about the citizenship or immigration status of any of its students or families. Our role is to educate students and we can only do that if our students and employees feel safe,” he said in the press release after the school board adopted the resolution.

St. Paul Public Schools followed suit in adopting a similar resolution in January. And similar actions have taken hold in some pockets outside of the Twin Cities as well.

But even in districts serving sizable Latino populations — the group in Minnesota most affected by federal immigration policy — issuing a stance of solidarity with students who are being impacted by the Trump administration policies and rhetoric about immigration isn't always a go-to move. Here, a look at how some districts in the suburbs and Greater Minnesota are responding.

La Academia in Chaska

While welcoming students back to a new school year at Chaska Middle School West in Chaska, Carly Kragthorpe, a Spanish teacher for students who participated in the elementary-level Spanish immersion program at La Academia, overheard a student ask one of her classmates, “Are you ready for Hurricane Trump?”

Kragthorpe says that when she intervened, the student assured her the comment was only meant as a joke. But the remark left her concerned. Looking for a more constructive way to help students process all of the uncertainty around DACA, she had students in her social studies class read a variety of articles on immigration, answer questions about the main idea and conflicts presented in the text and then present their findings to the class for discussion.

The school’s student population is roughly 4 percent Latino and 82 percent white. In her classroom, though, about half of the students are Latino, she says. And, of those, at least half are also English learners. It’s a more diverse makeup than in many other classrooms in the Eastern Carver County Public Schools district. But she’s still aware of the fact that, when it comes to politics, she’s teaching in a county that Donald Trump won by almost 14 points. 

As her sixth-graders discussed the articles they’d read, the topic was very sensitive for some. However, others pushed back by pointing out that those who come here illegally should know they’re taking a risk. “It was a very delicate conversation, but I think we toed the line pretty well having them be direct representatives of their articles and talk about what’s fair and what’s not fair,” she said.

It’s hard to say how far-reaching any changes to DACA could be in students’ lives. They may have an older sibling or another relative whose fate is tied up in what Congress decides to do with DACA. In addition, many Latino communities are on edge over the threat of more aggressive immigration enforcement efforts, which can bring a great deal of fear and anxiety into their home life.

Austin and Worthington

In places like Austin and Worthington, educators are taking a very different approach. In the Austin Public Schools district, where nearly half the students come from communities of color — with 27 percent identifying as Latino — Superintendent David Krenz says levels of anxiety in the community have risen, even if many those families are well-established in the community. 

David Krenz
David Krenz

Yet John Alberts, the district’s executive director of educational services, says the school’s response, as of now, is to not fan those flames. “Our concern, first and foremost, was: How can we keep things as normal as we can? At least in our community, we felt like by issuing some type of a statement, it might draw more attention to how unstable and uncertain the climate is,” he said. “By simply going about business, we felt that was one thing within our ability to do.”

So far this year, he says students are still coming to school and parents are coming out to conferences. Kristi Beckman, integration coordinator for the district, says that it helps that many of the district’s Latino families have strong relationships with school liaisons. Utilizing these relationships, she says they prefer to “work more discretely with people one on one.”

The Worthington public school district, Independent School District 518 — which is 49 percent Latino — is taking a similar approach. “We’re dealing with each of those students individually, through counselors or appropriate support mechanisms that we have in place,” Superintendent John Landgaard said. “There’s a lot to be defined on the whole DACA issue. We’re trying to make sure we support kids at this point and keep things relatively calm until things get defined and we can figure out what’s really going to be legislatively pushed.”

Long Prairie: collaboration with community partners

In the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle School District, located about an hour’s drive northwest of St. Cloud, where Amy Dinkel-VanValkenburg teaches English to adults through the district’s adult basic education program, DACA is on the minds of many as well. The district has fewer than 900 students, but there are about 347 Latino students in the otherwise very white district. That’s nearly 40 percent of the student population.

Dinkel-VanValkenburg teaches many of those students' parents and relatives, many of whom stopped showing up for class at the start of the year, even though there’s a wait list to get into these classes. It took a lot of trust-building to get people to come back to class, she says.

The school district hasn’t adopted practice drills — in the event that immigration officials would visit the school — or talked about adopting any sort of safe haven resolution, she says. Even though the community depends on immigrant labor to keep the packing plants in the area running, she says, racial tensions in these communities run deep.

“It can be scary. There’s big trucks with the word ‘Trump’ on the back window that drive around town in Long Prairie and look pretty intimidating. Downtown, there’s a bar … and he has a sign in his window — big huge yellow sign — and it says ‘Stop the invasion,’ ” she said. “It’s so embarrassing.”

In her experience, she sees the packing industry employers in Long Prairie, in collaboration with the local workers union, taking initiative in serving Latino adult students. In just the last year or so she’s been called upon to help teach citizenship classes, and now English language classes, on-site to immigrants who often work 12-hour days, six days a week.

“I feel like they’re much more in tune than they were before,” she said. “It’s almost like instead of expecting their employees to come out and find me … they’re really reaching out to me and programs like mine to get employees things on campus that are easily accessible.”

Antonio Alba Meraz
Antonio Alba Meraz

Aware of a few other new resources for Latino immigrants in that area, she says Antonio Alba Meraz, an extension educator with the University of Minnesota, will soon be hosting a workshop for immigrant parents. He’ll provide some information on DACA, but also on how parents can help their children access and pay for higher education. Oftentimes this work is done in collaboration with rural high schools.

Alba says the latter is equally important, especially when immigrant families feel pressured to withdraw from the community. “The most important thing — the most immediate result — is there is a risk some students, they can forget their goals,” he said. ‘They can forget their plans to see the future.”

Faribault

In Faribault, where Latino student make up nearly a quarter of the public school district’s student body, Sam Ouk says certain families are worried and feeling more isolated than others. As the district’s English Language program coordinator, he’s concerned that this fear could keep some students from getting involved in activities at school. But, overall, he’s optimistic about the school’s efforts to create a more inclusive environment for students.

Last year, the Faribault Diversity Coalition — which Ouk is involved with as a board member — held an education conference, in collaboration with the schools and the local chamber of conference, to explore recent executive orders tied to immigration.

The event brought community members with different political stances on immigration together and got people talking about things like what, exactly, the citizenship process entails and how a refugee’s status differs from an immigrant’s status. In a community like Faribault, there’s lots of confusion over the diversity within the newcomer population, Ouk says. Within the Latino student population, for instance, the district has seen a recent addition of students from Central America.

“I don’t think we’re here to change minds,” Ouk said, noting the approach to supporting immigrant students should be the same, no matter the size of the district. “Take these political issues and make it nonpolitical. Really if there is a family or a student that is caught up in these immigrant issues, it becomes not just an immigrant issue, but a child safety issue.”

Northfield and St. James

In Northfield — a progressive college town where Latino students make up 14 percent of the student body overall, and over a quarter of the student body at two of the four elementary schools — the message of inclusion is quite apparent. Last weekend, community members and students rallied to support DACA students downtown; and various community groups have been taking a very proactive approach to supporting Latino immigrant students and their families.

Father Dennis Dempsey, the pastor at the Church of St. Dominic, says there’s a network of leaders in the community who are ready to assemble in the event of any visit from immigration authorities. And the city is looking at becoming the first city in the state to issue municipal IDs, a move that would outfit undocumented immigrants with a photo ID.

Father Dennis Dempsey
Father Dennis Dempsey

“With the election — it was rather immediate — it gave people a license to express their prejudice openly,” he said. “This filtered down to kids asking kids of Latino and Hispanic backgrounds what they’re going to do when they’re deported. But Northfield was real quick in dealing with that.”

He’s well connected to the Latino student population in town, and their parents. His church has a sister parish in Mexico that roughly 700 of his members formerly belonged to, before immigrating to Northfield. As the newcomers have settled in over the years, many are now sending their kids to college. Here, his and other local churches continue to play a supportive role, he says, by sending the college students care packages “with cookies and a few bucks to get through.”

Mar Valdecantos, a local community organizer and vice chair of the city’s Human Rights Commission, can attest to the school’s role in publicly supporting the immigrant community as well. Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Matt Hillmann has been attending events aimed at supporting local immigrants, regardless of their legal status, she said.

“He reassured the community that they are not going to be discriminated against,” she said. “I don’t think it’s political when he comes to a meeting and says the school is there to provide an education and a welcoming environment for everyone. It’s beyond politics.”

Pointing at another great resource in the schools, Valdecantos says Jennifer Lompart’s work showcasing the stories of Latino students through the performing arts has become a popular fixture in the community. A high school English teacher and former finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Lompart says that even though there are public displays of support for local Latino immigrant families, there’s still a lot of uncertainty and angst.

“I know a lot of parents who have actually transferred bank accounts under their children’s names, or they’ve transferred guardianship to someone, in case they’re not going to be there,” she said.

Located even further south, St. James Public Schools' Latino student population is actually the slight majority, at 51 percent. Here, Luisa Tropero, a Latina member of the community, serves on the school board. She’s proud that her district is the first in southern Minnesota to adopt a policy last spring to protect their undocumented Latino immigrant students.  

“We want them to know school is a safe place to stay,” she said, noting rumors had circulated after Trump was elected that some Latino families were thinking about pulling their kids out of school.

Pat Kirchner, a 25-year district veteran, can attest that fears and tensions surrounding immigration policies have trickled into the schools more and more over the past two years. As a social worker and homeless liaison for the district, she works primarily with K-5 students and families. She says elementary students are absorbing the anxiety they sense at home, even if they can’t fully explain what’s making them so upset. This often translates into a reduced ability to concentrate at school and a heightened level of sensitivity that can be set off when they hear familiar trigger words, she says. For instance, she was called to help console a student who’d broken down in tears when the teacher, during a lesson, said the president has a four-year term.

Right now, families are in a holding pattern, she said, waiting to hear what’ll happen with DACA. If DACA participants end up losing their legal status, she anticipates the impact could be far-reaching. “I think most of our families are further established than that, but I question and wonder about many of our newer and younger families,” she said.

Juilo Zelaya
Juilo Zelaya

Juilo Zelaya, a lawyer with the ACLU who’s been working with immigrant communities in places like Worthington and St. James, applauds Tropero and her colleagues for adopting policies to more stridently protect student and family information. Not only did it send a message of solidarity to immigrant families, he says, but it also reinforced the district’s commitment to providing all students with a safe learning environment.

“It’s an outlier and it shouldn't be. We have a lot of smaller communities that have a big immigrant representation. I know a few schools that were looking at something like this. Then it got caught up with the idea of sanctuary cities, and that tends to be very divisive,” he said, noting it’s a politically charged topic. “I would hope that school board members across southern Minnesota, across rural Minnesota, are able to step outside and say: ‘This is for our students. This is for this duty that we have to protect them.’”

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Comments (1)

With America ranked 35th in the world in education

(Dropping from number 1), you might think educators would be concerned with improving how/what they teach, not who they teach. Since Carter started the Dept of Education in 1979, our world standing as a country with the best educational system has collapsed. As usual the Liberals are worried about a few DACA students and forgetting the educational system needs to be overhauled to help the 10's of thousand legal citizen students be prepared for life after 18 years of age!! Just plain foolish!