in their own words

As crisis over Trump’s immigrant order mounts, what America’s teachers of refugee students want you to know

PHOTO: Charlie Nye / The Star
May Oo Mutraw, president of the Burmese Community Center for Education, works on spelling with six-year-old Ngae Reh in 2015.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order late Friday that blocked refugees from coming into the U.S. for 120 days and bars refugees from Syria from entering indefinitely.

The order — and subsequent detentions of refugees and other legal immigrants arriving in U.S. airports — prompted dramatic protests across the country and an emergency, late-night court ruling temporarily suspending part of Trump’s decree.

Among the many people who will spend the coming days trying to make sense of the shifting, uncertain terrain facing refugee families are the teachers who, in increasing numbers, have been working with their children.

Before and after Trump’s order this week, we asked several of those teachers to tell about their jobs, their students, and what has them worried right now. Here’s some of what they told us.

Louise El Yaafouri helps teachers learn the best ways to reach refugee education in Denver and Aurora, Colorado. She recently wrote this piece about teaching a student who had come to the U.S. from Iraq.

“I was just visiting some former students who are now in middle school, and they’re very cognizant of what’s going on. Families come in waves [to the U.S.], and many have family members that are still in that process of being approved. That creates is a lot of anxiety around, am I going to get to see my family again.

For our students, it’s not safe for them to go back. That saying, ‘Nobody leaves home unless home is the mouth of shark,’ that’s the situation. None of these families would volunteer to come to America. These aren’t families that that was their goal. None would have chosen to lose their homes, their culture, language, food.

I’ve been [around] refugee camps and watched this process of resettlement. It’s often long and terrifying ordeal. The U.S. is known for having a long and stringent process. And in the Denver community, those [countries targeted by Trump’s recent executive order] are seven populations we receive the most.

"Most of the families from Iraq are not refugees but asylees who volunteered to help the U.S. in their country."

A lot of students I get from those countries are not Muslim to begin with! And most of the families from Iraq are not refugees but asylees who volunteered to help the U.S. in their country.

We’re just starting to see our first Syrian kiddos here. [My former school] Bridge Academy got about five.

Our families, they have such a deep love for their home country. I’m an American and I love my country. This is different. It’s the idea of community and family so embedded in every aspect of life. To come to a place like the States … I feel, from my families, there’s a deep sense of isolation and detachment. The Syrian students tend to exhibit more symptoms of traumatic shock.

Syrians are also among the most literate people anywhere. Academically, it doesn’t take a long time for them to be ready to go. Even with disrupted schooling, the chance of them having literacy in their home language is really high. Kudos to those parents.

I work with the whole field of service workers in the refugee context. Working with people from the State Department, Lutheran Family Services, our African Community Center — having a network of people is crucial. We share all this information as it’s coming out and brainstorm and problem-solve. This community is really mobilized to dedicate ourselves to the people we serve. If it were me as an island, it would be too overwhelming.”

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Emily Ramirez teaches English as a second language in a diverse Dallas high school.

“We had an influx a few years ago from Myanmar, more recently we’ve received students from the Congo. Just in the past year, we’ve had a lot of placements from Syria and Iraq. Most of those students have refugee status. And then there’s a pretty sizable community from central America, a lot who are fleeing pretty violent situations.

"A lot of people complain that refugees put strain on schools. That is true"

I do have a few students [from Syria and Iraq] who are here, but they might still have a brother or an uncle they’re hoping they can come here. For one student, that might be changing — the likelihood of his brother being able to join his family.

We talk about ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. So, why did you leave? And, why did you choose America? For the descriptions of why people left, I got a pretty wide variety. A lot of people from Syria wrote, civil war, war, dying, dead people. When I asked, why America, why not Canada, France, Turkey? They say, I don’t know. We just ended up here.

The placements happen so fast. I had a class that reached 38 students speaking 17 languages. You just keep on welcoming people. A lot of people complain that refugees put strain on schools. That is true, and it can be difficult on schools. But it’s what I do, it’s what I love.”

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Tonya Powers is a long-term substitute teacher near Lubbock, Texas.

“I’m a speech and debate teacher. This is a fairly wealthy district, so a lot of this is about teaching them how to accept and communicate with people who are not like them. Lubbock is the home of Texas Tech, so there are graduate students especially who have children and go to school in the area. I’ve had a student whose family was in the process of applying for political asylum who has been trying to figure out how that would affect his chances at college. This area is built on cattle and farming, which means a lot of migrant workers.

Most days are pretty normal, but this last week has been rough on them. After the election, we had a horde of eighth-grade boys walking down the hallway chanting ‘Trump, Trump, Trump.’

I want people to know that these are just kids. Kids don’t make the choices they’re so afraid of. Even teenagers don’t. None of these kids I have ever been afraid of becoming terrorists.

It worries me when people talk about immigrants and refugees in broad strokes and have never even talked to one. If you could look your own child in the eye and say they didn’t deserve an education, you’d be heartless. And I think most people are better than that. But I think people don’t remember that immigrants and refugees are kids, too.”

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Carol Salva is a teacher and consultant working with newcomer students in Houston.

“In one of our more affluent areas, one of the apartment complexes struck a deal with Catholic Charities to resettle refugees there. Before [the nearby high school] could realize what was happening, they were flooded. There were over 30 kids who were coming from Somalia, Burundi, Egypt.

"For the last year or more, so many people in our community have been enriched."

They’re middle schoolers, full of hormones, there were all kinds of issues with behavior. We had refugees in in-school suspension every day. They kept loading them into this one class, and they had no good models for how you act in schools.

These kids are so mad by October. And in October, I went back into the classroom, and took over the class.

One of the teachers quit. But it all turned out really, really well. We watched tape of class, like football players. What did we do wrong? What did we do right?

The kids are learning more English every day, so you can explain things. You start talking about perseverance and grit. ‘You could help prove how fast refugees can learn.’

Most of the school is scared of them … then they started learning. And they bring perspective that you don’t have and I don’t have. Who wouldn’t want that for their child? I moved my kid to this school so he could be part of it.

I don’t mean to romanticize their hardships. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But their perspective is huge and what we want for every classroom.

Their appreciation for education kept blowing us away over and over again. I don’t know if you know any middle schoolers, but their appreciation for education can be rather low. To have a student ask, why do we have a week off? And I would say, it’s spring break, it’s what we do. And he actually said, I don’t need a break. I’ve been on break my whole life.

I teach brand-new newcomers in high school now, and over half the class is from Syria. Their math and science is way beyond ours.

I’m deeply saddened. For the last year or more, so many people in our community have been enriched. You would want these people to be your neighbors.”

Do you teach refugee students? We’d love to hear from you. Tells us where you work and what you’d like other Americans to know about that experience at [email protected]

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and, if there is community support, reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the Elevate slate’s position on reinstating the school district’s proposed voucher program.