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]

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.

oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”