Meet the principal : Sample Story

The Vulnerability Factor

La Migra is in town!      When those words were whispered among the Hispanic community of our school everyone knew what they meant, especially the students.  La Migra was the term used for the border patrol commonly known as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service (ICS).  People stayed away from the shopping centers, the 7-11 store, and the labor pick-up spot.  These were the usual places where La Migra went first.  Usually, a parent alerted Neri that ICE was in our city.  Neri was the Parent Volunteer Coordinator at school.  She spoke Spanish and was our main translator. Neri was in her office when Juanita entered.

“Neri,” whispered Juanita.  “La Migra” is in town.

“Oh boy, thanks for letting me know.”

“We may have more students absent tomorrow.  You know how many of our parents don’t send their kids to school because they’re afraid of going outside?”

“Yeah, I know.  I’ll tell the principal, but I won’t tell everybody in the office, particularly the one person who seems to think she’s the enforcer.”

“Thanks, that’s good.  We don’t need her involved.  Do you remember when she made that comment, in front of kids in the office?   ‘I resent my taxpayer dollars going to pay for free breakfasts and lunches for these students.’”

“Oh, yeah, I remember that, and little Robert asking his mom, ‘what are taxpayer dollars?’  Sad, isn’t it?”

“Well, I knew you’d want to know La Migra was in town in case some of our students are having trouble.”

“In fact, I wonder if that’s what’s going on with Selena Chavez?  She came into the office at noon asking to go home, but she had no fever or visible signs of being sick.  Her mother is undocumented, and the last time La Migra was in town, she was afraid that her mom might not be there when she got home from school.”

“It must be tough trying to focus on what the teacher is saying when you have that in your head?”

There were several other incidents at our school which, I believe, impacted our students.  Some revolved around Mrs. Bianchi, a grandma, and long-time volunteer at school.  She was a good grandma to her troubled grandchild at Baxter.  Our problem was her insensitivity.   Several times after school she made comments to some of our Hispanic mothers waiting in front of the school for their students to be dismissed.  She said things to them like, “You need to go home where you came from, we don’t want you here.”  The parents just ignored her, but they shared with Neri they were fearful that if she felt this way could other parents at school feel the same way?  Would she turn them into the authorities?  One of the kindergarten students waiting with the mothers asked her mom, “Why doesn’t she want us here?  What did we do wrong?”

We also had a problem with Mrs. Bianchi at an English Learner Advisory Committee (ELAC) meeting.   That meeting was specifically designed for Spanish speaking parents.  The local police wanted to speak to them and let them know they were there to support the families and not to turn them into La Migra.  A police officer conducted the meeting and at the beginning of the presentation Mrs. Bianchi’s name came up.  Some of the parents told the officer about the things Mrs. Bianchi said to them as they waited for their kids after school.   About halfway through the meeting the door opened and surprisingly in walked Mrs. Bianchi.  Everyone was speechless.  She sat down quietly and listened to the rest of the talk.  A few fifth-grade students were in the room with their parents observing the conversation.

When the meeting was over, the police officer, a Hispanic woman, approached Mrs. Bianchi quietly to talk to her about what was reported earlier.  Mrs. Bianchi looked at her and said,

“What’s your last name?”

“Johnson,” replied the police officer.

“No. No,” she said, pointing her finger at the police officer.  “What’s your maiden name, your Spanish name?”

“It’s Velasquez,” said the officer.

“Oh well, then you’re one of them, maybe you should go back too.”

The officer then asked Mrs. Bianchi to step outside so they could talk away from the group, but everyone in the room already had heard the way she spoke to the police officer, including the fifth-grade students.   I wondered how those students felt knowing people would say things like that, not only to their parents, but also to a police officer.

Another situation involved Cristobal Padilla, the parent of three boys at Baxter. I remember the first ELAC meeting he attended when he stood up, took his hat off, looked around the room at everyone and boldly announced, “I don’t know why you all are here, but I’m here because I intend to be involved with my kid’s education.”  I wondered why he felt it was important to say that.

Mr. Padilla always insisted his wife and sons remain inside their home if he wasn’t there.  So, Mrs. Padilla walked the short distance to meet her sons after school and they quickly walked home together where they would lock themselves inside until dad arrived home.  If he wasn’t home on the weekend, they all had to stay inside their house.  He was worried about La Migra because his wife was undocumented.  Even when La Migra wasn’t in town, he continued this practice.  He didn’t trust the police and thought they too could take his wife and maybe his sons.  How did his sons feel about not being able to go outside to play with their friends?  Were they fearful about why they had to stay inside their house when dad wasn’t home?

One situation happened at a Student Study Team (SST) meeting.  We were discussing a student who had multiple absences.  Mom had called him in sick ten days in the last month, and we were concerned about his excessive absences and wanted to see how we could support the family.

Neri was translating at the meeting, as she always did.  After opening the meeting and talking about the student’s strengths, we began our concern about the boy missing so many days of instruction.   In translating our conversation to the mom Neri asked her why her son had missed so many days of school.   I listened as mom talked in Spanish to Neri–she was gesturing with her hands, many times furrowing her brow, shaking her head sideways, and saying ‘no’ several times about something Neri asked her.  I watched Neri and detected a puzzled look on her face as she too, had a furrowed brow many times. I could tell this was not an ordinary translation.  Finally, after Mom finished, Neri told us the child was sick with a cold and the family had no medical insurance.  That was an unusually short translation for all I observed mom saying.  What Neri told me later was that she didn’t quite know how to translate mom’s conversation at the meeting, because mom shared with Neri that she and her husband were undocumented and they were afraid of going to a clinic or the emergency hospital, so she treated her son with home remedies.  She rubbed herbs on his temples for his headache, and placed cloves between his sore teeth and gums.  Neri didn’t know quite how to translate all that to the entire group. This was a big concern with our undocumented families.  By not wanting to cause any undue attention to themselves they often neglected their children’s medical care causing the kids to miss too much school.

The prejudices of parents like Mrs. Bianchi have a trickle-down effect on their children.  Some students would hear rude comments from other students like: “Your parents are taking our parents jobs.”  “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”  “Hey raghead, why do you wear that on your head?”  As much as we dealt with these incidents at school when we knew about them, they still occurred in neighborhoods, on the way to and from school, and on playgrounds in the community.

Do comments like these make students feel unsafe at school?   Is learning interrupted when students are worried and/or fearful about comments like these?

A combination of these incidents and comments made up what Neri called the “Vulnerability Factor” for many of our students.  How safe do they feel when they are worried about whether mom or dad will be there when they get home from school?  How safe do they feel when they hear comments like “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”  How safe do they feel when they hear parent’s conversations about other adults they know who have been picked up by La Migra and taken away?  How safe do they feel when they can’t go outside to play because La Migra or the police may come and get them?  How does all this effect their learning?

When they don’t have access to health care, they miss more school than the average student and therefore miss more instruction.

All these factors make these students vulnerable to receiving instruction. What can we, as educators, do about it?

How can we help these students feel safe at school?  How can we help the fear and anxiety disappear so their minds can be free to access instruction?

How can we reduce the “Vulnerability Factor’ for these students?