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In charged climate, Philly teachers learn how to keep immigrant students safe

Responding to student and teacher concerns in the current political climate, every school-based employee in the Philadelphia School District is learning lessons on what to do if immigration agents ask for information about students, and how to support and welcome newcomers to the U.S.

Tiffany Lorch, an English as a second language teacher at Furness High School, leads a teacher training session focused on helping immigrant students.
Tiffany Lorch, an English as a second language teacher at Furness High School, leads a teacher training session focused on helping immigrant students.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

For many of the 700 students at Furness High School, the hours spent in the building at Third and Mifflin represent the safest they will feel all day.

More than half of Furness' pupils are immigrants, and beginning last November, some were so frightened they did not come to school. In the new world order, would authorities come for them? And if they did, would their teachers protect them?

"A lot of my students are in crisis right now," said Tiffany Lorch, a Furness teacher of English as a second language. "Their parents are not sending them to school, because they're afraid. And if they're not feeling well emotionally, they can't learn."

Responding to pleas from teachers, advocates, and students, the Philadelphia School District this year is implementing mandatory training in keeping the system's tens of thousands of immigrant children safe and supported in the current political climate. Every school-based employee, from principal to cafeteria worker, is to receive instruction in everything from what information to release if immigration agents arrive at a school (none) to how to communicate with parents who speak another language.

Last year, Philadelphia counted more than 14,000 English-language learners, about 11 percent of the School District's 130,000 pupils. The current number of immigrant students, while unknown, is higher.

Set against the tension of the current political climate, including the heat Philadelphia is taking federally over its "sanctuary city" policy, the school system's training is important. It appears to be in the vanguard; a spot check of other local districts reveals no similar practices. Pittsburgh's school system declared itself a sanctuary district, but that designation was symbolic, and a spokeswoman said it had no immigrant-rights training sessions planned.

This week, dozens of  Philadelphia teachers − back in classrooms after the summer break − crowded into Furness' old library for their training. The session was mandatory, but there was an urgency in the room.

Most important, ESL teacher Meg Flisek told her colleagues, students are entitled to an education regardless of immigration status, and federal law prohibits school staff from disclosing any student information, even to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

To officials' knowledge, no ICE agents have ever demanded information of any city schools. But federal agents made inquiries about a student at a New York school this year, and that indicates the kind of climate that worries families, teachers said Monday.

"You don't have to sign anything.  You don't have to answer anything," Flisek told her colleagues.

"We will never let somebody come into this building and take someone out," Lorch said. "That's our legal obligation."

Daniel Peou knows firsthand the power of making immigrant students feel welcome. He came to the United States from Cambodia at age 13, not knowing a word of English. He landed at Furness, where he learned the language and began to feel he belonged, despite the challenges of adjusting to life in a new country.

"We want our parents and students to know that we're here to support them," Peou said.

Students' fears began to swell after President Trump's election in November, Lorch said. She started receiving calls from parents asking what would happen to children if the adults were deported. Being potential targets of hate also weighed heavily on students, so Lorch asked them to write about their feelings.

Staff on Monday pored over students' writing as a way to better understand what their pupils were dealing with.

Immigrants, one Furness ESL student wrote, "come here for their futures, and they are not trying to ruin America. They are trying their best to become the good citizens. And other people from different countries are mostly hardworking and become success. I hope that Mr. President would know about that and he can understand us."

Another said: "Without us immigrants you won't have anyone to work all of the factory job to make money. You need us and we need you. If you want this country to be great please rethink about everything you are doing, this is a land of opportunity."

The teachers talked stereotypes about immigrants (they take away jobs from others, they're dangerous), learned about refugees and those seeking asylum, or asylees, and addressed the history of immigration in the U.S.

More than half of Furness' immigrant students are refugees with documentation, which allows them to apply for college financial aid and receive other government supports. Some are asylees who might have to miss school to attend court hearings that will determine if they win permanent residence. And some are unaccompanied minors who fled dangerous situations and arrived alone in the U.S.

Most of those teens work full-time, and may live with people they barely know.

"It makes it tough to call home and talk about homework," Flisek said. "There's a real need for emotional support."

The Furness staff assessed the school's climate and culture toward immigrants — mostly good, they agreed, but they saw some areas of concern. Students with dietary restrictions might encounter some frustration in the cafeteria, they thought. And report cards are not widely available in languages many parents speak, they said.

"If a kid reports they have issues in the cafeteria, let me know, and I'll deal with it personally," Peou said. Teachers brainstormed fixes and areas to build on — more signs in different languages, an emphasis on acknowledging students' unique cultural traditions. They were reminded about ways to reach parents — bilingual assistants, or a telephone service in which translators can conduct phone calls with parents who speak any language.

Even at Furness, whose motto is "a diverse school for a diverse world," the training was needed, Lorch said. Some teachers hesitate to even ask a student what language he or she speaks for fear of giving offense.

"It's important to speak about this explicitly," she said. "It's important that our students and their families feel safe and welcomed coming to school."

City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who also led the push for more protections for immigrant students, said the training was crucial.

"I feel like this is one of the strongest things the district has done in recent years in terms of ensuring that school communities will be safe for all students and families," Gym said. "This is a huge step forward."