Even before the Trump administration announced the rollback of an Obama-era program that provides protections to young undocumented immigrants, Tom Boasberg didn’t hold back.
The longtime Denver Public Schools superintendent fired off one pre-emptive statement saying that ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, would “cruelly rip the American dream” from young immigrants’ grasp. He joined other civic leaders for a news conference under the Capitol dome to call for the program’s preservation.
When DACA’s imminent demise was announced Tuesday, the DPS communications staff was ready with a statement, in both English and Spanish, decrying the move as “shortsighted, heartless and harmful.”
In Aurora Public Schools, Superintendent Rico Munn, a lawyer and former head of the State Department of Regulatory Agencies, conferred with staff about a more measured response.
Two days after the Trump White House put DACA on notice, APS emailed the school community a newsletter reiterating district policy about immigration enforcement and linking to a school board resolution passed earlier this year meant to allay community fears. The district statement did not mention DACA, nor was it signed by Munn or anyone personally.
The contrasting responses – from passionate and personal to informational and politics-free – provide a window into how school districts view their responsibilities when a divisive national policy change carries profound implications for many Colorado students and their families.
In Colorado’s urban, suburban and rural areas, officials in districts with large numbers of immigrant students are attempting to support kids at a trying time without over-promising security they may not be able to guarantee. How districts respond hinges on intensely local factors, from the political climate to leadership style and school board makeup.
“This is uncharted waters,” said Kathy Escamilla, director of the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. “… It’s incumbent upon all school districts to say ‘This issue is complex, it’s not just legal and illegal.’ And they need to inform their communities about the complexities about dealing with these thorny issues.”
Roughly 800,000 people in the U.S., including nearly 17,300 people in Colorado, are enrolled in DACA. Begun in 2012, the program offers work permits and temporary reprieves from deportation to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as young children.
Trump has given Congress six months to tackle immigration issues broadly before DACA is undone. He also has indicated that he may act on DACA if Congress does not.
Susana Cordova, deputy superintendent of Denver Public Schools, said leaders of the 92,000-student district felt they had no choice but to speak out.
“The conditions have been thrust on us,” she said Friday.
Cordova added that DPS leaders believe “this is a fundamental moral obligation we have to support our Latino students in general and in particular, take a stance on what we believe is a very misguided, poorly thought-out and detrimental decision.”
Some Denver school principals also spoke out publicly. A group of more than 90 school leaders wrote an opinion piece in The Denver Post calling on Congress to pass the 2017 DREAM Act to provide permanent protections for immigrants.
“Principals have real power in communities,” said author James Cryan, who is founder and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter school network in Denver and Aurora. The group, he said, wanted to use that power “to stand with folks who, in many cases, … don’t feel safe.”
The Aurora Public Schools statement sought to tamp down concerns about imminent immigration actions and said the “safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is our top priority.”
Munn said in an interview that there is no “right response” to news like DACA’s rollback, and that it varies by community. Asked about the more pointed statement from Boasberg and DPS, Munn said neither he nor the district has a track record of putting out such statements.
“We have tried to stay focused on serving our kids and making sure our kids and our families know at a very practical level what the impact is on their lives,” he said. “For us, it’s important not to be a distraction in that communication. In other communities, it makes all the sense in the world to handle it differently depending on how you relate to that community.”
Judith Padilla, an Aurora mother of three, said Friday she didn’t receive the district’s communication on immigration this week, but wishes she had more resources from the schools.
“All of us need more information about what help our schools can or can’t offer us,” Padilla said. “They need to support everyone. I am worried about what’s going to happen.”
Other suburban Denver districts, many of them with large and growing Hispanic populations, also gave a variety of responses.
In Jeffco Public Schools, Superintendent Jason Glass was quick to post on his blog about DACA, striking a tone that falls somewhere between Denver’s and Aurora’s statements.
Glass noted the opportunities DACA provides to undocumented students “who have much to contribute to our community, state, and nation.” He also linked to more information and a “do and don’t list” for educators.
In an email to Chalkbeat, Glass expanded on the district’s strategy, noting that leaders must take into account residents, boards and community values in deciding if and how to engage on issues with political dimensions.
“For Jeffco, that meant reassuring potentially impacted members of our community that our schools remain open and welcoming to them, and that we would monitor and work with our Congressional delegation in an effort to not limit opportunities for our children,” he said. “In other communities, that engagement can mean something else.”
Westminster Public Schools sent an internal communication last week to principals with “key talking points,” and reminders to staff of policy on social media, teaching controversial topics and interactions with immigration officials.
“We do not collect or share information on a student’s legal status and that will not change,” the memo said, echoing the message of many other school districts. “Westminster Public Schools values ethnic and language diversity in our district and we view diversity as a strength.”
Javier Abrego, the superintendent of the Adams 14 School District in Commerce City, put out a more pointed statement — in English and Spanish — on DACA on Wednesday.
“To be sure, the elimination of DACA will not only have a dramatic economic impact on our state and nation, it will have devastating impacts on our schools and communities,” he wrote. “Our community and schools will lose employees, coaches and school support staff. Our educational systems are already in dire need of great support and resources; the elimination of DACA just compounds an already alarming situation.”
Abrego also joined a handful of other superintendents in calling for Congress to act.
In Greeley-Evans School District 6, Superintendent Deirdre Pilch put out a one-paragraph statement Tuesday acknowledging that changes in DACA will “cause worry and concern for some of our students, families and our own staff.” It concluded by encouraging families to voice their concerns to national elected officials and expressing hope that Congress will find a solution.
Earlier this year Pilch was one of several Colorado school and district leaders who signed a letter to federal officials in support of DACA.
But not every district leader felt compelled to speak out about DACA this week.
In St Vrain Valley School District, where 30 percent of the district’s 32,000 students are Hispanic, district officials released no statement or resolution on DACA.
“I don’t know what a piece of paper would do,” said Superintendent Don Haddad. “For us, we don’t change our approach with kids and our community every time a politician says something. We care about our kids 24/7, every day of the week.”
Rural Colorado is far more diverse than most other U.S. rural areas, with significant Latino populations in some areas. Districts there, too, are grappling with responding to DACA.
In the Roaring Fork School District, Superintendent Rob Stein released a one-page statement critical of the DACA announcement on Tuesday — the district’s first day of school.
In a separate letter to district staff and board members, Stein acknowledged that immigrant rights is a political issue and said everyone should make their own choices about how to get involved. “At the same time,” he wrote, “we have a safe haven resolution as a school district that states, in part, ‘We will act where we have influence and make a difference wherever we can.’”
The 1,000-student Lake County school district has yet to send any formal communication about its stance on DACA to parents, said high school principal Ben Cairns. Instead, they’ve deferred to the community’s Latino organizations.
However, the high school is encouraging students to participate in the immigration policy debate. On Tuesday, about two dozen students in three vans traveled to a rally on Denver’s Auraria Campus.
Cairns said he’s aware of potential backlash from other community members but that hasn’t stopped him from supporting the needs of his students.
“It’s complicated,” he said. “But it’s our role to help kids process these big moments in their lives.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.