How one Denver school supported new immigrant students is at the center of a new documentary from CBS Colorado

McMeen Elementary in the Washington Virginia Vale neighborhood is in the spotlight.
8 min. read
An overhead view of McMeen Elementary from the CBS Colorado documentary “McMeen in the Middle, Denver’s Migrant Crisis.”
An overhead view of McMeen Elementary from the CBS Colorado documentary “McMeen in the Middle, Denver’s Migrant Crisis.”
CBS Colorado

McMeen Elementary knows first-hand what it's like to absorb some of the thousands of new immigrants that came from Venezuela and other places to Denver this last school year. 

The school is a magnet for immigrants — boasting students from 25 countries. 

A new film, “McMeen in the Middle, Denver’s Migrant Crisis,” profiles the real-life challenges for the new students and their families and the burden felt by teachers, DPS administrators and the community as they tried to meet the needs of the newcomers.

Denver Public Schools received about 4,700 students in the unprecedented school year.

The film’s producer, Anna Alejo of CBS News Colorado, said while reporting on the arrival of new immigrants to Denver and the costs associated with the migration, McMeen Elementary in the Washington Virginia Vale neighborhood stood out. 

“It was clear that [this] was an opportunity to witness up close how the arrival of so many new children every week was affecting classrooms and how the school … had a limited ability to respond,” Alejo said. 

Teachers grapple with the stress of supporting new students

Soledad Montecino, who herself immigrated from Chile to the United States about 15 years ago, is among the teachers profiled in the film. 

She was attracted to the school because of its mission to serve immigrants and its dual language program, where students are taught in Spanish and English. This past school year, her first-grade class ballooned from 29 students at the start of school to 35 by the end of the year. 

Throughout the film, Montecino talks about the highs and lows of the turbulent year and wonders how she’ll feel when she has time to reflect back on it. 

“Maybe one day, I’m going to feel proud of [what I accomplished this year] or maybe I’m going to resent it, because this is putting a lot of stress on me,” Montecino says in the film. “And at the end of the day, I feel like ‘Why I didn't do more?’”

A bright spot in a difficult year was watching the community rally around the newcomers, Montecino said. Families brought in clothes and donated money to support field trips and other activities for the students. 

Montecino said students came to first grade without knowing any letters or their sounds.

“[Things] like holding a pencil or how to write down their names,” Montecino said. 
“Everything was new.”

The chance was especially taxing early in the school year when a new student arrived in her classroom every two or three weeks, she said. At the same time, the arrivals allowed her other students to be helpers, guiding the newcomers through the transition to a new classroom and a new country.

Montecino noted it was surprising that many of the students talked about their journeys to the United States in positive terms, despite the extraordinary challenges of the multi-country trek. 

During a unit on animals and their habitat, she said the newcomers talked about what they had witnessed. 

“They mentioned that they saw monkeys, they saw snakes. Some of them were in a little boat and they saw alligators,” Montecino said. “For them, it was like a child going to Disneyland and telling you all of these details.”

As kids go to school, parents struggle to find housing and work authorizations

One of those students is first-grader Maikol Rosas.

Her mother, Genesis Salloum, said parents like her tried to shelter their children so they wouldn’t notice the dead or injured as they made their way through difficult terrain, including the perilous and often-deadly Darién gap connecting South and Central America. 

In the film, Salloum said they left Venezuela over a year ago because of political persecution. She said as they traveled through seven different countries, she told her children they were on a “walking trip.” 

“Those parents and all of the adults around them did an amazing job,” said teacher Montecino, who taught Rosas. “Crossing the jungle and telling a story to the kiddos so they [could] have the sense that it's an adventure and not something horrible because it was horrible.”

Listen to the audio feature of this story from CPR

Salloum said Maikol has had a difficult time adjusting to a new language, a new way of life and a new climate.

She’s also faced significant hardships. Because many new immigrants don’t have work visas, they’ve had to contend with wage left. And, Salloum said, because one of Maikol’s siblings has a medical condition, her family has expensive medical bills to pay. 

Alejo, the film’s producer, said she was struck by how determined Salloum was to find work despite the obstacles. 

“She talked about how … when she knew there was a time limit on how long the families could stay in the shelter, she worked very hard every minute of the day to try to find work, to try to find an apartment they could afford,” Alejo said.

Early on, Salloum said, she and her husband had to find work from people willing to hire them without work visas, but it still wasn’t enough to pay rent each month. 

“It's also important to note that given where they can afford to rent and where landlords are willing to offer them a place to stay, it's not very safe,” Alejo said. “And that is also something that really concerns some of the educators at McMeen.”

Ultimately, Salloum was able to get work authorization, housing and steady work. 

But safety is still an issue. The family lives in a section of Denver near the school that has one of the highest incidents of gun violence.  

“So it's not easy for these families,” Alejo said. “They dream of finding a better place to live. They want to stay at McMeen because they love the school, but they would like to get their kids to a safer environment.”

The school became a one-stop shop for a host of other needs as well. 

Alejo said some of the young newcomers came to school hungry because their parents didn’t qualify for work permits in the U.S. and didn’t have a steady source of income. 

During the school year, McMeen began sending students home with bags of groceries before weekends and school breaks, in addition to providing free breakfast and lunch on school days. 

Many of the new students weren’t able to provide documentation of past vaccinations, so the school began vaccinating students. 

Soledad Montecino stand in front of a school building, smiling and holding bouquets of flowers.
Soledad Montecino is a first-grade teacher at McMeen Elementary.
Courtesy of Anna Alejo

Tooth decay was a problem since many of the children had received limited dental care in their native countries and had been on months-long trips, often on foot, through South and Central America without any oral care. 

The school also brought in providers to test students’ vision and fit them with glasses. Since it doesn’t get cold in Venezuela, McMeen also began providing winter clothing to the children. 

Alejo noted that on top of all of the student’s needs, McMeen and other schools that received the newcomers were constrained by funding since a lot of the children arrived after the state's official October student count. 

“The school had limited space, limited manpower and [large] class sizes and as you can imagine, it's difficult to teach reading, writing and mathematics when you have that many first or second graders,” Alejo said. 

Doing what’s best for students even in a tense political climate over immigration

Given heightened concerns about immigration this election year, both Republicans and Democrats have questioned the ability of the country to absorb so many new immigrants, many in violation of US laws.

Soledad Montecino said as an immigrant herself, she knows how difficult it is to come to a country where you don’t know the language and have to start from scratch.

“We are here to work,” she said. “We just want the opportunity to live and work in a country where we feel safe. We don’t want anything for free.”  

Alejo said the film set out to profile people — teachers, administrators, students and parents — at the neighborhood level who aren’t always heard. 

"We don't take sides as journalists,” Alejo said. “But … I hope the documentary offers a view of how migration affects people, affects communities, and the school.” 

What’s next for schools?

As for the upcoming school year, Alejo said enrollments are expected to stabilize. 

Most of the new families plan to stay at McMeen, which means classrooms are preparing to have 35 students again this year. 

Alejo said when CBS News reached out to Denver Public Schools about a plan to address crowded classrooms, officials said they would be in touch with principals at McMeen and other affected schools to see what they could do.

Teacher Soledad Montecino said that one of the pluses of the last school year was that it provided her with the tools to be a better teacher next year.

“I’m hoping that we can have more help, more resources, not just for the school, [but] for those families,” she said.

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