Philadelphia schools trying to assure immigrant parents classes are safe places

(Avi Wolfman-Arent / WHYY)

(Avi Wolfman-Arent / WHYY)

At the very moment his pick for education secretary testified before congress, President-elect Donald Trump was also on the minds of families at a School District of Philadelphia forum. The topic wasn’t what Trump will do on education policy, but rather his stance on immigration and border control. 

Though no one mentioned Trump’s name at the district’s conspicuously timed forum on diversity and inclusion, panelists repeatedly referenced the president elect’s campaign rhetoric on illegal migrants and assured immigrant families that their children would be safe at Philadelphia’s public schools.

“We want all students and their families to feel welcome and included,” said Superintendent William Hite.

The school district does not inquire about students’ immigration status, said Karyn Lynch, the district’s chief of student support services, and therefore could not provide that information to federal authorities. Demographic data, meanwhile, is largely protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), said Lynch. When a parent expressed fears that her child might not be safe at school because he’s undocumented, Lynch and others assured her that immigration officials wouldn’t be able to march into schools and seize children without a warrant.

“I urge families all across Philadelphia to continue sending their children to school to receive the education and the opportunity they came to this country to receive,” Lynch said.

School districts around the country — including those in Denver, Minneapolis, and Washington D.C. — have reaffirmed publicly that they will not share student data with federal authorities, according to a recent article in Education Week. Philadelphia has taken no such step, but officials Tuesday reiterated that immigrant parents had nothing to fear.

Anh Brown, principal at George Nebinger school in South Philadelphia, said any federal agents seeking information about undocumented students wouldn’t make it past the schoolhouse doors.

“No one…is going to take any of our kids,” Brown said emphatically.

The crowd assembled for the panel discussion resembled a United Nations meeting, right down to the translation devices wedged in many sets of ears. It was a visual reminder of the school district’s stunning diversity, driven home by the fact that students speak 126 languages and about 10 percent are still learning English.

The palpable unease among the district’s immigrant families stems from Trump’s campaign promises. While on the stump the president elect promised the creation of a “deportation force” and vowed to build a wall on the border with Mexico to limit the movement of migrants from Central and South America.

It’s far too early to tell whether those promises will materialize or what exactly they mean for school children who are undocumented. But the tenor of the campaign has clearly unnerved some immigrant families.

“What I’ve been hearing from people in the community is that they need to know that their school’s gonna stand with them,” said Maria Sotomayor, an organizer with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition.

A group of Brazilian parents from Northeast Philadelphia said through a translator that they were all worried about sending their children to school once Trump becomes president. Some said they were particularly worried about the walk to school, thinking that federal agents might target children in transit.

Asked whether members of their community might simply refrain from sending their youngsters to school at all, one woman responded with a nervous laugh: “We’ll see on Friday.”

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