Teachers, parents and community members lined the walkway outside LEAP High School in St. Paul yesterday, forming a protective wall around students at the school for new immigrants as they walked to their buses after dismissal.
Organized by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers on the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration, the public action was a pointed rejection of the new president’s anti-immigrant rhetoric – and a call for district leaders to make school the one place students don’t have to worry about their skin color or immigration status.
“We want to unite against the threat of deportation, we want to unite against racism, sexism, all the ‘isms’ that are going to be coming out of DC for the next four years,” SPFT President Denise Rodriguez said. “And we want billionaires to pay their fair share of taxes so we can fully fund our schools.”
St. Paul school board members will vote Tuesday night on a “sanctuary school” resolution. Supporters want the district to protect students from deportation raids at school and adopt a policy against sharing student information with immigration agents.
All children deserve a chance to succeed at school, but middle-school English teacher Leah VanDassor worries that fear and uncertainty will create barriers to success for her undocumented and immigrant students.
“I want to let them know that they’re safe with us, they’re safe in school and they’re supported,” VanDassor said. “These opportunities at our public schools are here for everybody.”
Since his election, Trump has vowed to deport 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants. That pledge, along with his baseless claim that immigrants crossing the border with Mexico tend to be violent criminals, has trickled down into St. Paul classrooms, students and teachers said.
Amy Hewett-Olatunde, an English teacher at LEAP and winner of the state’s Teacher of the Year award, called the day after Trump’s election “the worst day of my teaching career.”
“We answered questions that we’ve never had to answer,” she explained. “Our students had a really difficult day, and they’ve had more difficult days since then.”
“Some of my students are feeling like their family might be deported, or someone in their family might be deported,” VanDassor said. “That puts them under a lot of stress, and it makes it hard for them to learn.”
LEAP student Nathanael Valera, whose family relocated from Mexico to St. Paul, said he knows classmates and relatives worried about “being chased by the authorities.” So it warmed Valera’s heart to see the security blanket of support outside his school yesterday.
“I have seen the worry in my classmates and relatives, but we can do something about it,” Valera said. “We can stand together as a community, raise our voices and protect and defend the rights of those who cannot protect themselves.”
The rally was one of several teacher-led events at St. Paul schools – and schools across the country – on Jan. 19, part of educators’ nationwide “#ReclaimOurSchools” campaign. Former SPFT President Mary Cathryn Ricker, currently serving as a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, said it’s more vital than ever that teachers, parents and students continue working together to support public education.
“Let’s make sure that the energy of this rally is carried forward every day, so that every day students feel welcome … and every day students feel the power of the partnerships we as adults are creating to meet their needs,” Ricker said. “Let’s do this together. Let’s reclaim our schools.”