As a mother and grandmother, Teresa Weatherall Neal knows well the value of family. And as superintendent of nearly 17,000 Grand Rapids Public Schools students, she thinks about the families they all come from.
So Neal’s reaction to President Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was a strong and swift call to protect students and their families from deportation.
“I’m going to fight for them,” Neal said in her office, the day after Trump announced a phase-out of DACA . “I stand with them. I will fight till the bitter end to keep these children in the school system, with their families.”
Her remarks followed a GRPS Board of Education resolution denouncing the decision, and calling on Congress to pass legislation enabling undocumented young people to gain permanent residency. Other area superintendents also expressed support of their immigrant students, in light of the decision that removes protection from deportation for children raised in the U.S. by undocumented parents.
In a prepared statement, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston said the district “reaffirms our commitment to providing safe and supportive learning environments for each student.”
“(B)ecause each child’s unique path is an integral chapter in our district’s story, this action by the executive branch will impact our whole community,” said Polston, whose district’s students are 75 percent Latino. “Our diversity is our strength, and our doors are open for all families that hope for a brighter future for their children. We are forever a friend and partner on this journey.”
Supporting Diversity in Districts
In Wyoming Public Schools, where 38 percent of students are Latino, Supertintendent Tom Reeder did not specifically address DACA but alluded to government decisions that “have caused significant stress to our families, particularly our children.”
“The last nine months have brought great stress upon members of our community – more than I can remember in the past -and greatly impacts our local families,” Reeder said in a statement to School News Network. “Wyoming Public Schools will continue to support all our students and families in the best way possible to ensure safety and the best environment for learning success.”
He urged parents to reach out to the district to reduce any barrier to their children’s learning, adding, “In the meantime, we hope that adults will seek solutions in the near future that will always ensure everyone is valued, our most vulnerable are protected, and our core fundamental beliefs revisited.”
Kentwood Public Schools is home to a great many immigrant and refugee families, a fact Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff emphasized.
“The strength of our Kentwood community is our diversity and the tapestry of cultures that make up our school district,” Zoerhoff told SNN. “We will continue with our mission to provide an education of excellence and equity to all the children who come through our doors. Kentwood Public Schools is a family and we will continue to support our family members in any way possible.”
The Trump administration’s decision, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, would end the DACA program enacted by President Obama in 2012. It allows young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents, to receive temporary permission to work, study and get driver’s licenses, renewable every two years. To qualify, applicants must have clean criminal records, be enrolled in school or serve in the military. About 800,000 are current recipients.
‘To disrupt the lives of kids is so wrong.’ — GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal
This week’s decision officially ends the program in March and halts new applications now, but those whose permits expire before March 5 can apply for a two-year renewal. Trump called on Congress to pass immigration legislation to replace it, and tweeted that he will “revisit this issue” if Congress does not act.
‘It’s About Humanity’
In Grand Rapids Public Schools, which enrolls about 4,000 Latino students, the program’s cancellation may affect between 500 and 1,000 students, said spokesman John Helmholdt. Although most are Latino, some come from other countries, he said, adding the district has “a moral obligation” to support their families and “get Congress to take action to do what’s right by kids.”
“This has a negative impact on social/emotional learning,” Helmholdt said. “Now students and their families are not focused on the children’s education and getting homework done. They’re having fear for what does this executive order mean, and what do they have to do to make any kinds of preparation in the event Congress doesn’t take swift action.
“This is the insanity of this new administration,” he added. “It’s evoking this fear, anxiety and us vs. them mentality that has no place in public education.”
The GRPS school board statement said members were “deeply disappointed” by Trump’s decision, and urged Congress to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Minors (DREAM) Act, introduced in 2001 but never approved. The board called DACA “crucially important to public education,” noting teachers working under the program help fill a need for teaching English-language learners.
“We believe students brought to the United States as children must be able to pursue an education without the threat of deportation, and have a pathway to fully participate in the American society as citizens,” the board said. Board President Wendy Falb and Superintendent Neal spoke out at a press conference on the day of Trump’s decision, along with a DACA recipient with children in GRPS and Roberto Torres, executive director of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan. Neal later called the decision unjust and “unconscionable,” causing trauma to families, students and staff.
“To disrupt the lives of kids is so wrong,” Neal said. “We should be focusing in on educating these kids. I shouldn’t worry about whether my kids are going to show up because they’re afraid to come out of the shadows.”She urged superintendents, city officials and companies across the area to find out how many families are affected, then work to craft a legislative solution.
“I don’t think it’s a Republican or Dem thing,” she added. “It’s about humanity.”