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A school district and a community struggle to find common ground

05/23/2017 02:28PM ● Published by Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

"The mission of the Kennett Consolidated School District is to provide a quality education that increases the achievement of every student in order for all to become successful and thoughtful contributors to society."
                              A welcome message on the KCSD website

On the night of May 8, Maja Murphy, a mother of two children in the Kennett Consolidated School District with a third child to soon follow, stood behind a microphone about 20 feet away from the district's school board at the Kennett Middle School.
She began to speak that language of frustration that many residents have shared -- that the district, while making great strides in assisting in the welfare of its Hispanic population during the current environment of stepped-up deportation efforts by enforcement agencies to arrest and deport undocumented citizens from the United States -- is still falling short of where many believe the school district should be.
Immediately to her left was a young man named Rosendo Villafuerte, who stood motionless, his eyes trained on the floor.
Murphy called a meeting she recently had with Dr. Barry Tomasetti, the superintendent of the district, a "positive" one, and said that she was impressed by how much Tomasetti "cares about our children's education and safety.
"However, I still feel there is a disconnect," Murphy continued. "I am hearing two very different sides to the story, and think bringing this conversation to a public forum might help. Immigrant families, not just Hispanic or undocumented people, make up about half of the student body in Kennett and they do not feel they are being heard. What better way for the school district to teach every student compassion and the true meaning of leadership than to lead by example and help a community in its great time of need?"
Murphy then introduced Villafuerte, who told the board that he graduated from Kennett High School in 2012. He also told them that he is the son of Mexican immigrants, and is "undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic."
Villafuerte credited his parents for pushing the value of education, as well as Kennett High School -- and his mentor, Loretta Perna --  for giving him a learning environment that allowed him to excel in academics. As a result, he received a full-tuition scholarship from Immaculata University, where he graduated in 2016 with a B.S. degree in Chemistry, and is now an abuse deterrent formations technician at NMS Labs.
"However, in the current political climate, I fear for the members of my community who have dreams and aspirations, just like me," he said, referring to the held belief that becasue he is an undocumented citizen, he did not deserve a scholarship. "They dehumanize me by calling me illegal. They insult my parents by calling them criminals. They refer to my American-born siblings as 'Anchor Babies.' Indeed, we currently live in a political atmosphere plagued with xenophobia, racism, prejudice and discrimination."
Villafuerte said that he and a few colleagues recently met with district administrators to discuss what has plagued the local Hispanic community since the presidential election -- the palatable fear that many students have about increased deportation efforts and the belief that they are receiving little or no support from the school district that educates them. Further, he called for a public statement by the district that would clarify its position to condemn these deportation efforts in the Hispanic community.

Four proposed initiatives

Villafuerte said that the administrators balked at the idea of issuing a public statement, expressing the need to avoid any misinterpretation of it as a political message.
Finally, Villafuerte called for the board to get to work on four initiatives:
1. "To issue a stronger statement to parents and students to assure that the school is a safe space, free of anxiety and intimidation," and that the statement would include a firm commitment that the district would not cooperate with immigration enforcement.
2. Form an advisory commission made up of Latino leaders in the community, as well as students.
3. Form a social justice committee within the schools, designed to help any and all students who are hurting and in need of help. The group should be made up of a diverse group of people, "so that Latinos and non-Latinos feel comfortable to talk or report incidents that may be occurring.
4. Offer cultural competency training to teachers, to "better equip them to help students who are suffering as a result of the current political climate."
"Individuals are now more vocal about their attitudes toward immigrants, especially Mexican immigrants, which has created an environment full of intimidation and bullying," Villafuerte concluded. "The recent ICE raids have provoked a shock throughout our community, creating fear. Now is the time to offer the necessary resources to those affected and ensure that they are in a safe space. We need a more culturally competent staff that would comfort students in the current political climate and better assist undocumented students in applying to college.
"But most of all," Villafuerte said, "we need to express our compassion towards those who need it, even if our efforts are to be political."
Tomasetti responded to Villafuerte's comments, providing in detail the content and tone of recent letters the district had sent to parents -- in both English and in Spanish -- informing them that the district would not permit any immigration office to remove any student from his or her school, and that the district would not share any information with any immigration office.
It's a message of respect, he said, one that has been passed on to school principals, to teachers and subsequently, to students.
Tomasetti said that the district does not want to ally itself with "any messages that are going to upset even more children and more students." He said that he has met with school counselors, who informed him that they reported only isolated incidents of disrespect toward Latino students.
"What we want is inclusiveness," he said. "I feel that we have taken some action and are continuing to communicate with our staff to be very sensitive to the needs of all students," Tomasetti said. "Especially since the election, our principals are engaged. We have taken many steps and will continue to take steps."
Board president Kendra LaCosta echoed Tomasetti's comments.
"The administration is doing all it can, and the board has reached out and we have talked about this for hours," she told Villafuerte. "What you're saying is not falling on deaf ears. We are working on changing hearts and changing minds, which may take some time."  
Soon after Tomasetti's comments, Luis Tovar, a commissioner on the Advisory Commmission on Latino Affairs in the Kennett Square Borough, called Tomasetti's response "a lot of lip service."
"What we need is a clear statement on their position," Tovar said. "They said that they've sent that out, but we've never seen it. It's no longer a blame issue. This is institutional racism, and it needs to be addressed, and part of it is reaching out to the community. You do that with the four paths forward we asked for. If they want to embrace the community and show that they support them so that they can build a trust, so that community members can approach teachers, and police on site, or the superintendent or the board, then demonstrate it.
"We don't feel that that is happening right now."
Mayra Zavala, a member of the Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs in the Kennett Square Borough, said the problem begins with a lack of Hispanic representation on the KCSD board.
"There is no one on that administration who represents the 50 percent of the population in the student body that is Latino," she said. "I think that this is a time where politics affect all of us, and we have to be political and we have to be sure that we are all taken care of. Ideally, we need to have [a school board] administration that represents the entire student body."
KCSD has been criticized for what many in the Hispanic community believe is a timid approach to confronting the issue of immigration and deportation in the community -- which other schools in Chester County and nearby Delaware have done with bold, powerful statements, seen in letters sent to parents informing them of the steps they are taking to confront these issues. Then, on May 22, parents of Kennett schools received the following email:
 
Dear Parents,
The safety and welfare of every child is extremely important to us here at the Kennett Consolidated School District. It is our understanding that some of our students are feeling anxious due to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) activity in our community. If this is true in your family, or in the family of a friend of your child, we have qualified counselors at our schools who can help. Please contact the school principal or counselor if you would like your child to receive assistance. The information that you share will be kept in strict confidence.

The letter was signed by Tomasetti.
While it continues to take the heat for choosing to avoid "politicizing" its support of its Hispanic students and their families, the KCSD quietly goes about the business of providing services that address the academic and emotional needs of all of its students, including several workshops targeted at celebrating diversity, addressing and preventing bullying, and encouraging positive student-to-student behavior.
Several of these programs specifically help Hispanic students: District wide, the SIOP program enhances learning opportunities for Hispanic students who require additional English language experiences. Spanish-speaking interpreters are provided for every student whose parents do not speak English at parent conferences, and for parents who meet with school staff.
On the middle and high school levels, the Chester County Futures program works with Hispanic students as they prepare to consider furthering their education at the college level. The Walk IN Knowledge Program provides tutoring services as well as introduces Hispanic students to the college application and visitation process.
The district also taps its most successful Hispanic students -- who are currently in college or have recently graduated -- to speak to Hispanic parents of the district's Head Start, Migrant Education and other programs that serve the local Latino population about the importance of encouraging their children to achieve academically.  
Additionally, Kennett schools have enrolled 12 Hispanic parents in its APEX program, that introduces them to school structure and gives them the skills to help them work with their children to complete homework, stress the importance of education and provide them with other schools that will enable the children to succeed.

'Perception vs. Reality'

Yet despite these efforts, the disparity between what the KCSD is doing to assist its Hispanic community and what the Hispanic community has asked from them can be seen as two like-minded initiatives, connected by aspiration, and disconnected by perception versus reality. While the district continues to address the rising concerns of its Hispanic students with increased attention and resources, the Hispanic community continues to live in a constant and isolated bubble of fear, the severity of which, they claim, that the district, for all of its efforts, simply cannot understand.
Kennett Square psychologist Winden Rowe said that the local Hispanic community is one "saturated in anxiety," a keystone member of the Kennett Square community who has become the victim of a federally-enforced mandate.
"When you look at what's happening with families being very suddenly broken up and an individuial or indiviiduals in the family being deported, that's a trauma to the family," Rowe said. "What's happening is because immigration groups are going into mushroom farms and homes and residential complexes and finding people and deporting them without warning, it's causing a lot of anxiety in children who have parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents who are undocumented, and they are under that constant stress as to whether their family will be able to stay intact because of policy."
Villafuerte's four suggestions are not the only ideas being submitted to the KCSD board. In a letter to the board, Kennett Square resident Laura Gonzalez, Ph.D., supported the creation of the Borough of Kennett Square Human Realtions Committee.
"We have seen improvements in terms of de-segregation but there are still many discriminatory practices happening among groups of people," she wrote. "Some of these people are not even aware that they are discriminating, judging and misunderstanding each other. There is still a lot of work to do, but I am sure that we can do better."
Gonzalez recommended that the proposed commission teach workshops on cross-culture skills and ethnocentrism, designed to celebrate cultural differences among populations.
Rowe recommended that KCSD consider providing home-bound educational opportunities for their Latino students, where children will be able to do schoolwork from home, blended with visits to school for instruction and assessment.
Incorporating the principles of a more sanctuary-based learning environment in the district, she said, can be achieved by changing the language of how teachers are trained. 
"Teachers are on the front lines of this," Rowe said. "If anyone is going to know what's going on with a student, it's a teacher. These are people the student is in front of five days a week, and they are the most observant of what's really going on with a student."
Villafuerte and Zavala -- who attended Kennett High School and graduated from Penn State in 2016 -- belong to a contingent of local college-educated young adults of Hispanic ethnicity who are taking the conversation of immigration and deportation out of the kitchens of their parents and into the offices of local leaders. Some meetings have gone well and others have not, Zavala said, including a meeting she had with Tomasetti in November, soon after the presidential election. 
"I had been hearing post [presidential] election about the stress of the Latino community, and the emboldening of bullying in schools," she said. "I decided to call on some of my friends - including Rosendo -- to meet with Dr. Tomasetti  and [Assistant Superintendent] Dr. Michael Barber, and ask them why they hadn't put out a statement.
"We were met with a lot of resistance, and they accused us of overdramatizing the situation. We had also asked for social justice awareness, because we believed that we have a responsibility for compassion. Dr. Tomasetti said that it was important for the [Kennett schools] to remain free of politics."
Zavala said that the efforts of she and others are in response to a tendency in the Latino population to retreat from conflict for fear of retaliation, a practice mostly applied to the older generation.
"There are many of us who have gone to college and come back and are taking care of our community and trying to hold our institutions accountable," she said. "There is fear, but we all need to go beyond that, regardless of that fear."
While both sides of the issue wrangle their way through a conflict in an effort to address a national crisis, many continue to applaud the choices being made to distance Kennett schools from the hot-talk political conversation of immigration and deportation and, rather than choosing to segregate its focus on just one cross-section of the school's population, remain inclusive.
KCSD board member Bob Norris listened to Villafuerte's presentation on May 8.
"I was searching my soul for what was the right answer for the community, and specifically, the kids," he said. "The beauty of the Kennett Consolidated School District is seen in the diversity of Kennett Square. Fifty one percent of our children [in the district] are not white. Diversity is the reason a lot of us came to Kennett Square for, to provide our children with exposure to new cultures in order to broaden their upbringing. The schools are a representation of that diversity.
"Our entire focus -- and it's led by Barry -- is that every single child needs to rise to his or her potential, and we will do every single thing we can do to help that happen. It's not just our marketing tag line. It's the truth. So much of what our district does to help our children goes beyond just teaching them algebra.   
"In the end, education is not about politics, it's about the kids," Norris said. "It's about how we can help them reach their highest potential."

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail rgaw@chestercounty.com .






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