raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”

 



disaster ready

Here’s how New York City schools are preparing to serve students impacted by Hurricane Maria

Just weeks after Hurricane Maria traced a deadly path across the Caribbean, The New American Academy Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn got a call.

It was a family member looking for a school for two young relatives after their home on Dominica was wrecked, along with most of the small island.

Before long, the students were enrolled in kindergarten and first grade. The school quickly gave the family a scholarship for after-school care and provided free uniforms — even including new shoes, socks and underwear.

“They lost everything,” said Lisa Parquette Silva, the school’s headmaster. “As soon as I heard these two students needed a place, it was not a question.”

New York City is preparing to potentially welcome an influx of students fleeing Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after the powerful hurricane struck in September, knocking out power grids and flattening homes. The leaders of the country’s largest school system insist they are ready for whomever comes.

“We are going to do whatever we can to support and accommodate them,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a recent press conference, “starting with our public schools.”

Hundreds of thousands could flee Puerto Rico. As home to some of the largest Caribbean communities on the mainland, New York City is a logical place for many of those people to land. They are likely to bring with them an untold number of children who need to enroll in schools — though officials say it’s hard to know how many until they actually arrive.

Already, the Orlando school system reported enrolling almost 300 students from Puerto Rico as of last week. In Miami-Dade, the number was around 200, according to The 74.

In New York City, schools have not yet seen a significant uptick in enrollment, officials said. The few students who have arrived have landed in Bronx and Brooklyn schools, they added.

Serving those students will likely require a host of extra resources. The Miami-Dade school system is expecting to spend $2,200 for every student the district takes in, according to the Wall Street Journal.

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city has sent representatives to Puerto Rico to understand how the situation there could impact schools. Meanwhile, the education department has begun to survey principals here to find out which schools have space to take in new students — and assured those schools that they would get extra funding. Guidance counselors are being trained to meet storm survivors’ unique needs.

“Money will be allotted to those schools to be able to service those children,” Fariña said at the press conference, “understanding in many cases there may be extra support needed for families and trauma.”

The state education department recently put out guidance for schools, saying children who have fled a disaster are likely protected by federal law for homeless students. Under the law, districts can waive documentation requirements for school enrollment — which the city is doing at its Family Welcome Centers — and students are eligible for free meals.

Nicholas Tishuk, executive director of Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings charter school in Brooklyn, said he is already fielding calls from people who are looking for schools as they consider whether to bring over family members from Puerto Rico.

The independent charter school recently packed a van with donated lanterns, batteries and water to be shipped to the island. School leaders have also put the word out that they are ready to enroll students impacted by the storm.

If the school runs out of space, Tishuk hopes it can still serve as a clearinghouse to put families in touch with other local options.

“A school can be a very powerful place to get extra resources,” he said, noting that New Beginnings has a bilingual staff that regularly collaborates with social-service agencies. “Even if it’s not our school, you should reach out to a school that can help you connect to those resources.”

Schools that take in displaced students will most likely have to offer bilingual classes and provide counselors who can support children who have been separated from their parents and are living in the city with relatives.

Eve Colavito, director of schools for DREAM charter school in East Harlem, said one of the most important things schools can provide is stability. The pre-K through ninth-grade school enrolled a middle school student from Puerto Rico this week.

“Our goal initially,” she said, “is to make school as normal and predictable as possible for them.”

school access

Security measures at Aurora schools are supposed to protect kids, but are they scaring away some of their parents?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School students walk past the attendance office.

An additional layer of security screening in Aurora schools has raised concerns about whether a system meant to keep kids safe may be keeping away parents and other family members who are not in the country legally.

Beginning this fall, everyone who enters a school in Aurora is being asked to present ID so staff can check names and dates of birth against a public database of registered sex offenders.

Visitors may present a state-issued ID or other documents such as a passport or consulate card from their home country, district officials say.

In a climate of fear about increased crackdowns on immigration, asking for that kind of documentation can have a chilling effect, said Corrine Rivera-Fowler, a policy and civic engagement director with Padres & Jovenes Unidos, a nonprofit advocacy group for parents.

“There is a heightened awareness that the government cannot be trusted,” she said. “Now that a parent may have to come into a school and provide the school an ID, that’s only going to heighten the anxiety. Even if they present a passport or other document, in their mind that’s an admission that they don’t have a U.S. document. You feel like you’re exposing yourself.”

District officials say they are sensitive to the concerns, and have sought to clearly communicate how the system works and what it’s all about with principals and parents.

School officials in Aurora already have voiced their own concerns about the current immigration climate dissuading parents from filling out important forms — including applications for free and reduced priced lunches — or even keeping kids out of school completely.

The Aurora school board, like others across the country, responded earlier this year by passing a resolution written by community members restating existing policies for how the district deals with immigration officials.

By then, work was well underway on the new security system. The Aurora district finished rolling out the Raptor Technologies system at all its schools at the start of this school year. At least seven Aurora schools started piloting the system in 2015-2016. And some schools went out on their own to buy it before the district rolled it out.

The Raptor system is already in use across several other school districts, including the Cherry Creek School District and Adams 12 school district in Thornton.

In Aurora, concerns about the security system surfaced last week at a school board candidate forum when an anonymous audience member wrote a question about it on a notecard.

“There is a new security system in APS that requires visitors to present a government ID to enter a building,” the attendee wrote. “How will you ensure access for undocumented parents to schools?”

Most of the candidates taking part in the forum were unaware of the policy. In the room full of immigrants and refugee families listening through translators on headsets, all eight school board candidates attending raised concerns about a system that could keep undocumented parents out of schools. Barbara Yamrick, one of the nine candidates vying for four seats in November’s election didn’t attend.

“We have to change this system immediately,” said school board candidate Kevin Cox.

“I’ve got questions,” said candidate Marques Ivey. “This is something that would definitely be addressed and looked at.”

Greg Cazell, the director of security for Aurora schools, said the district has worked on rolling out the security system for four years.

“It was a huge concern throughout the process, making sure we didn’t disenfranchise that population,” Cazell said.

In August, the district sent letters to all principals explaining how the system works: Only the name and date of birth get stored. The information is only compared to the public database of registered sex offenders. No information is shared with law enforcement or immigration agencies. If a person is registered, they may be denied access to the school, but if the person is a parent of a child at a school, officials at the school are required to escort the person while in the building.

The district sent letters home to all families and made automated phone calls home in several languages. Officers from the district’s security team, including some who speak Spanish, also host meetings at schools to talk to parents about how backgrounds checks are run for volunteers and are taking the time to explain the security system too.

“Generally once it’s been explained, there are no concerns,” Cazell said. “But that’s a challenge for my department in general because we do have armed uniformed officers. We’re not here to remove anyone. Our job is school safety. We constantly want to make sure that message is getting out.”

At Virginia Court Elementary, school leaders talked to families about the new system at back to school night and have conversations about it when people walk into the school. The principal, Kim Pippenger, said parents have not raised issues about access for undocumented families.

“As people come in they wonder why — why do we have this new system?” Pippenger said. “Our answer is always about student safety. I really haven’t had anyone come in with this concern.”

Raquel Amador, a parent and leader with RISE, the nonprofit that hosted last week’s candidate forum, said concerns about the security system discussed at the forum may have given people the wrong impression. Amador also works as a secretary at Fulton Academy.

“Saying the schools are giving a hard time to parents is not true,” Amador said. “I can say this is a very secure system for our kids’ security. It doesn’t have any risk for parents.”

Still, local immigration advocates say it wouldn’t hurt for the district to be more explicit in explaining the new system to families.

Rivera-Fowler, of Padres & Jovenes, said she compared the immigration policies enacted by Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools. She said the one in Aurora is not as explicit as it could be.

Denver’s immigration resolution states the district will do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

Aurora’s immigration resolution states that “absent any applicable federal, state, or local law, regulation, ordinance or court decision,” the district “shall not disclose, without parental or guardian consent, the immigration status or other personally identifiable information of any student.”

“In DPS it was really clear the district does not collect or share immigration information. We tried really hard to make sure they say that over and over,” Rivera-Fowler said. “It’s all about building trust, so explicitly putting that into a policy and then making sure it’s communicated over and over again is necessary.”

Cazell said his office has not been made aware of any parents losing access to a school. He can, however point to instances where the system is doing its job, he said.

In one recent case, a man entered a school and was identified as a registered sex offender. The man had no child at the school. Staff then learned he had tagged along with a parent who was visiting the school. He was denied access to the school and asked to wait outside while the parent went inside.

“It’s about knowing who is coming in our schools and making sure they’re safe to be around our students,” Cazell said. “And really to track who is in the building.”