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Solutions elude CMS on undocumented volunteers

immigrantstudents
Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
Hector Vaca, during a May 28, 2014, meeting with Latino parents to discuss how parents can't interact with their kids in public schools.

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools team assigned to find a way undocumented immigrant parents can volunteer in schools is running short on time and even shorter on potential solutions to the hot-button issue.

The team’s final meeting is Tuesday, and it has yet to find a quick, easily affordable fix to the current policy, which requires anyone volunteering in schools to produce a Social Security number and driver’s license for a criminal background check.

Undocumented immigrants – people not in the country legally – do not have such forms of identification, making it impossible for them to volunteer in schools where their children are students.

The team has so far only identified one possible alternative to the current policy: Accepting a valid passport, along with fingerprinting.

However, CMS officials said in June that resorting to fingerprinting parents would be cost-prohibitive, not to mention incompatible with the current program.

Team member Hector Vaca, an advocate for immigrants with Action NC, is critical of the team’s “slow” progress and said he’ll show up at the Tuesday meeting with a proposal that the study group continue meeting until a solution can be found.

Otherwise, he said, “the entire effort yielded nothing.”

CMS officials said last week that they would be open to extending its study, if the group agreed to it.

“We won’t reach any type of consensus or agreement on solutions by the end of the last meeting, which means undocumented parents will continue to be excluded during the school year,” Vaca said.

“From the very beginning, this should have been about finding ways to help parents who are being excluded. But the team has wasted a lot of time discussing the difference between a ‘volunteer’ and a ‘school visitor.’ That is not the issue, yet we’ve spent hours on it.”

Visitors come to interact with their children in a class or lunchroom setting. A volunteer provides a service to the school and interacts with students other than his or her own.

CMS officials said they intended the study to have a broader mission, however. And they believe things have been accomplished, particularly when it comes to pinpointing practices that might have left undocumented immigrants feeling discriminated against.

Chief among the discoveries: The district has a school visitors policy, but no regulation to accompany it. Therefore, schools enforce the policy differently, including deciding when parents can visit a classroom and how often is too often.

Immigrant parents with children in multiple schools say the result is an appearance of discrimination at schools where principals are less flexible.

Among the potential recommendations, CMS officials said, is to create visitor policy regulations that offer guidance for principals.

However, that change could have a downside, said LaTarzja Henry, a CMS assistant superintendent for family engagement: Some parents could end up finding out the principal can’t be as lenient as before, she said.

Still, Henry supports “adding clarity” to the policy. “We want consistency. That means we can have similar experiences across all of our schools, at every level.”

Criticism of the district’s volunteer and visitor policies has been steadily increasing in recent years, as the number of undocumented immigrant parents has increased.

CMS doesn’t know how many undocumented students and parents are in the system. English proficiency is often used as an indicator. Currently, the district reports students with limited English skills account for 25 percent to 52 percent of the student body at 15 schools in the county.

If the district changes its volunteer policy, those schools could instantly see a much-needed increase in parents offering to tutor, help out on field trips and act as chaperones, immigrant advocates say.

Vaca says no one on the study team disputes the need for criminal background checks as a means of keeping children safe from criminals and predators. But he and Action NC intend to push CMS into widening the policy to include passports and fingerprinting for those background checks.

He is aware the change could be costly, but says it would be a small price to pay for boosting Latino graduation rates in CMS. Currently, the Latino graduation rate is about 20 percent below that of white students.

“How much is a child worth? How much is a child’s education worth?” Vaca asks. “If it takes more money, let the executives in this district take a pay cut or a pay freeze. That money would be better spent allowing more parents of color to participate. Excluding them is unfair to their children, and it’s discriminatory.”

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