CMS team sets path for more immigrant volunteers

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools committee is proposing the district start accepting passports and consulate IDs as proof of parent identity – a move that opens the door for undocumented parents to volunteer in a limited capacity at schools.

Those limitations include being under the supervision of a CMS employees at all times and passing a criminal background check, which is required of all adults who volunteer in the schools.

One thing that won’t change: Only parents who have a Social Security number and valid North Carolina ID will be allowed unsupervised access to children, for such things as tutoring and chaperoning field trips.

The proposal will likely stir controversy among Charlotteans who are critical of the federal government’s approach to border security and its inability to adopt comprehensive immigration reform.

However, CMS officials counter that the change could increase the number of parent volunteers – including citizens and documented immigrants – without sacrificing the security of students.

“This has never been specifically about undocumented parents, though it has been made into that,” said LaTarzja Henry, a CMS assistant superintendent for Community Partnerships and Family Engagement.

“This is about how we can help all families and all children. There are all kinds of parents out there who would like more options and more access.”

CMS officials say passports and consulate IDs (which carry name and birth date) are compatible with the district’s current criminal background check system, which runs nightly checks on thousands of people signed up to volunteer in schools.

The proposed change, which must be approved by Superintendent Heath Morrison before going into practice, is considered a victory for the hundreds of undocumented parents in Mecklenburg County who are not in the country legally.

Such parents are not able to volunteer in schools because they don’t have a Social Security number or North Carolina driver’s license. Yet their children are entitled by law to enroll in schools, regardless of immigration status. CMS reports students with limited English skills now account for 25 to 52 percent of the student body at 15 schools.

CMS officials say it is unclear when the change would be implemented, should Morrison approve it. A school board vote would not be required because it would be a practice change, not a new policy, officials said.

“It’s a battle won, but the war goes on,” said Hector Vaca of the immigrant advocacy group Action NC. He was also a member of the CMS study group.

“Things are getting better, but our dream is for the (immigrant) parents to have access to all levels of volunteering. It has never been about sacrificing the security of children. It has always been about allowing more access for parents in ways that guarantee security.”

Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James is among those who question just how secure schools will be if the proposal is put into practice.

“There is no way to verify that the passport or documents illegals are providing to CMS are in fact genuine and actually belong to them,” he said. “Since they routinely use fake Social Security numbers and other forms of ID, how can anyone verify that the documents they are providing are real?

“No doubt the school board would like an easy fix ... but if they do a half-baked job with the background check they will put all CMS children at risk to predators.”

Estela Hernandez of Charlotte was the only undocumented parent represented on the CMS team, which voted unanimously for the changes. She has three children in the system and is eager for the change to be adopted. She recently received a Mexican passport at the consulate in Raleigh.

“Before this, I wasn’t able to go into my child’s classroom and read to the students. Now, I can participate in a way that helps my child and other children,” Hernandez said.

“This is truly, truly important because when my child falls behind in school, I can be there to see it and I can learn how to help.”

District officials created the work team this summer partly in response to growing criticism that Mecklenburg County’s growing immigrant population was facing obstacles while attempting to be more involved in the schools.

CMS guidelines currently allow parents to interact with their own children in school at the discretion of the principal. But volunteer opportunities are limited to those with a Social Security number and valid state ID for background checks.

Research done by the study group showed other districts around the country do background checks, but not as regularly as CMS. The district performs those checks nightly on 107,000 people registered to be CMS volunteers, officials said.

When criminal activity appears on a volunteer’s record – something that happens almost daily – Charlotte-Mecklenburg police do a review to see whether it is serious enough to disqualify a volunteer, CMS officials said.

The district sees more parent involvement as a means of improving graduation rates. Latino students have a 71 percent rate of graduating on time from CMS, compared with a 91 percent rate for white students.