Gabriel Paez speaks to Brian Piccolo elementary school in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Paez is the bilingual coordinator at the school, a position that will become part-time this fall.
Under the Chicago Teachers Union, charter and district school teachers across Chicago have been fighting for salary increases and more resources in the classrooms.
But there's been another demand resonating among teachers during contract talks with school officials: They want more schools to become sanctuaries for immigrant students and families who are undocumented, refugees or who are in the process of becoming U.S residents.
The idea of sanctuary schools has a broader meaning among Chicago Public Schools teachers, who now say they want protections for all at-risk-youth. That means staffing schools with more counselors and support staff to assist young people facing poverty and trauma.
For immigrant students and their families, it means keeping immigration officials away from school buildings and knowing what to do when immigrant families with the most basic needs come to schools seeking help.
'A true sanctuary school'
The idea of a sanctuary school has been embodied at Brian Piccolo elementary school in the Humboldt Park neighborhood — but the philosophy is now under threat by school officials.
In the last five years, the number of students who need bilingual services at the school has doubled. In recent months, there's also been an increase of students arriving from Central America — many from families struggling to find permanent housing and steady jobs.
Carolina Lopez, 40, and her 13-year-old son are among the new families.
Lopez said she left her home in Guatemala in January to start a new life with her two sons in Chicago. She wanted to be far from her abusive husband whom, she said, tried to kill her several times.
"He used to come home acting crazy, like drugged," Lopez said. "One time, he grabbed a machete and put it on my neck."
Lopez said she and her kids got to the U.S-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, but were caught by immigration officials. She said her oldest son, who is 19, was separated from her and later deported. Lopez and her youngest son were freed days later, but immigration officials required her to wear a tracking bracelet around her ankle. She said she is applying for political asylum and has a hearing in the fall.
Lopez arrived in Chicago in February and enrolled her son at Piccolo, where she met Gabriel Paez, the bilingual coordinator at the school. Paez helped her find a place to live and coordinated efforts with other teachers to get them a bed, shoes and clothes.
Paez said he has a long list of responsibilities, including the oversight of bilingual testing and the bilingual advisory committee at Piccolo.
"I also teach in Spanish kindergarten through 3rd grade so that those kids maintain their bilingualism," he said.
He also connects new immigrants at Piccolo with counseling services and low-cost legal help.
"I've helped refugee families register for services," Paez said. "We have refugee families in the neighborhood on the verge of homelessness who are being evicted from their units because there are too many families doubled up together."
With someone like Paez at Piccolo, the school has become a safe space for immigrant students and their families. It's an example of what sanctuary schools could look like.
"A true sanctuary school is a school that not only makes a poster and posts it on the wall, but trains staff and has protocols in place where front office staff knows what to do when a newcomer with a tracking bracelet around their ankle shows up," he said.
While Piccolo has tried to provide those services, they could be gone next year.
Paez is leaving, and his full-time position will become part-time come September because CPS only pays half the salary and school officials will no longer fund their share of the job.
CPS officials said the district has been adding resources to support English learners and their families. That included more language specialists and bilingual aides this year. It also includes a $6 million investment next school year.
CPS officials also said Piccolo's staffing structure is developed by the school principal and the school is getting more funding next year. Piccolo is run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), an alternative education program that became well-known for implementing school turnarounds.
Even if the school hires more bilingual teachers, Piccolo parent Ana Karen Alonso said a bilingual coordinator like Paez is needed.
"Those teachers will be busy in the classrooms, they won't have time to deal with an emergency like the recent arrival of all these families from Central America," said Alonso, a member of the Bilingual Advisory Committee, an advocacy and support group for parents whose kids are part of the bilingual program.
Neither Piccolo nor AUSL officials responded to requests for comment.
CTU wants expanded commitment
The Chicago Teachers Union wants more schools committed to protecting immigrants including undocumented families and newcomers from Central America.
When Acero Charter school teachers went on strike this winter, CTU President Jesse Sharkey brought up the importance of sanctuary schools.
"We have students who are basically affected by all the problems in this country in terms of what [President Donald] Trump says when he threatens immigrant families," Sharkey said. "So we are looking for a commitment from management to put into our contract that they wouldn't let people in [schools] without a warrant. They wouldn't turn over a list to the government."
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
Jesse Sharkey answers questions at an Oct. 9, 2014 news conference in Chicago. Sharkey, now the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, wants more city schools to commit to protecting immigrants.
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
Acero teachers got that commitment from management. Their contract includes protections for immigrant students and their parents, staff training on how to respond to immigration agents, and assistance to employees with a work authorization under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or other employment-based immigrant or non-immigrant visas.
After Acero, other charter school teachers pushed for similar commitments to protect immigrant families and got it.
Chicago Public Schools has agreed verbally to protect immigrant families. The district said it won't allow federal immigration agents into school buildings without a criminal warrant.
Now, the CTU wants the definition of sanctuary schools to be expanded to include protections and resources for all at-risk and low-income youth, said Linda Perales, a special education teacher and member of the Latinx Caucus with the CTU.
"Sanctuary schools mean schools where students feel safe," Perales said. "That means having fully funded schools where we have counselors and case managers, or where we have social workers so that students can get the supports that they need to deal with the trauma that they are facing. Having real training and real practices of restorative justice in our schools."
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at@WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.