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AZ: Elementary School Year Starts With Anxiety Over SB 1070

It's the first day at Creighton Elementary School, and kids are lined up at the gates an hour before the bell is to ring, their freshly washed faces pressed against the bars. They are a sea of new shoes and uniforms - navy pants or shorts, white collared shirts - bright in the morning sunshine. They won't stay this clean for long.

The front office is overrun with parents turning in immunization records to the school nurse, staff members answering questions about lunch money and library books, kids who can't find their name on the class lists taped to the wall outside. There is much chatter and great hope. And this year, tucked in many students' new backpacks are folded notes with names of whom to call in case a child's immigrant parents disappear while the child is at the central Phoenix school.

Principal Rosemary Agneessens is out in the sun, welcoming her students in English and Spanish. Kids hug her as they go by, carrying plastic bags from Food City and Dollar Tree filled with tissue boxes and hand sanitizer.

The walkie-talkie on her hip chirps steadily: So-and-so is unlocking the back gate. Who's missing a set of keys? Has anyone seen a 3-year-old in a pink and brown dress?

"Ramon, you are in classroom 516," Agneessens tells a lost student, writing the number on a slip of paper and then showing him on the map on her clipboard how to get there. Just past the library and down the breezeway.

"Tuck in, please," Agneessens tells a middle-school girl, who shoves the hem of her shirt into her pants.

Twelve-year-old Gustavo Vazquez is in seventh grade. He laughs as he watches his little brother, who's starting kindergarten, pose for a photograph with Agneessens. The little boy is so excited that he can barely stand still while his dad takes the picture.

Gustavo is excited about the new school year, too, determined to keep his spot as the top reader in his grade. He'd be more excited if his friend Juan Sotelo were coming back. He and Juan have been friends since kindergarten. But this year, their world has been rocked by the ongoing battle over immigration raging outside the school gates.

Juan and his family moved away over the summer because of the passage of Senate Bill 1070, which was designed to drive undocumented immigrants out of Arizona. The state's new immigration law, even with its most controversial provisions blocked in court, is thinning the ranks of Creighton's student body. Instead of fretting over who they'll ask to the school dance, students worry about their families and wonder which of their friends will be the next to disappear.

In seventh grade alone, there are 70 students instead of the usual 120.

Enrollment drop worse than expected

"Where are my kiddos?" Agneessens says to no one in particular as she flips through the class lists on her clipboard. They could be anywhere: New Mexico, California, Oregon. Some likely returned to Mexico.

On the first day of every school year, Agneessens visits each classroom, talks with every child and personally welcomes new students. She had braced herself for a drop in enrollment, expecting about 50 or so students to not return based on a survey of parents last year. One indicated her second-grader would not return, writing in Spanish with a pencil, "We don't know what will happen with the new law."

At the school near 28th Street and McDowell Road, 95 percent of kids in kindergarten through eighth grade qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program. Almost all the students are Hispanic, and as many as 90 percent are learning to speak English.

This year, kindergarten numbers were so low - 98 enrolled instead of the usual 135 - that Agneessens had to reassign a kindergarten teacher to an open spot in second grade.

But even with her low expectations, Agneessens was dismayed on her rounds to find that a seventh-grade class that was supposed to have 28 students had just 21, and an eighth-grade class that should have had 28 enrolled had only 23. The numbers continued: 16 instead of 19, 25 instead of 27, 29 instead of 33.

A final count would put enrollment at 679, down almost 200 students from last year's 870.

Turnover is not unusual in schools in the inner-city, where the student body traditionally is more transient. But there usually are plenty of new students to replace those who leave, keeping Creighton's enrollment steady at about 900.

Turnover of 50 percent from one year to the next wouldn't be unheard of. But this drop in enrollment is unprecedented. New kids are not replacing the ones who leave.

'You just have to let it go'

There's an empty seat next to Gustavo in homeroom. Juan would have sat there. They would have eaten lunch together and played soccer at recess.

Juan was a bright kid. In first grade, he discovered that letters make sounds, and together those sounds make words. The 7-year-old would clasp his hands in delight when he recognized words on bulletin boards in the classroom.

By the time he was 10, Juan was reading three books at the same time. He had a copy of "The Littles" tucked in his desk and "Burning of the Big Top" and "Werewolves Don't Go to Summer Camp" in his book bag.

"I learn a lot from reading," he said at the time. And he had planned to read his way all the way to college.

Now he's gone.

"You just have to let it go or it will drive you crazy," says teacher Jill Browne, who had Juan in her second-grade class. "You just cross your fingers and hope that they land in a good school in a better neighborhood. Some other teacher is the lucky one to get them."

Gustavo, Juan and 25 of his fellow Creighton students were front-page news starting in 2004 when The Arizona Republic chronicled their efforts at learning to read. For three years, readers followed their attempts to sound out words, donated books and school supplies, and read about their field trips to such places as Schnepf Farms in Queen Creek, where they saw real tractors and pumpkins for the first time.

Now some of those children are scattering across the country, and the ones left behind are anxious.

"Sometimes we think about our families and our friends - some are legal, some are not - and we worry about them," 11-year-old Ruth Salgado says. "We love them all, and we don't want them to go away."

Teachers and especially administrators aren't supposed to talk politics, at least not publicly and never at school. So Agneessens just shakes her head when the children talk about missing their friends.

"I know you do," she tells them. "I do, too."

Twelve-year-old Christian Barrera says some kids are afraid to come to school in case their parents are gone when they return home.

"It wasn't fair for the kids who had to leave," 12-year-old Carlos Viveros says. "It makes me sad."

One of Carlos' best friends, Oscar Medina, moved away over the summer. There was no work for his dad, and SB 1070 made it too risky to look for more.

"We used to hang out a lot. Oscar was a good kid," Carlos says.

To these children, it seems so unfair. A lot of the kids who are gone now were good kids from nice families, Carlos says. Their moms helped out in the classroom and chaperoned field trips. Their dads worked jobs in construction, at car washes, as mechanics and in warehouses.

The students wonder what will happen next. They know of proposals to strip citizenship from babies born in the United States if their parents are undocumented immigrants.

The kids wish that grown-ups - the politicians - could figure out the immigration problem another way.

"They're separating a lot of families and hurting people," Christian says.

"I wish they would open their eyes and see what's happening to families," Gustavo says.

Funding effects felt next year

The financial impact of Creighton's dramatic drop in enrollment will come a year from now, when Agneessens gets her budget based on this year's numbers. Less money will mean fewer teachers and fewer programs next year.

But the impact of the state's crackdown on immigration enforcement has been rattling these classrooms for years. On the days that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio conducts his crime sweeps in the city, picking up undocumented immigrants at their jobs, children come into the office with tears on their faces, asking to use the phone to check on their parents.

Last school year, Wendy James, the school's social worker, started a support group for children whose parents had been deported and kids who were anxious about the possibility.

"They just don't understand: Why is it that they are being targeted? They ask, 'Is it just because we're brown?' " James says. "It's a sad thing to be filled with that kind of anxiety all of the time."

On April 23, when Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law, word spread through the school, from classroom to classroom, silencing even the smallest students. Middle-school girls broke into tears.

In Cindy Gil's fourth-grade class, one child began to cry, and the rest followed, including the boys - who at their age usually would do anything to avoid crying in front of their friends.

"They were so worried. They thought the officers would come after them and they would never see their parents again," Gil says. "As a teacher, all I could tell them was that there was no way on Earth I was going to let that happen."

Principal Agneessens went classroom to classroom that day in April, too, explaining to the children that they were safe at school. Under a 1982 Supreme Court ruling, Plyler vs. Doe, schools do not ask children about immigration status and cannot deny them an education. And it wouldn't be practical, or prudent, for law enforcement to enforce immigration laws at elementary schools.

Still, the children worry that when the bell rings at the end of the school day, their moms won't be at the gate to pick them up or that they will walk home and find an empty house.

"It breaks your heart," Agneessens says.

She told the students that they needed a plan - those backpack lists of phone numbers - in case something goes wrong. She hopes that no one needs to use them.