A Des Moines principal's heartfelt message to immigrant students

“Tonight I feel compelled to discuss something that’s been weighing on my mind heavily,” said Des Moines Roosevelt High School principal Kevin Biggs in a recorded message to students, parents, and guardians on January 12.

Without referring to President Donald Trump or his widely reported comments denigrating immigrants from “shithole countries” and Haitians specifically, Biggs went on to emphasize his pride in the diversity of the Roosevelt student body and the staff’s support for refugees, immigrants, and students of color. “To our Haitian students,” he added, “you are a valuable part of our community, and you’ve elevated the strength of our building simply with your presence.” The principal also promised “those of you who have traveled across oceans to experience the American dream, we’re here for you, too.”

Roosevelt households receive a call from the principal nearly every Friday afternoon. Usually Biggs highlights upcoming events and accomplishments by the school’s extracurricular teams or individual students. However, he has occasionally alluded to political happenings. Following Trump’s decision in September to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects thousands of undocumented immigrants from deportation, Biggs stressed in a recorded message that Roosevelt staff and the Des Moines Public Schools will stand by all students.

After Trump issued the first version of his travel ban last January, school district leaders released a statement assuring “all of our students who are immigrants or refugees” that “you belong here and Des Moines Public Schools stands by you. […] Our diversity of language and culture and heritage is a part of our strength, in our schools and throughout this community.” Biggs echoed the sentiment in a speech over the school intercom at that time, promising to support “our immigrant students, especially those of you whose home country is Iran, or Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, or Somalia.”

I recorded today’s phone call from Biggs, editing out only the announcements at the beginning, such as a reminder that school is out on Monday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

My transcript:

Tonight I feel compelled to discuss something that’s been weighing on my mind heavily. I hope you know that I take my position as principal at this great high school extremely serious. I’m honored to be working for a school district that puts our students and families first, no matter their ethnicity or socio-economic status. I am privileged to work hand in hand with some of the finest educators in our state, and the most impressive student body in the country.

I’m even more proud of the work, dedication, and perseverance of our students whose home countries are not that of the United States. For the dozens and dozens of refugees, immigrants, and students of color that walk our halls, it is our honor that you’ve chosen Roosevelt as your home high school. You have blessed us with your love, passion for life, and pride in your heritage, and we love that you’re here.

And to our Haitian students: you are a valuable part of our community, and you’ve elevated the strength of our building simply with your presence. Keep sharing yourself to us and we will continue to open our hearts, ears, and minds to learning more about you, because you have something to teach us and our country.

While walking the halls today and visiting with student after student, I asked many to give me their thoughts of Roosevelt High, good or bad. How has their experience been attending school here? Do they feel supported, loved, and accepted? What can we do better to support and make them feel special? A number of questions were asked and answered, but I would like to share a few with our parents and guardians.

One young lady said, “Roosevelt is my home away from home. It’s another support system that helps me stay focused. My friends have become a second set of siblings for me.”

A few other young ladies in the hallway told me that their teachers were amazing. They care about them and their successes. The counselors are pretty cool too, they said. “My friends from other suburb schools want to come to Roosevelt.”

And lastly, in the library I ran into a few students who said the diversity here is “so great.” They moved here three years ago from a surrounding town, and the students made fun of each other there all the time. There was lots of bullying. But here, they said, there’s something special where everyone gets along, and the diversity is something that students value.

I share this with you tonight not to boast or to brag, but to share a vision that we have for our building and our district, with our students and staff. Every decision that we make, every lesson that we design, every opportunity that we have to change a life must be made with the students’ well-being in mind. One of Roosevelt’s developing mantras is: identify what is best for the student, and the answer will be the correct one.

Every student is different, from various backgrounds, life experiences, and passions. But at Roosevelt we are making it our mission to build those relationships that will allow us to find those passions and amazing skills that each of our students possess. Please don’t get me wrong: we have a great deal of learning and growing to do ourselves. Please don’t hear me saying that we are perfect. We’re not. But we’re working to get there.

Your experience at Roosevelt is greatly important to me and the entire staff here. We’re not going to allow the lack of government funding to affect our students’ progress, or the vigor and passion that we will bring to Roosevelt every day. We feel this way because of you and your children. You are the reason we’re here. And for those of you who have traveled across oceans to experience the American dream, we’re here for you, too. You’re going to make it, and we cannot wait to see you get there.

Have a great weekend, Riders, and make Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a special one. We’ll see you bright and early on Tuesday for the final day of the first semester. Go Riders.

“Riders” is short for Roughriders, the Roosevelt high school mascot.

Top image: Des Moines Roosevelt High School principal Kevin Biggs.

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