Future of Schools

DACA teacher staves off his own fears while helping Chicago’s anxious undocumented students

PHOTO: Jose Espinoza
Jose Espinoza is a Chicago teacher with DACA status who provides support to students impacted by American immigration policy.

Last fall, a worried high school student at ITW David Speer Academy walked up to physics teacher Jose Espinoza after class and said he wouldn’t be around for first semester finals.

Espinoza asked the student, one of his most talented, why. The student revealed he had to travel to Mexico to help and interpret for his father, an undocumented immigrant with a visa appointment at the U.S. Embassy. The appointment would decide if the father could live in the U.S.  with his family.

It was one of many instances where David Speer students confided in Espinoza. They knew, he said, “this was an issue I understood very well.”

Espinoza, 28, crossed the desert from Mexico as a toddler with his family and entered the U.S. illegally. Today, he’s one of about 9,000 U.S. residents employed as teachers or education professionals who stave off deportation and get work permits through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, according to the Migration Policy Institute. But with the future of the program uncertain amid anti-immigrant sentiment, Espinoza lives with underlying fear and worry.

When it comes to navigating the fears and trauma inflicted by America’s fraught immigration policy — especially at a time when families have been separated at the border and resident families already have been torn apart by deportations, teachers like Espinoza are on the front lines, professionally and personally.

For his departing student, Espinoza convinced the dean of students to allow his student to make up the test, and to submit homework via email. But the teacher said that might not have happened if the student was too scared or ashamed to share his family’s citizenship challenges — or if Espinoza hadn’t been receptive.

Latinos make up about one-third of Chicago’s population and a growing majority of district students. But the percentage of Latino teachers in the city lags far behind. The ratio is especially disproportionate at Chicago Public Schools. It is not certain what portion of residents are undocumented, but the effects of immigration raids and deportation infiltrates many classrooms, Espinoza said.

Espinoza saw it during his two years at Speer, a majority Latino high school run by the Noble charter network in Belmont Cragin, a West Side community that is predominantly Latino and heavily immigrant. He said Latino students impacted by immigration policies leaned on him for support because he was vocal about his own story. He even gave some of them advice to help them apply for DACA themselves or help undocumented family members. Eventually, other teachers and counselors in the school began referring students to him.

He said students from immigrant families are more fearful and anxious than they’ve been before, wondering whether they’ll come home from school again to their parents and family members or whether a car accident could lead to deportation proceedings. Students also worry whether they themselves might be arrested,  lose their DACA status, or deported.

Students have confided in him about losing family members, having to vacate their homes to avoid immigration authorities or traveling abroad with relatives, all of which have caused students to disappear for long periods of time.

Espinoza is vocal about his immigration status, and said he tries to support students. But the problems can be overwhelming.

“Their behavior changes, their grades slip, there’s many things that impact the students,” he said.  “This is affecting the lives of our students right now, every day, we see that as teachers — every day.”

“I had a unique story”

Teachers like Espinoza can help students in the immigrant community, but they shouldn’t have to do it alone. 

A spokesman for the Noble Network of Charter Schools said it connects staff and students with legal resources, immigration information and counseling. Noble also provides some financial aid to college-bound undocumented students, he said.

“We will continue to support our students, staff, and families no matter their documentation status,” a Noble spokesman said in a statement.

CPS policy denies Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents into schools without a criminal warrant or risk of violence.

Teach For America also provides advocacy, legal assistance, and financial aid to the nearly 250 of its teachers and alumni  – like Espinoza – with DACA status.

Espinoza’s family settled in the Chicago area when he was a child. His mother and father worked multiple jobs to support him, and he applied himself at school. But when it came time to seek advice from high school counselors and college advisors, he was speared with demeaning and deflating guidance.

“I was told that I didn’t have the right to go to a university and I wasn’t going to go to one because I wasn’t a citizen; they said your best best is to go to a community college and figure it out from there,” Espinoza said.

“They didn’t understand the fact that I had a unique story and that my story mattered and that I had dreams and aspirations like other students at my school, but I had more challenges in front of me. There was a stereotype in their head that those who have come to the country unlawfully at some point in their life don’t deserve the same opportunities as everyone else.”

Experiences like that inspired Espinoza to become a teacher and touchstone for young immigrants struggling toward a future vision of themselves that includes a university degree and a career. He worked multiple jobs — as did his parents — to pay for an undergrad degree in kinesiology and masters degree in public health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Espinoza enrolled in DACA in 2012 when it was first announced, as he finished his last year at U of I.  The policy allowed him to get a work permit and was a reprieve from fears that he wouldn’t be able to put his degree to good use. He spent several years working at health-focused nonprofits and in corporate wellness before 2016, when he was accepted into TFA while working toward his master of arts in teaching degree at Relay Graduate School of Education.

At TFA, Espinoza is part of a national network of “DACAmented” teachers navigating DACA status, sharing energy, knowledge and resources to support both each other and families at schools.

“We hold onto this community very tightly, and it’s probably been the most empowering group of people I’ve met in my life,” he said.

TFA also values its DACA teachers. With a significant portion of undocumented students in the communities it serves, said Anne Mahle, TFA’s head of public partnerships, “To have that kind of role model and somebody who has navigated higher education is really important both for kids who are undocumented and for all kids. All kids need diverse perspectives.”

As a physics teacher, the curriculum doesn’t provide many smooth transitions into discussions that connect what’s happening in the classroom with the outside world. But Espinoza finds way for his experiences to inform his approach in the classroom.

He said it’s important to let students know “you’ve been there, and you’re supporting them, and even though we can’t control everything now, there’s still things we can do to prepare them financially, emotionally, and legally, but it has to start with more people like us in the classroom.”

Next year, Espinoza said he’s teaching at another Belmont Cragin charter school, Intrinsic Charter, that also has a high percentage of students from immigrant families. He expects to find some of the same concerns and fears there that he found at his last school. This isn’t an issue that’s going away anytime soon.

When Espinoza looks back on his time at Speer, he said he’ll always remember the worried student who traveled with his undocumented father to Mexico and missed first semester finals.

While the student was able to make up the test, his classroom performance declined some; Espinoza saw how such a talented, bright student could fall behind so quickly wrestling with the consequences of American immigration policy. Espinoza also saw what the student’s resilience — and support from the school community — could accomplish by the end of the school year.

“He slowly got back into his groove,” Espinoza said, “and ended the second semester with strong grades.”

change of heart

Chicago school board backs down on ID policy but clings to limits on speakers

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
The Chicago Board of Education

Public visitors to the monthly Chicago Board of Education meetings will not be required to show ID to enter the meetings, despite a notice in the September agenda prominently displaying the rule.

“It is crucial for the board’s monthly public meetings to be open to all interested community members, and to ensure no barriers to participation exist, we are rescinding the photo ID requirement for tomorrow’s meeting and all future meetings,” Chicago schools’ spokesman Michael Passman said Tuesday.

The identification rule was not new, and no one had ever been denied entrance for failing to bring ID, according to Passman. But the Chicago Teachers Union and several community members complained when the September agenda was released earlier in the week, prominently displaying the rule front-and-center.

Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates called the ID requirement a “Jim Crow-era voter suppression” tactic that could “disenfranchise black voters and scare off undocumented residents.”

The board, however, is not planning to back down from another rule it also highlighted in the September agenda, according to Passman: That one prohibits public commenters from addressing the board two consecutive meetings in a row.

Similarly, the limit is not a new policy — in fact, it dates back to 1999. The board opted to spotlight it this month to deter consecutive speakers from signing up for speaking spots and then finding out later they would not be permitted to participate.

Chicago still requires public commenters to register before meetings and limits the number to 60. The two-minute spots usually fill up a day early. Same-day slots for observers who wish to attend but not participate are first-come first-serve.

Among the planned speakers on Wednesday is a group of parents who have written a letter of concern over a district policy requiring Local School Council members to undergo fingerprinting for a background check. They argue it deters participation from undocumented families. Chicago had nearly 200,000 undocumented residents in 2017, according to one demographer’s estimates.

listening tour

Estos padres quieren eliminar los obstáculos para hispanohablantes en las escuelas de Detroit

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Un aguacero no pudo detener estas madres el martes. Asistieron una discusión sobre las escuelas en Detroit.

To read this story in English, click here.

Si te parece difícil navegar el sistema escolar de Detroit, imagínate como es cuando nadie habla tu idioma.

Una discusión el martes sobre los obstáculos que enfrentan los estudiantes que hablan español en Detroit dejó en claro que sus padres también se encuentran problemas parecidos.

Los padres que se presentaron en el edificio de Brilliant Detroit quieren apoyar a sus hijos mientras aprenden a leer y hablar en inglés, pero afirmaron que es mucho más difícil hacerlo cuando no se pueden comunicar con las escuelas.

“Uno siente que no tiene valor,” dijo Gloria Vera, hablando de sus interacciones con maestros angloparlantes. “Te sientes que tienes menos oportunidades para hacer preguntas. Yo por ejemplo me da miedo.”

Varias madres confesaron inquietudes sobre los efectos de la ley de lectura de Michigan, que podrá retrasar a estudiantes del tercer grado si su nivel de lectura no es suficientemente alto para el año que viene. Según una investigadora, un 70 por ciento de estudiantes que hablan español en Michigan podrán ser retrasados.

Una madre dijo que quiere apoyar a su hija mientras aprende a leer, pero se preocupaba que su propio nivel de inglés estaba demasiado bajo.

Otra, Delia Barba, sospecha que su hija tiene una discapacidad de aprendizaje, pero afirma que su escuela en el suroeste de Detroit, un barrio mayormente hispanohablante, todavía no la ha examinado.

Barba — como casi todos las madres que asistieron el evento — dijo que las escuelas deben contratar más empleados bilingües.

“No sabemos con quién hablar,” Barba dijo. “No hablan español.”

Chalkbeat, un periódico en linea que se enfoca en las escuelas de Detroit, está recorriendo la ciudad, preguntándoles a padres cuáles asuntos debemos investigar. Esta vez, Chalkbeat fue acompañado por organizaciones centradas en el barrio “Southwest.” Juntos, iniciamos una discusión con docenas de padres, mayormente madres hispanohablantes. Vinieron a la sede de Brilliant Detroit por la mañana, a pesar de un aguacero.

Algunas de las presentes ya habían colaborado con organizaciones locales como Congress of Communities y el Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation para insistir que los líderes del distrito de Detroit expanden acceso para familias que hablan español. Apuntaron que sus preguntas fueron ignorados por administraciones pasadas.

“Los residentes de la comunidad se sienten frustrados en 2018, porque han expresado la necesidad de acceso al idioma en repetidas ocasiones a lo largo de los años y una resolución es continuamente ignorada,” dijo Elizabeth Rojas, una organizadora que también es una madre del distrito. “Sabemos que los estudiantes se van de nuestra ciudad para asistir a los distritos escolares en los suburbios. Si fortalecemos nuestros servicios de idiomas, estamos seguros de que muchas más familias regresarán al distrito.”

En una reunión el mes pasado, el superintendente de escuelas Nikolai Vitti señaló que iba a establecer un “hotline” – linea telefónica – en español y que cada escuela con estudiantes que hablan español iba a contratar a un empleado hispanohablante en la oficina central, entre otras promesas.

Al recibir los resultados de una encuesta en el barrio, los padres ahora se están enfocando en la pregunta de seguridad en las escuelas. Esperan que las escuelas contratarán a más policías bilingües, y que padres que no tienen papeles serán permitidos entrar en las escuelas con una tarjeta de identificación alternativa, por ejemplo un pasaporte mexicano o un ID proporcionado por el mismo distrito.

El martes, los padres reportaron que también hay una falta de servicios bilingües en las escuelas “charter” en el suroeste de Detroit. Angelina Romero, quien llegó con su familia de México en los últimos años, se preocupaba que su hijo del primer grado no está aprendiendo inglés en una escuela “charter,” y que tenía dificultades en comunicarse con su maestra.

“Ojalá que las familias que asistieron este evento se dan cuenta que hay padres en otras escuelas y en otras partes de la ciudad que también quieren más servicios bilingües,” dijo Jametta Lilly, directora del Detroit Parent Network, uno de los anfitriones del evento.

Para Gloria Vera, fue aun más difícil navegar el sistema de educación especializada por la presencia de una barrera lingüística. Su hija recibió un diagnosis de autismo, pero cuando se presentó a la escuela le dijeron que no había suficiente espacio.

“Me dijeron, no puedes matricular tu hija aquí,” dijo Vera.

Le dieron un número de teléfono para llamar, pero Vera dudaba que la ayudara.

“No sabía inglés,” explicó. “Me sentía perdida.”

Encima de la discusión se cernía la ley de lectura del tercer grado. Para estos padres, nunca iba a ser fácil ayudar a sus niños a aprender a leer en un segundo idioma — pero la ley aumentó la presión.

Yesenia Hernandez afirmó que lee a su hija de segundo grado en inglés, pero se preocupaba que su pronunciación no es perfecta.

“Ella está aprendiendo, y yo la estoy confundiendo,” dijo.

Trabajando a lado de cinco madres, Hernandez creó una lista de las maneras en que su escuela podría ayudarle a ayudar a sus hijos. Otros grupos trabajaban en sus propias listas, y cuando compararon los resultados, se notaba muchas semejanzas. Por lo general, los padres querían comunicarse con las escuelas en español, y pidieron recursos — como clases de inglés para adultos  — cuyos beneficios se trasladarían a sus hijos. Un grupo apuntó la “sala de padres” de Priest Elementary-Middle School, donde padres que hablan español pueden reunir para compartir información y recursos.

Quieren apoyar a sus hijos mientras aprenden a leer, pero los padres admitieron que sienten inciertos sobre los efectos de la ley del tercer grado, que iniciará el año que viene. ¿Si sus hijos fueron retrasados al tercer grado, cómo serían afectados?

Para Delia Barba, no había problema: “¿Qué pasa si dicen pasa, pasa, pasa, y no sabe cómo leer?” preguntó.

Pero Gloria Vera tenía dudas. En su barrio, aproximadamente 80 por ciento de los estudiantes hablan español en casa. ¿Cuántos iban a ser regresados?

“En esta parte de Detroit, debe haber una solución,” dijo.