splitting the pie

Will Colorado charter schools get a piece of this year’s local tax measures? It’s all over the map.

Katie Ethridge talks to her sixth grade science class in the hallway at DSST's Byers campus in 2014. The building reopened after $19 million in renovations paid for through Denver's 2012 bond (Denver Post file).

The governing board of Aurora’s longest-running charter school is opposing the school district’s $300 million bond issue for building improvements, arguing that existing charter schools aren’t getting their fair share while a charter network from Denver stands to benefit.

At least one other Aurora charter school board has passed a resolution against the bond. In the Fort Collins-based Poudre School District, two charter schools are on record as opposing the district’s proposed bond and tax increase, also citing concerns about fairness.

Across the state in Durango, meanwhile, two schools overseen by the state’s only non-district charter school authorizer for the first time would share fully in the fruits of a proposed tax increase for school improvements in the district. Measures in the Denver and Cherry Creek districts give a generous cut to district charter schools, but with limitations.

These different approaches to charter school funding demonstrate Colorado’s hit-and-miss record of efforts to equitably fund charters, which receive tax dollars but are operated independently as tuition-free public schools. This year, voters across the state will decide a record-breaking $4 billion in local school bond and tax requests.

Like the broader debate over the place of charter schools in public education, the funding issue can divide communities. Questions about charter inclusion in bond and tax measures are connected to local politics, perceptions and conflicting legal interpretations — not to mention the difficulty of trying to prioritize needs at a time when state funding is far from adequate.

“There has definitely been a movement toward thinking and looking at charter school students as part of a district’s students,” said Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “But every time you have that step forward, you have situations that are counteracting that. It’s still very much a mixed bag.”

Conflicting priorities in Aurora

Nowhere is the debate over charter inclusion more heated — or complicated — than in Aurora. The district has had a rocky relationship with charter schools, but that has changed as Superintendent Rico Munn seeks new ways to lift academic performance.

To prioritize building needs for its latest bond attempt, district officials solicited feedback from school leaders — including those at Aurora’s eight existing charter school campuses. Under state statute, districts must consider requests from all schools and weigh them against the criteria districts establish. But school bond and tax measures are not required to include charters.

Aurora Academy principal Pat Leger welcomed the opportunity. The first charter to open in Aurora, in 2000, the K-8 school uses Core Knowledge curriculum. Developed in the 1970s and 1980s and popular with political conservatives, the curriculum seeks to ensure students are grounded in facts from a specific body of knowledge to give them “cultural literacy.”

The student population at Aurora Academy is racially mixed. About half of the roughly 540 students qualify for government-subsidized lunches — a measure of poverty — and the school has been a top district performer on state standardized tests.

Yet, as Leger explains it, Aurora Academy has long since worn out its 1970s-era property, a former office building for a telecommunications company on a 3.2-acre site.

A school presentation to the district in November 2014 catalogs the needs:

The heating and air conditioning system is inefficient and expensive. The playgrounds are on asphalt and artificial turf. Teachers must rotate classrooms, and the music teacher has to haul his class material around on a cart. The second-floor school entrance is not secure.

School leaders estimated a remodel would cost $14.7 million, and a new school would run $20 million. Leger said the charter school ultimately sought about $2.9 million through the bond measure for its most pressing needs.

In the end, the district’s process identified $500 million in building, technology and safety needs across Aurora. Knowing that big of an ask was neither practical nor politically feasible, an advisory committee — a group that included two charter school representatives — recommended a $300 million bond measure and identified which requests should be included.

None of the proposed charter school capital improvements were deemed pressing enough to make the cut. Under the bond proposal approved by the Aurora school board for the Nov. 8 ballot, existing charters would receive money to improve technology (through a combination of infrastructure and hardware like laptops) and security (mostly security cameras).

Charter school operators point out that means existing charters will get less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the bond amount while educating about 11 percent of the district’s students.

Superintendent Munn said charters upset with the outcome are seeking special treatment.

“That position is fairly inconsistent with (charters’) desire to be treated like everybody else,” he said. “If you are like everybody else, you go through the process to get a ranking.”

Differing legal interpretations

But APS’s reasoning was not only about determining need. The district also is interpreting state statute as saying it can’t invest in capital projects when the district is second in line behind a principal creditor in being able to seize a building if a charter closes or fails to make payments.

“The simplest explanation is we can’t invest in something unless we can repossess it,” Munn said, adding that none of the district’s existing charter schools have title to their buildings.

In June, the Colorado League of Charter Schools and four of the district’s charters wrote a letter to the district challenging that interpretation. The letter argues that Colorado statute clearly allows funding charter capital needs, and that districts may take back property “following payment of all other debts secured by the capital construction.”

“I feel like it’s an excuse,” Leger, of Aurora Academy, said of the district’s position. “I don’t think they have legal standing. I think they want the money for themselves, and they figure we are surviving and they don’t want to share.”

The Aurora bond does include money to build a new middle and high school in northwest Aurora that Munn hopes will house a new charter school operated by DSST, a high-performing Denver charter network with a history of landing big donations from celebrities and foundations.

Munn has proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the new school building, 50-50. DSST has indicated it would help with fundraising but wants the district to take the lead. The Aurora bond measure includes $12 million that would cover the district’s share.

Including a possible home for DSST angered charter school leaders such as Leger, who does not relish competing for students with a Denver-based network with a sparkling new building.

The DSST wrinkle also complicated the Aurora teachers’ union stance on the bond measure.

The union’s president, Amy Nichols, said the union officially supported the bond but had a difficult time deciding because of the DSST piece. Some teachers believe that as the charter draws students away from traditional schools — some of which are already facing enrollment declines — their schools could close and some teachers could end up without a job, she said.

Teachers at the schools with highest needs are campaigning for the bond, Nichols said, but the union isn’t leading those efforts and has only contributed $500 to the pro-bond campaign.

The governing boards of both Aurora Academy and Lotus School for Excellence, a nine-year-old charter, passed resolutions opposing the bond measure, called Issue 3C. A representative of Lotus did not respond to requests for further explanation.

Judy Ham, the board president of Vanguard Classical School, a charter school with two campuses in Aurora, said earlier this week the board was considering a resolution on the bond. (UPDATE, 11/7: Ham said the board did not vote on a resolution).

Munn called the opposition from some of the district’s charter schools disappointing.

“At the end of the day when you look at what we’ve done, this is the largest-ever investment in (Aurora) charter schools in this bond,” he said. “I think it’s kind of shortsighted for some of the charter schools to oppose that based on the idea that their projects aren’t being funded.”

Munn defended the inclusion of money that could help lure DSST as part of a strategy to build relationships with strong “communities of practices” with a record of success.

Sharing the pie

Other school districts are setting aside more for charter schools in their bond and tax measures.

In Jefferson County Public Schools, charter schools educate 10 percent of the district’s students and stand to get 10 percent of the $535 million bond. The charters are deciding how to divvy up the money amongst themselves with assistance from district staff, a district spokeswoman said.

The Cherry Creek School District’s $250 million bond includes roughly $5.5 million to cover gym and classroom improvements at Cherry Creek Academy, one of the district’s two charter schools. However, in the school district’s separate request for a tax increase — known as a mill-levy override — the charter would get only 50 percent of what a full contribution would be.

Denver Public Schools is also seeking a mill-levy override, and charters would get a share proportionate to student enrollment, said Dustin Kress, the district’s manager of bond and mill levy programs.

DPS’s $572 million bond — the largest bond local bond issue this year in Colorado — is a different story.

Unlike in Aurora, the vast majority of DPS charter schools are housed in district-owned or controlled buildings. About 80 percent of charter students attend classes in district buildings.

Some of the bond money — for technology and smaller-ticket items like paint and furniture — would go to all charters based on student count, Kress said. But the district is not investing bond proceeds in big capital projects for charters in non-district buildings, Kress said. That stance, he explained, is rooted not in a legal requirement but rather a district approach.

“The district feels that from a fiduciary perspective, investing bond funds in non-district facilities presents a risk to ensuring an appropriate return on taxpayer funds,” Kress wrote in an email.

Then there is the unique scenario playing out in Durango, in the state’s southwest corner.

In 2010, when the district last sought a mill levy override from voters, tensions ran high between district schools and two charter schools authorized by the Charter School Institute — Animas High School and Mountain Middle School.

Since then, the district-run schools and charter schools have staged joint homecoming dances, participate together in athletics and activities, and the school district is providing free transportation to charter school students on the buses criss-crossing the district.

“We have worked really hard on building relationships, opening communications, seeing all our kids in Durango as Durango kids,” said Superintendent Dan Snowberger, who is friendly to charter schools and other reform efforts, and took the job in 2012.

This year’s $1.7 million mill levy override would be shared equally with charters based on student counts. Typically, schools under the Charter School Institute, the state’s non-district charter authorizer, do not get a piece of any school district bond or mill levy override money.

Third-party polling in Durango has shown fully including charters in the proposed tax increase doesn’t make voters any more or less likely to support the bond, Snowberger said.

Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles contributed information to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story described Cherry Creek Academy as the sole charter school in the Cherry Creek School District. We were living in the past. Heritage Heights Academy opened this year. 

Building Plans

Bond defeat in Jefferson County puts Alameda school renovations on hold — again

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Students move through the crowded cafeteria at Alameda International Junior/Senior High School in Lakewood.

Of all the Jefferson County schools pinning their hopes on the district’s bond and tax measures on the November ballot, few had as much to gain — or lose — as Alameda International.

The cafeteria is so cramped, the school spreads lunch over four periods and some students stand or sit in the hallways to eat. The gym locker rooms don’t have enough lockers. The school is lacking appropriate space to add career classes and teachers are forced to share classrooms.

When voters turned down the $535 million bond request this year for Jeffco Public Schools, Alameda International lost out on getting fixes to those problems as part of a $20 million renovation at the school that has been on hold since at least 2008. The district described the work that the bond would have covered as fulfilling a “past promise.”

Now the principal, Susie Van Scoyk, worries that some of the momentum of the school’s improvements from the last seven years will slow and that retaining teachers at the high-needs school will become more difficult.

The defeat stings more because the school is changing. Last year Alameda International expanded from being a stand-alone high school to including middle school grades.

“Our building isn’t built for younger students,” Van Scoyk said. “Middle school students have different developmental and social needs.”

Jeffco is working on updating plans following the failure of the district’s two tax requests — the bond and a smaller tax increase known as a mill levy override. Van Scoyk said she will continue to be a loud proponent for her school’s needs.

“I believe the students here deserve the same type of facility other students have,” Van Scoyk said. “But we will do the very best with what we do have.”

Alameda International, a school on Jeffco’s eastern boundary with Denver, currently has more than 1,200 students. More than 80 percent qualify for free or reduced priced lunch — a measure of poverty — and about 22 percent are learning English as a second language. It’s a different population from the suburban district’s average school.

“This is really more of an urban school, with the needs of an urban school,” Van Scoyk said. “I can’t go to my PTA and say ‘Hey, we really need to or want to buy new science textbooks or we want to get laptops, or iPads.’ We just don’t have that capacity here.”

The school’s preliminary state ratings this year show Alameda’s high school grades moved up to the performance category for the first time in more than five years. In part, the rating is likely influenced by the school’s rising graduation rate. In 2015, the state recorded Alameda’s graduation rate at more than 92 percent, up from about 71 percent in 2010.

“The students and staff really have been remarkable,” Van Scoyk said.

But lately she says she’s had countless conversations with younger teachers who say they can’t afford to stay in Jeffco if they can make more in neighboring districts. The district’s mill levy override — a second property tax request that voters turned down — would have maintained and possibly increased teacher salaries.

“I want to keep the really good teachers we have here,” Van Scoyk said. “We know what makes a difference for a child is a high-quality teacher.”

Jeffco’s school board members voiced the same sentiment at a recent board meeting discussing with staff what should be prioritized as the district figures out what cuts might be necessary following the defeat of the tax requests. Many said that teacher retention should be prioritized with what money the district has.

Looking back, forward

Alameda’s school building on South Wadsworth Boulevard has been expanded many times since it was built in 1961 to try to accommodate more students, but some original shared spaces like the lunchroom and the gym locker rooms haven’t kept up.

The school has two gyms, but the locker rooms don’t have enough lockers for students. Teachers require students to change for physical education classes, but assistant principal Williams said they can’t penalize students since many don’t have a place to store a change of clothes.

Outside the building, school leaders would like more open space for the middle school student’s activities. Right now, most middle school students play on an open space behind the tennis courts, but between the building’s additions, the bleachers and the tennis courts, the area isn’t easily visible to the staff watching the students, so it takes more adults to be outside watching kids around each corner.

Inside, staff and administrators closely monitor their radios because the school’s announcement system is old and doesn’t work in the cafeteria. If something else is being broadcast through the speakers in the school’s auditorium, the announcements won’t be heard in there either. That presents a safety issue if something has to be communicated in an emergency, such as an evacuation.

Some of those issues were expected to be fixed as part of the phase two renovations that would have been paid for by the district’s bond. The work was put on hold when voters in 2008 rejected the school district’s tax measures that year, too.

In 2012, voters did approve a $99 million bond request, but the smaller amount covered more immediate deferred maintenance across the district, not big renovation projects.

Alameda’s turnaround efforts started seven years ago centered on the rigorous International Baccalaureate classes. Two years ago school leaders started expanding on the program by offering the IB program’s career classes too.

It started with health career classes. Students in the career pathway can graduate with a certificate in bilingual medical terminology giving them the chance to work in medical offices as translators who are proficient in language and the context.

Students also asked for an arts career option and one for STEM careers, representing those in science, technology, engineering and math. The arts classes just started this year. The STEM classes are now on hold. School leaders said they were hoping to use bond money to build or retrofit classrooms for engineering courses.

“To have a STEM pathway, we don’t have the type of facility and equipment that some of our neighboring schools have,” Van Scoyk said.

If the bond had passed this year, the renovation of the building also would have likely addressed the building’s layout that is causing stress on the new seventh through 12th grade model.

School leaders are juggling schedules and class locations to keep younger students away from older students. Although the building can house more students, keeping kids in separate parts of the school by grade level means space is short in some places where it can be enough in others. Williams, in charge of the master schedule, has three white boards in his office that help him track what teachers are in what classroom at what time.

It’s not ideal, but school leaders say they are managing for now.

“Kids keep coming everyday,” Van Scoyk said. “They have to be our focus.”

Facing the Unknown

What Trump’s election means for undocumented educators

PHOTO: Agatha Bacelar/Emerson Collective
Marissa Molina teaching last year at DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School.

For three Denver educators, life in Donald Trump’s America is a big unknown.

They worry the president-elect will erase the protections that allowed them, as undocumented immigrants brought here as children, to step out of the shadows and into the classroom. All three were inspired to teach by the teachers who helped them succeed in a new country.

Marissa Molina came to the United States from Mexico when she was 9. Before her first day of school, her uncle armed her with the phrase, “I don’t speak English.” The librarian read Clifford the Big Red Dog with her after school to help her learn the language.

Alejandro Fuentes left his native Chile when he was 4 to join his mother in the United States. When he repeated for her the first sentence his teachers taught him to say in English — “My name is Alex and I like to learn” — she cried.

Carlos Ruiz’s mother brought him to the United States when he was 6 to give him a better shot at graduating high school and going to college, which she hadn’t been able to do in Mexico.

When Ruiz was in 11th grade, she gave a speech about what it meant for her and her son to be undocumented. A local college president was in the audience. Afterward, he gave her his card and offered to help. Ruiz said he never would have been able to afford college otherwise.

“It wasn’t until the middle of college that I realized not everybody’s parent gives a speech and the president of a university happens to be there,” Ruiz said. “That’s when I realized wanted to go into education so I could open the doors for other students.”

Ruiz, Fuentes and Molina became teachers through Teach for America, a national organization that recruits college graduates to teach in low-income schools. Starting in December 2013, the organization began deliberately seeking out graduates granted work permits and exemption from deportation through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

Known as DACA, it was created by executive action in 2012 to give protections, but not citizenship, for two years at a time to undocumented immigrants who came here as children.

Trump has said he plans to reverse Obama’s executive actions, including DACA.

If that happens, the nearly 750,000 young immigrants shielded by DACA would be forced into the underground economy. Ruiz, Fuentes and Molina could no longer work in public schools.

“Teachers have such a huge potential for change and being positive … influences on students,” Fuentes said. “The fact that would not be something I could do deeply saddens me.”

We spoke with all three educators, who are in their early- to mid-twenties, about their lives and careers — and how a presidential election in which they weren’t allowed to vote could profoundly alter them.

•••

Marissa Molina grew up in Glenwood Springs on Colorado’s Western Slope. Her family, fearful of the repercussions, instructed her never to speak about her immigration status.

“That created a lot of shame for me,” she said. “My story and my struggles, instead of being something I was proud to overcome, really was just a sense of embarrassment.”

Marissa Molina. (Photo courtesy Marissa Molina)
Marissa Molina. (Photo courtesy Marissa Molina)

It wasn’t until her senior year of high school, when she was working with her school counselor on scholarship applications, that she admitted to not having a Social Security number.

“Instead of making me feel like a terrible person, he was like, ‘Let’s get to work. Let’s figure out how you’re going to get to college,’” she remembers. “That sense of empowerment he gave me to advocate for myself was something I had never felt before.”

Molina ended up enrolling at Fort Lewis College in Durango as an international student, but paying tuition was a struggle. She cleaned houses with her mom and tutored fellow students in Spanish to help her parents with the bill. But by her junior year, their resources were tapped.

“I remember having serious conversations with my parents: ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, I don’t want to live this lie. What does it mean if they give me a piece of paper that I graduated and then I can’t use it?’” she said. She told them she was thinking of going back to Mexico.

Her mother begged her to have faith. That summer, Obama announced DACA. One of Molina’s friends called to tell her about it. “I will never forget because I was cleaning windows with my mom and saying, ‘You were right. I just had to have a little bit of faith,’” she said.

Molina applied right away and then secured a scholarship to help pay for her senior year. As she was deciding what to do after graduation, she came across Teach for America, which had placed its first two “DACAmented” teachers in Denver. Though she had majored in political science and economics — not education — Molina felt called to give back.

“This was a way to say, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done for me. Let me pay it forward by helping other kids achieve,’” she said.

Last school year, Molina taught Spanish at DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a charter school in far northeast Denver. While the student body was more than 50 percent Latino, Molina said she was the only Latina teacher. That made a difference to her students, she said.

One comment in particular stuck with her.

“The student said, ‘This is the first time in a classroom where I can have a conversation about race and immigration without feeling sick to my stomach. … Listening to her tell us her struggle as a Latina woman helps me understand how I can do it,’” Molina recalled.

This year, Molina is the community engagement coordinator at Rocky Mountain Prep, which has three charter schools in Denver and Aurora. In that role, she helps families — the majority of whom are Spanish-speaking — advocate for their children.

Molina said she followed the presidential election closely and even knocked doors for Hillary Clinton. Trump’s win, she said, was painful. “When I woke up Wednesday morning, it was hard not to feel that all of the people who voted for him had directly voted against me,” she said. “It was a lot of reminding myself that’s not necessarily the truth.”

Whatever happens with DACA, Molina said she’s confident she’ll be OK because the education she received in the United States opens doors for her here and abroad.

And frankly, she said, living with fear and anxiety is nothing new for her and millions of other undocumented immigrants. The difference now, she said, is that she’s willing to share her story. And because of that, Molina said she received several texts after Election Day from people pledging to stand with her. One of them was from a former student.

It read, in part, “You’ve never given up on yourself and never given up on your community. You’re a remarkable role model in my life,” Molina said. That, she said, was a call to action.

“I taught 120 young kids who are looking to me and saying, ‘Now what?’” Molina said. “I want to be able to show them it is possible to stand up for what you believe without hating other people.”

•••

Alejandro Fuentes spent his childhood in California. His mother and stepfather worked low-paying jobs and his family moved around a lot. In third grade, he went to seven different elementary schools.

Because he’d been identified as “gifted and talented,” he recalls that teachers were always pulling for him. For sixth grade, he was encouraged to apply to The Preuss School, a highly-rated San Diego charter school for low-income students.

Alejandro Fuentes. (Photo courtesy Alejandro Fuentes)
Alejandro Fuentes. (Photo courtesy Alejandro Fuentes)

His first two years there, Fuentes said he was the class clown. Then, when he was in eighth grade, his family was evicted from their home. It was a personal blow for Fuentes, but his advisory teacher took him under her wing, encouraging him to focus on school.

Although she didn’t share his experience, Ruiz said she showed him great empathy. “She was consistently there,” he said. “It helped to have somebody who seemed to care.”

School became Fuentes’s refuge. He’d leave his house at 6:30 a.m. and not get home until 7:30 p.m. He became a straight-A student involved in myriad after-school activities: National Honors Society, robotics club, lacrosse and cross country.

Though he knew he didn’t have papers or a Social Security number, he didn’t realize what that meant until it came time to apply to college. Again, his advisory teacher was there to help. He ended up going to Whitman College in Washington state on a full-ride scholarship.

He majored in psychology but in his senior year, he began to wonder if it was worth it. Facing life without a work permit, Fuentes had resigned himself to the fact that he’d probably graduate and return to California to work construction alongside his stepfather.

“I felt kind of hopeless because I knew how much my dad was getting underpaid because people know he’s undocumented,” he said.

What he really wanted to do was become a teacher. Teach for America had come to his college on a recruiting trip and Fuentes was intrigued by the idea of changing young people’s lives the way his advisory teacher had changed his.

But that was before DACA, and the organization had never had an undocumented teacher. He remembers being told, “we’re not sure we can take you, but please apply.”

Shortly thereafter, Obama announced the policy. Teach for America accepted Fuentes and placed him at DCIS at Ford, an elementary school in far northeast Denver. In the fall of 2013, Denver was the only city in the country that had agreed to take DACA teachers.

His first ever day of teaching, he shared his story with his students. “I found this quote … ‘Everything is hard before it’s easy.’ I relate it to that quote,” Fuentes says. He tells his students that if they believe they can overcome their obstacles, they will.

Now in his fourth year as a teacher in Denver, Fuentes recently accepted a new job teaching sixth-grade math at KIPP Montbello College Prep middle school. The day after the election, he said he showed up to school with tears in his eyes.

“At the beginning of every class, students were coming up to me and asking if anything was wrong,” he said. “So I figured it was as good a time as any to tell them my story, my fears of losing my job and not being able to stand in front of them and be the teacher I want to be.”

Fuentes said he worries about no longer being able to financially support his parents — he makes more than both of them combined — and about deportation.

On the one hand, Fuentes said he felt uncomfortable sharing his burden with his students. But on the other, he said he was comforted by their words. “It was a lot of, ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Fuentes. We won’t let anybody take you,’” he said.

Fuentes is struggling with what he would do if DACA were repealed. Would it be better to go into hiding? Or to continue speaking out? He said he’s leaning toward the latter.

“We tell our students that if you’re working hard enough and doing the best you possibly can and showing to everyone who you are and what you stand for, life could eventually work out for you,” he said. “And so I guess I’m trying to be an example of that advice I’ve given to my students: Put yourself out there and people will support you.”

•••

As a high school student in Tennessee, Carlos Ruiz wasn’t motivated. He had poor grades and a low ACT score. Knowing that he was undocumented, “I didn’t see the point of it,” he said.

When DACA was announced his freshman year at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, he said it changed his whole outlook. Ruiz applied the very first day possible.

“DACA was an avenue for me to work hard and do what I wanted with that,” he said. “It made me feel in control and empowered.”

Carlos Ruiz. (Photo courtesy Carlos Ruiz)
Carlos Ruiz. (Photo courtesy Carlos Ruiz)

A history major, Ruiz decided he wanted to become a teacher. He said he hoped to convince teenagers who felt as hopeless as he had to stay the course. “You don’t know what’s going to change, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

He applied to Teach for America and was placed at an elementary school in Denver. Realizing his passion lie in working with high school students, Ruiz left the organization. This year, he’s a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel, a charter high school in the northwest part of the city.

His students, the majority of whom are Latino, know his story. Ruiz said it’s a point of solidarity: Even though most of them were born here and are citizens, many have undocumented friends or family members. The day after the election was difficult, he said.

“There was a lot of anxiety in the building,” Ruiz said. But, he added, “as the day went on, I felt better and continue to feel better. I grew up without DACA. DACA is a relatively new development. It’s hard having tasted freedom and knowing it might be taken away. But you have to look at it like, whatever happens, I will be OK.”

Ruiz said he’d be lying if he said he hadn’t searched job websites in Mexico, a country he hasn’t stepped foot in since he was a child. But being undocumented and growing up surrounded by uncertainty about his future has taught him to focus on what he can control and not dwell on the rest — a lesson he hopes to pass on to his students.

“That’s the mentality I’ve reverted to: Hope for the best. Keep on staying level-headed for myself and for my students. And continue to speak about it in an educated way because I sincerely believe that when people hear our stories, they will be supportive and change will come.”