DACA anxiety

What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher

Carlos Ruiz. (Photo courtesy Carlos Ruiz)

For Carlos Ruiz, life in Donald Trump’s America is a big unknown.

He worries that the new president will erase the protections that allowed him, as an undocumented immigrant who came to Tennessee at age 6, to step out of the shadows and into a teaching career in Colorado.

Ruiz is among undocumented students who graduated from college and were recruited to teach in low-income schools through Teach For America. Starting in late 2013, the national organization began deliberately recruiting graduates who were granted work permits and exemptions from deportation through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The policy gives 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 Barack 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. And Ruiz could no longer work in public schools.

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Ruiz knows what it’s like to live with uncertainty about his future.

His mother brought him to the United States to give him a better shot at graduating from high school and going to college, which she hadn’t been able to do in Mexico.

He attended public schools in Nashville, where he mastered English by the third grade.

“Elementary, middle school, early high school, I was optimistic. I always thought surely by the time I am a junior and senior in high school, immigration reform will occur and I will have a pathway to college,” he remembers. “It hit me pretty hard summer after sophomore year that that wouldn’t happen.”

His grades dropped and he posted a low ACT score. “I didn’t see the point of it,” he said, referring to his undocumented status.

But when Ruiz was a junior at Hillsboro High School, his mother gave a speech about what it meant for her and her son to be undocumented. The president of Nashville’s Trevecca Nazarene University was in the audience. Afterward, the president 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.”

When DACA was announced during his freshman year at Trevecca, Ruiz applied on the very first day. “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.”

After graduating with a degree in history, Ruiz applied to Teach For America and was assigned to an elementary school in Denver. Realizing that his passion is working with high school students, he moved this year to STRIVE Prep Excel, a charter high school where he teaches Spanish.

The majority of his students are Latino and know his story. It’s a point of solidarity, he said, since many of them have undocumented friends or family members. The day after the election was difficult, he recalls.

“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.”

The experience of being an undocumented student has taught him to focus as a teacher on what he can control — and not to dwell on the rest. It’s a lesson he hopes to pass on to his students.

“That’s the mentality I’ve reverted to: Hope for the best,” he said. “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.”

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.

equity issues

A report found black students and teachers in Denver face inequities. Can these 11 recommendations make a difference?

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
A student at Ashley Elementary School in Denver.

Helping African-American families understand their children’s school choices, offering signing bonuses to prospective black teachers and making student discipline data count in school ratings are among the recommendations of a task force that tackled inequities faced by African-American students and educators in Denver.

“Once we were able to get past some of the hurts that people experienced, once we were able to come up with the root causes and understand this process is going to be uncomfortable, we were able to come together in a way to do the work we need to do,” Allen Smith, the associate chief of Denver Public Schools’ Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, said Wednesday at an event to reveal the recommendations and solicit feedback at Bruce Randolph School on the city’s northeast side.

The DPS African-American Equity Task Force, which was comprised of more than 100 members, made 11 recommendations in all. (Read them in full below.) They include directing the district to:

— Design a tool to assist African-American families in understanding which schools best match their students’ needs and interests, and “generate personalized recommendations.”

— Require every school to create an Equity Plan “designed to strengthen relationships between African-Americans and schools” through strategies such as home visits by teachers.

— Ensure curriculum is culturally responsive to African-American students.

— Develop a plan to increase black students’ access to “high value learning opportunities,” including the district’s gifted and talented program, and concurrent enrollment courses.

— Create a human resources task force that would, among other things, ensure African-American job candidates receive equal consideration and once hired, equal pay.

— Incentivize black educators to come to DPS and stay, and create a pipeline program to encourage black students “to return to serve their own communities.”

The recommendations do not include a price tag. Nor have they “been evaluated for legal compliance,” according to the document.

The task force was created in the wake of a critical report documenting the concerns of 70 African-American Denver educators. The educators said black teachers feel isolated and passed-over for promotions. Black students are being left behind academically, the teachers said, in part because of low expectations and harsh discipline by teachers who are not black.

Thirteen percent of the district’s approximately 92,000 students are African-American. Last year, just 4 percent of DPS teachers were black. Seventy-four percent were white.

District statistics show that the percentages of African-American students who are proficient in English and math, as measured by state tests, trail district averages. Only a third of black students graduated college-ready last year, which is lower than white or Latino students.

Meanwhile, more black students are identified as needing special education. And African-American students have the highest suspension rate in the district.

The district has taken some steps to address the inequities. DPS is part of a multi-year campaign along with the mayor’s office and charter school operators to recruit more than 70 teachers of color and 10 school leaders of color to Denver.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg noted at Wednesday’s event that DPS is starting to see results; one-quarter of new principals hired to lead schools next year are African-American, he said.

For the first time this year, the district required its new teachers to take a previously optional three-hour course on culturally responsive teaching in which they were asked to share fears about working with students and families from different backgrounds.

DPS also added a new measure this year to its color-coded school rating system that takes into account how well schools are educating traditionally underserved students. However, the district has since tweaked its “equity indicator” in response to concerns from school leaders, and the task force recommended even more changes. In addition to looking at student test scores, it is calling for including discipline data, as well as teacher hiring, retention and promotion data.

And the district has announced plans to eliminate out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for preschool through third-grade students except in the most serious incidents.

The set of 11 recommendations includes one overarching one: the creation of an African-American Equity Team to ensure the district executes the ideas it adopts.

“A deep thank you for your work and a deep thank you in advance for the work we will be doing together,” Boasberg said.

The recommendations are scheduled to be presented to the Denver school board in June.

Read the full recommendations below.