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.”

Future of Schools

Ogden school staffer arrested after 12-year-old student is hurt

PHOTO: Chicago Public Building Commission

A 12-year-old student at William B. Ogden Elementary School on the Near North Side suffered a sprained wrist this week in a physical altercation with a school employee, according to the Chicago Police Department.

The employee, Marvin Allen, was arrested and charged with aggravated battery of a child. He has been removed from the school pending an investigation, according to an email to parents from Acting Principal Rebecca Bancroft and two other administrators.

Chicago Public Schools’ payroll records list Allen as a student special services advocate and full-time employee at the school. Student special services advocates are responsible for working with at-risk children and connecting them and their families with social services, according to district job descriptions.

An email to parents Thursday night from school leaders said an incident had occurred earlier this week “that resulted in a “physical student injury.”

“While limited in what I can share, the incident took place earlier this week between a student and staff member off school grounds after dismissal,” read the message. “The employee involved has been removed from school while a CPS investigation by the Law Department takes place.”

District spokeswoman Emily Bolton confirmed that the employee had been removed pending a district investigation.

“Student safety is the district’s top priority and we immediately removed the employee from his position upon learning of a deeply concerning altercation that took place off of school grounds,” Bolton said.

The exact circumstances behind the incident are still unclear.

The altercation happened Monday morning outside the school’s Jenner Campus, which used to be Jenner Elementary School before Ogden and Jenner merged last year. The Jenner campus serves grades 5-8.

At recent Local School Council meetings, Bancroft, the acting principal, acknowledged a “fractured community” at the school in the aftermath of the merger, which joined two different schools — Ogden, a diverse school with a large white population and many middle-class families, and Jenner, a predominately black school where most students come from low-income households. At the January meeting, parents complained of student disciplinary problems at the Jenner campus. Jenner parents have also expressed concerns about inclusiveness at the school.

The school has also experienced leadership turnover. One of the principals who helped engineer the merger died last March after an illness. And in November, the district placed Ogden Principal Michael Beyer on leave after he was accused of falsifying attendance records.

The incident also comes on the heels of a video released in early February that shows a school police officer using a taser on a female Marshall High School student.

On the hunt

Want a say in the next IPS superintendent? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

Parents, teachers, and neighbors will have a chance to weigh in on what they hope to see in the next Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent and the future of the district at three community meetings in the coming weeks.

The meetings, which will be facilitated by Herd Strategies at three sites across the city, will gather feedback before the school board begins the search for a new superintendent. The school board is expected to select the next superintendent in May.

Board President Michael O’Connor said the meetings are designed to get input on what the public values in the next superintendent. But they will also play another role, allowing community members to reflect and give feedback on the district’s embrace of innovation schools, one of the most controversial strategies rolled out during former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration.

“As we look for the next superintendent, it’s perfect for us to take input on that path that we’ve taken and then hear what [community members] think is working well and maybe what they think we could do better,” O’Connor said, noting that the administration and board are often criticized for failing to engage the public.

Innovation schools are run by outside charter or nonprofit managers, but they are still considered part of the district. Indianapolis Public Schools gets credit from the state for their test scores, enrollment, and other data. The model is lauded by charter school advocates across the country, and it helped Ferebee gain national prominence.

Ferebee left Indianapolis in January after he was tapped to lead the Washington, D.C., school system. Indianapolis Public Schools is being led by interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, who was formerly the deputy superintendent and is seen as a leading candidate to fill the position permanently.

Here is information about the three scheduled community input sessions:

Feb. 27, Hawthorne Community Center, 1-3 p.m.

March 7, Arsenal Technical High School in the Anderson Auditorium, 6-8 p.m.

March 13, George Washington Carver Montessori School 87 in the gymnasium, 6-8 p.m.