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.”

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In her State of the State address, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.