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.”

Decision day

A state board decision on two long-struggling Pueblo schools could affect the entire district

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

A year after running out of chances to improve on their own, two Pueblo middle schools will be making a return appearance in front of the State Board of Education this week.

Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy of Innovation have spent the last eight years on a watch list for low-performing schools. A year ago, the state board ordered them along with five school districts and 10 other schools to craft plans to improve — and warned them that too little progress could lead to sharper consequences in the future. It was the first time state regulators faced these decisions under Colorado’s school accountability system.

Many of the schools and districts on the state watchlist have managed to improve enough to avoid further intervention, including Bessemer Elementary, also in Pueblo City Schools.

But even after working with a nonprofit group to improve the quality of teaching, the two schools failed to advance on Colorado’s school rating system, which is largely based on performance on standardized tests. Their test scores left Heroes at the second lowest rating, where it has been for several years, and Risley on “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, despite some improvement in some subject areas and grade levels.

On Wednesday, state board members will hold a hearing on the future of Heroes and Risley— along with the entire Adams 14 district and its high school. They’ll be taking into account recommendations from independent reviewers who visited the schools, the Pueblo district, students and their families, and advocates who have been lobbying throughout the process.

If the board members take the same approach they did last year, they’re likely to let the schools continue with “innovation” status, with some additional external management. But some state board members have expressed frustration with the pace of change, and they have more drastic options available to them, including closure or turning low-performing schools into charters.

At least in the case of Risley, the recommendation to largely stay the course comes despite grave concerns about the school. The evaluators gave a damning report, rating its leadership “not effective” at implementing change or even having the capacity to benefit from the help of an external partner.

The evaluators described chaotic classrooms in which students slept at their desks or openly played on their phones. In classrooms in which teachers were able to engage students, too many of them were “doing the cognitive work” for the students rather than leading them in real learning, they said.

The school is using too many new programs at once without enough training for teachers, with the result that most of them were not being implemented as intended, the evaluators said, and there isn’t enough coordination. In one example, the school had adopted new reading and math curriculum designed for 90-minute blocks, but the school’s schedule only allows for 75-minute periods.

But closing the school or turning it over to a charter organization would be worse options, evaluators said.

Conversion to a charter school would be divisive and unlikely to better serve students, they said, and there aren’t any nearby schools that could absorb the students if Risley were to close. “There are no other viable options for students that would likely lead to better outcomes,” the evaluators wrote.

What’s more, they wrote, the school serves as an “anchor” to the community — a view that community members expressed in comments submitted to the state board. Parents described using the health clinic associated with the school or getting food from the food pantry, as well as the pride their children felt in their sports teams, which provide positive and structured activities after school.

“As a parent, I feel better after each time I volunteer,” one mother wrote. “My daughter is a cheerleader here and I enjoy going to all her games and support her school and represent red and black and showing bear pride. I am looking forward to my son attending here in years to come.”

In several letters, students said they were having to take so many tests as part of the turnaround process that they were bored and stressed out and did not want to come to school.

“If we’re testing every month, when the real test comes around, we get tired of it and guess or click through,” one eighth-grade student said. “They’re stressing us out, and we don’t really need them. I understand you guys need to see where we are, but this many tests are not helping any of us.”

The state review panel assessment of Heroes was more positive, even as evaluators noted ongoing problems and recommended an additional external partner to help manage the school, not just provide instructional support.

“The school needs more time to see the full benefits of participation in the Innovation Zone, but implementation thus far has proven effective,” they wrote. “Leadership is developing and beginning to create positive change.”

At Heroes, evaluators did not recommend conversion to a charter school in part because the school serves a high population of students with disabilities. The middle school is also part of a K-8 school with one principal, and disentangling the elementary and middle school would have financial implications for both.

In response to written questions from the State Board of Education, Pueblo district officials said converting both schools to charters would have a serious financial impact on the entire school system. The district, which already faces declining enrollment and operates on a four-day week while staring down a $785 million maintenance backlog for its aging buildings, would lose almost $5 million a year in state funding if Risley and Heroes students all went to charter schools. The school district would also lose one of its newer buildings if Risley converted to a charter.

The opposition to a charter conversion is about more than money. In a letter, Barb Clementi, vice president of the school board in Pueblo, pointed to the example of a struggling school that was turned into a magnet school. While it has a good rating, it now serves a student population that is almost entirely different, and the former students continue to struggle in their new schools. Converting Risley or Heroes to charters runs the same risk, she said.

Risley and Heroes are part of an innovation zone that provides schools more flexibility but also allows teachers and administrators to work together. While the state review panel said both schools need to take more advantage of the zone, other Pueblo schools have come off the state watchlist using the innovation approach.

“I urge you to consider the bigger picture of our entire Pueblo community and school system when making decisions,” Clementi wrote. “These two middle school have made progress and deserve the time and opportunity to continue their good work with perhaps additional partnership support.”

Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the teachers union, said both schools have suffered from a lack of consistent leadership and significant teacher turnover, an issue that evaluators noted as well. She said any plan to improve the schools needs to take seriously the issue not just of training teachers but keeping them.

Some teachers and parents have asked for the schools to be turned into “community schools,” though letters to the state board indicate this approach has some serious skeptics as well.

“There is a lot of buy-in and a lot of people are looking to this model as a way to engage authentically with our community and dig in and find those root causes that are holding students back,” said Robert Donovan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Risley and member of the Pueblo Education Coalition.

Community schools incorporate a wide range of services for students and their families, ranging from meals, health clinics, and laundry service to English classes and job training. These schools work to engage parents in their children’s education, and in their most ideal version, parents play a big role in shaping educational decisions.

Teachers unions have been strong advocates for community schools in response to persistent low test scores, including in Pueblo and Adams 14. They argue that community schools address the social and economic problems that make it hard for students to succeed at school. Research on the academic impact of this approach is mixed.

More than 97 percent of Risley students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, compared to 80 percent for the district as a whole. Nearly 80 percent of Heroes students are from low-income families.

“The concerns expressed by our community fall into several areas, including authentic parent and community engagement, culturally relevant curriculum, a focus on high-quality teaching and learning, positive discipline practices, and mental health supports, to name a few,” reads the online petition. “The most powerful voices speaking about what is needed were, in fact, students. Based on this engagement, a community schools model … is the best fit for what we need and want in Pueblo.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, district officials will lay out their plans in more detail — they declined to talk to us before the meeting — and face tough questions from state board members, who have until Thursday to render a decision on the two Pueblo schools and the Adams 14 district, which could face significant loss of control.

This week’s decisions will mark a test of how the state board will deal with struggling schools going forward. Pueblo City Schools and Adams 14 have both described a process for finding additional outside partners if that’s what the state board orders, but it’s not entirely clear what that will look like on the ground.

And then it will fall back to principals, teachers, parents, and students to do the work.

options

Adams 14 board rejects new KIPP charter school in district

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

KIPP, the national charter school network, will not open a new school in the Adams 14 school district — at least for now — after board members voted against the network’s application Tuesday night.

It was a unanimous decision in which two board members who explained their thinking said the district’s situation with the state weighed heavily on their votes.

“Adams 14 is not in a position right now to be a proper authorizer,” said board member Dominick Moreno, who is also a state senator. “We have our own struggles. To add another school into the mix of responsibilities is tough.”

Board member Bill Hyde said he believes the district’s problems can be solved without resorting to using charter schools.

“It’s not just about this particular charter school application,” Hyde said. “It goes to a bigger issue as to what we as a community want in terms of a school system.”

On Wednesday, district officials will explain their plans for improving student performance to the State Board of Education, whose members have the authority to order external management of the district or more drastic improvement efforts. The district has spent eight years on a watchlist for low-performing schools, and the board’s reluctance to offer a new high-performing charter option for students will likely be part of the discussion with state regulators.

KIPP officials said they are planning to appeal the decision to the state.

“Families in the community have been advocating for a new public school option for their students, and tonight’s vote is a setback for the families and community members who are fighting to provide an education that is responsive and accountable to their students,” said Kimberlee Sia, CEO of KIPP Colorado Schools. “We plan to appeal this decision, and we will continue our efforts to open a new public school option for Adams 14 families.”

KIPP officials have wanted to expand outside of Denver, following some of their students, a majority of whom come from low-income families. As housing prices rise in Denver, many working class families have moved to more affordable suburbs like Commerce City, where the Adams 14 district is based. This summer, KIPP submitted an application to open a preschool through 12th-grade campus in the district.

The district had to hire a consultant to quickly put together a review process for the application and to educate the board about how charter schools operate in Colorado. Superintendent Javier Abrego then ignored staff advice based on their review, and instead asked the school board to reject the school, citing philosophical concerns with charter schools.

KIPP leaders had the backing of several parents who live in the district and send their children to KIPP schools in Denver, and of other district parents who wanted a new school option nearby. Tensions rose between parents who were in favor and teachers who were opposed.

KIPP’s charter school application had been a frequent topic for public comment at board meetings for months. Tuesday, there were fewer people in the room and only two people spoke about KIPP, both asking the board to reject the application. Teachers who are union leaders sat near the front of the room and nodded in approval as the board members made their decision.

Community advocates in the room criticized the decision. Transforming Education Now, a parent advocacy nonprofit that supports school choice, had been working with parents who support KIPP.

“Kids in Adams 14 will suffer yet again because this district has chosen to put adult needs and politics before their learning,” the organization said in a tweet.