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.”

election 2019

Chicago mayoral hopefuls vow to invest in schools, but skirt enrollment crisis

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Five mayoral candidates invited to a labor forum on Nov. 19, 2018, discussed the exodus of black families from Chicago.

The five candidates for Chicago mayor who appeared at a labor union forum Monday night all pledged to invest more in neighborhood schools, despite an enrollment crisis that has left some with fewer than 100 students.

All five all also said the city should invest more in mental health services, especially for youth and in schools.

While the union-backed forum focused on the exodus of black residents from Chicago, education found its way into the conversation. After all, the troubling trend of fleeing families has caused school enrollments to plunge, budgets to shrink and schools to close.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Gates said at the top of the event that, besides no booing, there’d be little tolerance for continuing “to talk about how to close schools in the city.”

The five mayoral contenders whom the union invited Monday night — out of 18 declared mayoral candidates — included former schools chief Paul Vallas, ex-prosecutor and former police board chair Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and policy analyst Amara Enyia, director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Each promised in one way or another that they’d unify a city they painted as unequal and segregated, starting with stemming the daily toll of violence and improving public education.

Preckwinkle touted her bonafides as a former high school teacher who understands the challenges educators face, and said she’d focus on supporting local schools as she did in her 20 years as alderman.

“I want all of our children to have good public schools in their neighborhoods,” she said, adding that too many schools are underfunded or have been closed in many areas.

Mendoza, the latest candidate to enter the race, said she supports a two-year moratorium on school closings and boasted of her efforts in the state capitol pushing Gov. Bruce Rauner on “evidence based school funding,” which determines the cost of educating students based on certain factors, considers school districts’ resources, and tries filling the gap with state dollars.

Lightfoot emphasized preventing violence and looking at its impact on children in Chicago. She cast Emanuel as “a mayor who has learned on the job in dealing with public safety,” and touted her experience cracking down on police misconduct, an issue that has galvanized black youth.

Vallas characterized himself as someone who has devoted his life to public service, from his time in Chicago to stints running school districts in Philadelphia and in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. He bashed the current mayor for the city’s financial state, escalating violence that Valles tied to shortages in police, especially detectives, and lack of investment in communities.

Amara Enyia emphasized her work fighting school closings, including the National Teachers’ Academy, a top-rated elementary school that is slated to close at the end of the year to make way for a high school, and her support of the No Cop Academy movement led by youth activists like Good Kids Madd City.

The candidates cited everything from crime and lack of jobs to uneven economic development and a lack of affordable housing as reasons why Chicago is losing population. They agreed on a lot, generally speaking, including the need to get the city’s fiscal house in order, create more jobs and reduce violence, deploring a shooting at a South Side hospital several hours earlier that left four dead.

On education, the candidates offered different paths for improving Chicago Public Schools’ financial stability. Preckwinkle said she supports a progressive state income tax, which she said could help produce more revenue that could help public schools. Vallas said reforming the teachers retirement system could free up more funds.

Enyia, who said black Chicagoans have been encouraged to leave the city because of a lack of affordable housing and economic investment, said she would press the philanthropic community to invest more in black and brown communities, and push initiatives to train people in the jobs of tomorrow.

“In our public schools we have to invest in those school career technical education and training programs,” she said, a point also made by Lightfoot.

Enyia charged that the school district doesn’t consider equity in its capital projects and program investments, and said “without an equity lens we cannot ensure every child has access to a high-quality education.” She said she would review how practices such as test-in high schools and school boundary lines entrench segregation and racial inequity.

Vallas tried to portray himself as the most fiscally astute candidate when it comes to schools, saying he left the district in a better financial state after his 1995 to 2001 stints. He suggested that the city do a better job of recruiting police who attended Chicago public schools, especially ROTC alumni, so that more police come from communities they serve. He advocated for universal prenatal and early childhood programs.

Preckwinkle was the only candidate to explicitly support an elected school board. She also said she would freeze charters and school closings, and seek more funds to support professionals in schools.

The mayor’s office wields broad powers over city departments and agencies, especially schools. The mayor appoints the schools chief and members of the Chicago Board of Education, which begs the question of whether or not schools CEO Janice Jackson, board President Frank Clark, and other district leaders will keep their jobs once city government gets a new boss.

That didn’t come up at the forum.

civil rights commission

Detroit education leaders open to collaboration on accountability, student records

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Dan Quisenberry, second from left, testifies before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday as Wayne State University finance professor Michael Addonizio and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti look on.

When students change schools — as they do all too often in Detroit  — their data should travel with them.

That idea has found support from more than one education leader in recent days, raising the prospect of additional cooperation between Detroit’s charter schools and its main district.

Speaking in Detroit before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday, Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said information sharing could help alleviate the effects of the large number of students who switch schools in Detroit.

“It would be important to look at citywide records and data systems so that a child has information about themselves when they show up at a school, what they’ve experienced,” he said.

His remarks followed on the heels of similar recommendations made last week by a different charter school official at a forum about school switching in Detroit.

And they came as district leaders have shown an increased willingness to collaborate with charter schools. Earlier this year, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti joined the Community Education Commission, a mayor-led group that has begun operating a bus line in northwest Detroit that carries students to charter and traditional schools.

Vitti has been vocal in his approval for the group’s latest project, a citywide, A-F school grading system that emphasizes student growth over academic proficiency, a system he dubbed “fair and consistent.”

“It’s hard to think about collaboration when you’re in a competitive environment, but we have collaborated on an accountability system,” Vitti said on Monday.

When he took control of Michigan’s largest district last year, Vitti promised to go toe-to-toe with charter schools to recruit students and teachers.

It remains to be seen whether either side would agree to a proposal that, at its most ambitious, could be the most significant district-charter collaboration since an effort to create a common enrollment system succumbed last year to practical hurdles and poisonous politics.

After a failed effort to put the common enrollment system under mayoral control, Quisenberry said there was a “question of trust” between the district and charter schools on the issue.

But he said on Monday that there’s no reason the two can’t work together.

“Everybody thinks, many times falsely, because we were against… putting the mayor in charge, that we’re not interested in cooperating,” he said. “We just don’t think that was necessary.”

After the common enrollment initiative collapsed, some of its supporters regrouped and published a report arguing that a joint data system could help improve teacher hiring and reduce absenteeism.

Now that idea appears to be picking up steam.

Last week, during the forum on students frequently changing schools, education leaders pointed out that when students move — as roughly one in three Detroit elementary schoolers do every year — academic data helps teachers orient them to a new classroom, while enrollment information helps their former school know where they’ve gone and that they’re safe.

Maria Montoya, who is with the charter school office at Grand Valley State University, advocated for a common data system, saying “a child should not disappear with nobody accountable for them, whether it is a traditional school or a charter.”