Education Without Borders
Superintendent Tom Boasberg has put Denver Public Schools (DPS) on the fast track to be the first school district in the nation to hire fully qualified, previously undocumented immigrants to teach in classrooms. Boasberg’s trailblazing decision to hire undocumented educators under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative will bring a much desired wealth of diversity into Denver’s multicultural classrooms. This progressive course of action will positively impact the educational development of undocumented students by providing culturally responsive teaching, bilingual educators, and mentors who share the same life experiences.
The DACA memorandum, authored by the Obama Administration, took effect on August 15th, 2012. It provides the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with a clear process for exercising deportation relief. Such relief is intended for individuals who meet specific guidelines and who have been approved for deferred action under DACA. This directive will provide thousands of undocumented children and young adults brought to the United States before the age of sixteen, the opportunity to further their education and obtain gainful employment while working toward permanent citizenship.
In order to teach under the DACA initiative, all applicants are required to attain a bachelor's degree from an accredited university, and have an undergraduate GPA 2.50 or greater. During the first year, approved applicants will receive a alternative provisionary teaching license issued by the Colorado Department of Education. Following the initial year, educators will be issued a traditional teaching license after completing a series of predatory educational programs offered at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD). DPS officials, with cooperation from Teach For America (TFA), have been responsive to the DACA initiative by hiring and actively pursuing suitable individuals that meet this specific criteria.
One of the first teachers hired under the DACA charge is Alejandro Fuentes Mena. Mena was brought to the United States from Chile when he was four years old. He graduated from Whitman College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology, and is currently a fifth grade teacher at the Denver Center for International Study at Ford Elementary School in Denver's Montbello neighborhood.
Mena's experience of coming to the U.S. as a child, while living under the contemptuous veil of an illegal immigrant, has given him a unique perspective that helps him connect emotionally and culturally with impressionable students. Mena's students can very easily relate to his plight and envision the possibility that they, too, can successfully graduate from high school, go on to earn a college degree, and use that education to give back to their community. Mena proudly explains, “The impossible that existed in my childhood is something that is plausible and a reality now. I now have the opportunity to impact my students and show them that they too can achieve at the highest levels” (Denver Public Schools: Communications Office 2014 ). Cultural influence and motivation from educators like Mena, leave long lasting impressions on undocumented and documented students alike. This in turn, expands educational equality, boosts civic participation, and increases economic opportunity in local communities. “These young men and women bring extraordinary talent to our classrooms,” explains Boasberg. “We have many, many kids whose stories are like Alejandro’s. When they [students] see the accomplishments of a young man like Alejandro, and he’s their teacher with such ability and enthusiasm, I think he brings tremendous hope" (Garcia 2014).
Hope, inspiration, and a sense of self-worth are valuable components educators like Mena can bring to students in Denver's urban classrooms. As Denver schools become more ethnically diverse, DPS will need to continue to find new and improved ways to keep students engaged. Hiring teachers with a bilingual skill set, along with the implementation of culturally responsive teaching, are two crucial components DPS officials need to effectively empower and enrich the classroom experience of immigrant students.
Socialization in the classroom starts when educators consciously bring care and empathy into the learning environment. In an ethnographic study of bilingual classrooms, Dr. Sheila M. Shannon states, "in several studies, the teacher is clearly seen as the determiner of the culture of the classroom" (322). This authority gives bilingual teacher's the ability to shape the cultural narrative and linguistic context of classrooms, to fit the distinct needs of students. The ability to interact and teach students in their native language helps educators transform from the moniker of ordinary teacher, into a leader and role model, in the hearts and mind of students. Cultural familiarity stimulates comprehension...comprehension spurs interaction...interaction manifests into participation, and participation is a catalyst for validation. This is the gap in bilingual responsiveness Boasberg is attempting to bridge in Denver's public school system.
The theory of culturally responsive teaching is defined as "using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively (Rychly, and Graves 2012, Gay 2002)." It is believed that students become more engaged and absorb information more fluently when they are comfortable in their learning environment. Engagement is advanced when English-language learners, which account for thirty percent of the DPS student population, are immersed into bilingual and culturally familiar classrooms that present a curriculum that reflects student's values and traditions. Geneva Gay, a Professor of Education at the University of Washington-Seattle asserts, "Students feel validated and capable of learning presented information when the methods used to present information is culturally responsive (Gay 2002)." This reasoning gives a certain gravitas to Boasberg's edict to hire educators like Mena during a time when immigration reform is a hot-button issue in the U.S. political landscape.
Non-profit organizations like The Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform (CAIRCO) do not agree with the Boasberg's decision to employee undocumented teachers under the DACA initiative. CAIRCO claims hiring undocumented teachers will take jobs away from qualified and experienced American teachers who are currently unemployed. This argument is a hasty generalization that contradicts DPS's consistent challenge to find effective bilingual educators willing to teaching in urban classrooms. Boasberg explains, "In order to meet the demand [for bilingual teachers], we actually go overseas (Garcia 2014)." In fact, undocumented teachers like Mena have to "apply for open jobs and go through the same application and interview process as everyone else", insists Sharise Darby, the Managing Directors of Regional Communications of TFA (Yu-Hsi Lee, 2014). CAIRCO's nationalistic and xenophobic stance on the DACA initiative is extremely short-sighted and based on political talking points.
The decision by DPS officials to hire DACA recipients as educators in Denver's urban classrooms contributes to Colorado's cultural mosaic, and promotes equality in Denver's evolving educational system. Engagement and participation is primed when emotional and cultural connections are made between teachers and students. The relationships forged by teachers and students with familiar backgrounds, vis-à-vis undocumented and bilingual, positively affect a broad scope of outcomes for children and young adults in society. Students who feel validated in classroom will be empowered to further their education, which will impede high school drop-out trends, reduced crime, and hinder staggering minority incarceration rates. I believe history will judge the DACA initiative as progressive and revolutionary shift in ongoing civil rights battle.
"Denver Public Schools, in Partnership with Teach For America, Hires Educators with Deferred Action Status." Denver Public Schools: Communications Office. Denver Public Schools, 11 April 2014. Web. 3 May 2014. . Garcia, Nelson. "DPS to hire previously undocumented immigrants." www.9news.com. 10 April 2014. Web. 3 May 2014. . Rychly, Laura, and Emily Graves. "Teacher Characteristics for Culturally Responsive Pedagogy." National Association for Multicultural Education. 14.1 (2012): 44-49. Web. 1 May 2014. Gay, Geneva. "Preparing For Culturally Responsive Teaching." Journal of Teacher Education. 53.2 (2002): March/April. Web. 1 May 2014. . Yu-Hsi Lee, Esther. "Denver School District Actively Seeks Out Undocumented Immigrants To Be Teachers." http://thinkprogress.org/. N.p., 14 April 2014. Web. 6 May 2014. . Shannon, Sheila M. "The Culture Of The Classroom: Socialization In An Urban Bilingual Classroom." Urban Review 27.4 (1995): 321. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 May 2014.