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Immigrant teachers seen as role models for students

Alejandro Fuentes Mena holds his cats at his home in Denver. Fuentes, who was brought to the U.S. illegally as a child, participated in a program that recruits people like him to teach. (David Zalubowski/The Associated Press)

Alejandro Fuentes Mena holds his cats at his home in Denver. Fuentes, who was brought to the U.S. illegally as a child, participated in a program that recruits people like him to teach. (David Zalubowski/The Associated Press)

DENVER – Like many sojourners to this country, Alejandro Fuentes Mena lives with uncertainty as U.S. immigration policy is debated in the courts, Congress and the White House. But as he awaits a final ruling on his own future, he’s helping other young people build their dreams.

Fuentes, who settled in the United States illegally as a child, is a Denver elementary school teacher under a pilot program that recruits young immigrants like him to teach disadvantaged students. Teach for America, a national nonprofit running the program, believes people like Fuentes can be role models for students.

Fuentes, 23, has applied for a work permit and reprieve from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a presidential order. Recipients of deferred action, like Fuentes, are also known as DREAMers.

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Fuentes wasn’t directly affected by a judicial order this year that stopped the White House from expanding the number of immigrants who could remain in the country temporarily. But it left him worried. “If they overturn this part of immigration reform, will they go back and overturn other parts?” he said.

In the meantime, the Teach for America program he’s involved in has grown from two teachers in Denver, where it was launched last year, to 40 teachers in classrooms across the country, including Arizona, California and New Mexico. Denver’s 11 instructors with DACA status comprise the largest group. Teach for America plans to create more opportunities for immigrants like Fuentes.

The organization has been recruiting and training teachers since 1989 with the goal of helping disadvantaged students by encouraging bright college graduates to teach them.

Sean VanBerschot, Teach for America’s executive director in Colorado, said the Denver Public Schools district was the right place for DREAMer teachers because of its commitment to closing an achievement gap between white students and students of other races. More than 87,000 students, nearly two-thirds of them Hispanic and a third of them English-language learners, are enrolled in Denver public schools.

“Some of our greatest demand is for strong bilingual teachers,” said Shayne Spalten, chief human resources officer for Denver Public Schools. “In the past, we have had to do extensive recruitment internationally and nationally to try and meet this demand. These (DREAMer) teachers bring an extraordinary commitment to teaching and life experiences that are similar to the experiences of many of our students.”

Critics wonder whether Teach for America’s five-week training course leaves candidates unprepared for the classroom and discouraged from making teaching a career. Candidates commit to two years of teaching.

Keri Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association teachers’ union, said one thing Teach for America does “exceptionally well is recruit quality candidates. But if those high-quality candidates don’t stay in the classroom beyond two years, then we really haven’t solved the problem.”

Fuentes was a toddler in Valparaiso, Chile, when his mother set off for the United States. He was 4 when he joined her in San Diego, and he grew up in the U.S. without legal status. At times, the family was homeless as his mother and stepfather worked for low wages building homes, packing fruit and caring for children and the elderly.

Fuentes remembers feeling hopeless in his last year of high school in California. He had an A-minus average, but his immigration status put many college scholarships out of reach. A teacher encouraged him to persevere. He secured a full scholarship and, as he prepared to graduate with a psychology degree from Whitman College, the first DACA order was announced.

When he shared his life story with his fifth-graders, one put in extra effort on a writing assignment, saying, “‘I decided that I was going to push myself further,'” Fuentes said.

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