DENVER – Long before Alejandro Fuentes Mena became a fifth grade teacher, he was an undocumented immigrant from Chile.
"I came to the United States when I was four years old," Fuentes Mena said.
In August, he started at the Denver Center for International Studies at Ford Elementary School as part of effort by Denver Public Schools administrators to be the first school district in the nation to actively seek out teachers people who were initially brought to the United States illegally.
"These young men and women bring extraordinary talent to our classroom," Tom Boasberg, DPS superintendent, said. "We have many, many kids whose stories are like Alejandro's."
DPS is working with Teach for America to bring in people with an official status of "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" as determined by the federal government. Part of the requirements for DACA status is that a person must have been brought to the United States under the age of 16 and have a clean criminal record. Even with DACA status, they are still not recognized as legal citizens, but they are allowed to work.
"When they 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," Boasberg said.
Boasberg estimates that the 10-to-20 percent of the school's district's population are undocumented.
"I moved to 10 different houses and went to eight different schools just in third grade," Fuentes Mena said. "I could kind of see where they are coming from."
Teach for America is a program which brings people of different backgrounds and experiences into the classroom to enhance learning. They are not licensed teachers but were issued an alternative license from the State of Colorado to teach. These teachers are currently enrolled in classes to attain their traditional teaching license after one year.
The Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform has serious concerns regarding DPS's decision to hire DACA individuals. The group said in a statement that it believes the majority of people with DACA status are not properly trained or certified to become teachers:
It is unlikely that most of the illegal aliens with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status are trained, qualified, and certified as educators. Indeed, DACA status requires attainment of only a high school diploma or a GED certificate. Using unqualified individuals as "educators" does a tremendous disservice not only to students of all races and nationalities, but to our entire educational system.
The group also said that this decision is unfair to the millions of Americans seeking a full time teacher position:
There are at least 20 million Americans who either do not have a full-time job or are underemployed. This includes teachers. It is neither fair nor appropriate to hire unqualified foreign nationals to replace qualified and experienced American teachers.
But, Boasberg says it is challenging for DPS to find good billingual teachers to serve its Spanish-speaking population.
"In order to meet that demand, we actually go overseas," Boasberg said.
Fuentes Mena is one of only two teachers with deferred action status within DPS. Boasberg hopes to increase that number to more than ten for the 2014-15 school year. Members of the Walton family, the founders of Wal-Mart, made a large private donation to help pay for teachers with deferred action status to go through the Teach for America program.
"I am very, very grateful to the generosity of Ben and Lucy Ana Walton for their philanthropy in helping support these teachers in our schools," Boasberg said.
Fuentes Mena wants to make a difference whether people he should be there or not.
"If I'm working to the best of my abilities; if I'm putting forth my best efforts for the sake of these kids, why is that at all wrong?" Fuentes Mena said.
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