With Students’ Futures on the Line, These Teachers are Leading In Unexpected Ways
For immigrant students, it is a time of unease and uncertainty, but these teachers are right where students need them to be – beside them, supporting them.
“We’re supposed to support our kids’ educations. But do we really?” That’s the question Cortez Downey (Houston '15) asked himself earlier this year when a student of his was sitting in a detention center instead of finishing his senior year in the classroom.
“We have to support kids in their causes outside of the classroom. They don’t leave those things outside the door,” Downey says.
And teachers are doing just that, protecting the rights of immigrant, refugee, and undocumented students in different ways across the country. In Atlanta, one teacher is helping students use art to advocate for themselves and for passage of the DREAM act. In Mississippi, another teacher changed district structures to give a growing community of Arabic-speaking students equal learning opportunities. And down in Texas, teachers walked out of their classrooms alongside students to demand another student’s freedom from detention.
None of these three teachers set out to become leaders in exactly this way. But this is where their students led them.
Cortez Downey (Houston '15)
Cortez Downey felt helpless and heartbroken last January as he sat across from his student, who was locked up in a Houston-area immigration detention center. Downey, a high school counselor, had just been celebrating with the student, a senior named Dennis Rivera, as Dennis’s first college acceptance letter arrived. Three weeks later, Dennis was facing deportation.
At 14 years old, Dennis Rivera immigrated with his family to the United States from Honduras. When he arrived, he spoke very little English. But at Houston’s Stephen F. Austin High School, his bilingual peers helped him with lessons. Playing soccer eased his homesickness. And Downey, who was Dennis’s college counselor, made college for an undocumented kid seem possible.
Dennis says everything changed last year when a female classmate came up to him using racial slurs while blocking his path. Dennis, who was 18 at the time, says he pushed past her so that he could get away and find a school resource officer to report the incident. That officer turned the case over to the Houston Police Department. In accordance with state law, the department reported the case to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). By the next day, Dennis was wearing a detention center uniform.
“I was crying,” Dennis said. “I went from the happiest feeling, after getting into college, to no future.”
After recovering from disbelief, Downey felt called to help his student. At first he had to guess at the best way forward. He searched Harris County’s online arrest records. That led him to call a bail bonds office, where he learned that ICE had Dennis in detention. That same day, Downey found the address, took the day off from work, and went to see his student.
When Downey showed up at the detention center, Dennis couldn’t believe his eyes. “I thought, ‘He really cares about me.’ That has no price.”
For more than two months, Downey visited Dennis regularly, bringing him books and keeping him company whenever ICE officials didn’t turn Downey away for administrative reasons. Downey worked with groups including the ONE Houston citizen coalition, United We Dream, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition to stop Dennis from being deported.
One organization helped raise funds to pay Dennis’s lawyer. Another helped create a petition for the student’s release. On Valentine’s Day, with media vans outside the school, Stephen F. Austin teachers and students walked out to protest Dennis’s detention.
Downey was well aware that opinion is divided on the question of whether someone in Dennis’s situation should be allowed to stay in this country. He felt pressure from colleagues to leave the matter alone. “Some people said this is a political thing and politics have no place in the classroom,” Downey said.
He responded as he felt he needed to respond as an educator. “I need students to go to school every day to learn and give their all. They can’t do that if they’re afraid to come to school.”
Dennis’s attorney used the public displays of support for his client to help gain a small but significant victory in immigration court: Dennis was released on bond and walked out of the detention center on April 4. His high school counselor was outside, waiting to greet him.
Dennis’s $2,500 bond was covered by funds Downey helped raise. That was critical. Unlike in criminal cases where defendants can be released by posting a percentage of bail, the full bail is required in federal immigration courts. As this story went to press, Dennis was awaiting a court decision on his plea for asylum. In the Houston area last year, nearly 90 percent of all asylum pleas were denied.
Dennis also started college, the first in his family to enroll. He is studying computer science at the University of Houston.
Downey is working with ONE Houston to urge school districts to enact policies that support undocumented students. He advocates for schools to create student support services to handle on-campus disciplinary incidents before they call in city and county officers.
“The justice system saw Dennis as an adult” who should be detained and possibly deported, Downey said. “What will this mean for all of my other students? If this could happen to Dennis, they’re not safe either.”
Yehimi Cambrón (Metro Atlanta '15)
During second period on September 5, 2017, high school art teacher Yehimi Cambrón sat in silence with students as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Cambrón, herself a DACA recipient, had spent the weekend prior preparing herself. That day, she waited until the school day was over to cry alone.
“Students were coming to me in tears, students who weren’t even in my art class,” Cambrón said. In front of them, she appeared strong and ready to help.
The Pew Research Center estimates that the Metro Atlanta area is home to approximately 250,000 undocumented immigrants, and that more than 13,500 Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests took place last year in the Atlanta area.
Cross Keys High School, where Cambrón teaches art, is in the Brookhaven section of DeKalb County just northeast of Atlanta. The school serves a community that’s long been home to immigrant families. About 80 percent of students who attend the school are Latinx.
In whispered conversations in the hallway, students have sought comfort and answers from Cambrón: Can I still go to college? What will happen to my family? What can I do to change this? Cambrón, a Cross Keys alum who went through this same high school undocumented, understands their urgency. “I’ve lived this,” she said.
Last year, Cambrón launched the Cross Keys Monarchs, a club for students who are undocumented, who come from mixed-status families, and other students who identify with the cause. In this club, students can ask questions about processes, like applying to college, that become remarkably complicated because of citizenship status. Cambrón connects them with resources to support them in knowing their rights. She’s also been coaching fellow teachers in how to support undocumented and mixed-status students, for example by using visuals that declare classrooms to be safe spaces and taking care not to use terms like “illegal aliens.”
In this club, students also learn to use art to communicate their ideas and tell stories, using Cambrón’s own public mural projects as their inspiration. Having received some of her training in art as a student at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Cambrón is an acclaimed muralist. With nine others, she was recently selected as one of the artists in the “Off the Wall” project, co-led by WonderRoot and the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee. They’re creating a series of public murals ahead of the big game which will highlight Atlanta’s story of civil rights, human rights, and social justice.
Earlier this year, her students set up a phone bank for community members to ask their Congressional representatives to support the DREAM Act. They stood in front of one of Cambrón’s murals—a painting of a monarch butterfly—and shared personal messages about why they needed the DREAM Act to pass.
Cambrón began her career as a bilingual elementary school teacher, but Principal Jason Herd—who was Cambrón’s fifth-grade teacher two years after she arrived in the U.S. brought her to Cross Keys to teach art because he believed she’d have a special impact on students. “For many of our kids, there’s a sense of hopelessness regarding graduation and college,” Herd said. “Ms. Cambrón provides hope. And we need all the hope we can get. She is a phenomenal teacher.”
Former art student Sandra Apresa-Jimenez, now 18 and a college freshman, only began taking Cambrón’s art class after she was forced to drop a nursing assistant’s licensing class because of documentation issues. When other adults told Sandra to give up on college, Cambrón helped her fill out applications and look up scholarships.
“She’s the reason I’m in college,” Sandra said. “She told me that I could do anything I wanted to.” Sandra was one of three students from the Monarchs club who received full-ride scholarships last year with Cambrón’s help.
Cambrón was recently named one of the top 50 most influential Latinos in Georgia by the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and also recently had her work permit renewed for another two years. She has no plans, now or two years from now, to leave the community that she’s called home since she was seven years old, or to stop advocating for herself or her students to be fully participating citizens with the same opportunities as anyone else.
“I just have a new deadline,” Cambrón said. “If teaching is taken away, I’m going to continue moving forward as a human being. I need to keep growing. I’m not going back to cleaning houses.”
For as long as she’s able, she will teach students to tell stories through art, and will continue to create work that incorporates the stories of the bravest and hardest-working people she knows—immigrants.
Jordan Brewer (Greater Delta '16)
Three students from Yemen.
Those were the only members of the approximately 380-member student body who didn’t speak English at W. A. Higgins Middle School last year. Until recently, in the legendary birth-of-the-blues town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, English language learner classes have not been in noticeable demand.
Then last year, one of those young Arabic-speaking students from Yemen, a girl in seventh grade, caught the attention of special education teacher Jordan Brewer (Greater Delta ’16). Brewer was an inclusion teacher. When he would join the young girl’s class, he could see that she was reliant on an iPad translation app to understand what was happening and to get around school.
One day the student approached him. She saw him helping other kids, so would he help her? Brewer did try to help when he could, especially with her English work. But he had to let her down gently; she didn’t understand that this was not how his inclusion assignment worked. He did start to think, however, if this is one student’s problem, how many others need help? And if this isn’t addressed, how is that educational equity?
Although his school had no position for a teacher of English language learners, Brewer sought the necessary certification to instruct the small English language learner student population of three that he knew of. He took the ESL Praxis exam. “I figured, if I get certified, then show up and say I’m ready to go, they’d be more willing to accept me,” Brewer said. And he was right. In February, the school’s principal agreed to allow Brewer to take the students out of class twice a week for 50 minutes of one-on-one work.
Every day, Brewer would trek from one side of campus to the other to find one of those students, and then together they would head back to Brewer’s office, with each long walk becoming a lesson.
“What are those white things in the sky?” Brewer would ask a student, as they crossed an outdoor corridor.
“Good, now say that in a complete sentence.”
That was last school year. This year, thanks in part to his advocacy, Brewer is filling the newly-created role of Clarksdale Municipal School District English Learner Coordinator. There are now an estimated 10 students who have moved from Yemen to Clarksdale, Brewer said. There’s also around 10 primarily Spanish-speaking students in the district. “You just don’t know what gaps you’re going to see until you start doing the work,” Brewer said.
But Brewer does not assume that because students are immigrants, they necessarily lack English proficiency, especially students who immigrated when very young. About half of all immigrants ages 5 and older are English proficient, according to Pew Research surveys.
Brewer now spends about half his time working to ensure that the district’s eight schools are following federal regulations, with at least one English language instructor on staff, and with students getting 50 minutes a day of direct English instruction through individualized learning plans.
“I have been surprised by how much legal paperwork and documentation I have had to do for this job,” he said. “I’m making sure that I am creating systems around all of it so that when the next person comes in,” he or she can “get right to teaching.”
Brewer still also works with those first three students from Yemen. Mohamed Moggali, now in ninth grade, is improving his verbal skills by talking to customers at his family’s convenience store. Brewer, meanwhile, is watching Mohamed and his 10-year-old brother, Fares, grow fluent enough in English to begin making friends. Brewer did not expect still to be teaching this year, with his two-year corps commitment behind him. Something–actually a group of someones–convinced him to defer studying public policy at the University of Chicago.
He says, “These students are amazing people who, with just a little bit of services, can spring to success.”