A young male teacher with black spiked hair and black rimmed glasses smiling in a science classroom in front of a whiteboard.

The Award-Nominated Teacher Who Almost Wasn’t Allowed to Teach

As an undocumented teen, Jaime Ballesteros thought college was an impossible dream before breaking the glass ceiling. Now, as a teacher, he's challenging all his students to excel while helping those with the dilemma he once faced.

By

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

About 1 million kids in the United States live in constant fear of deportation because they were born elsewhere and are undocumented. Their daily lives yield a gamut of emotions, from dread to frustration to hope. For Jaime Ballesteros, it was all about one word: existence.

“I just wanted the immigration system to acknowledge me and prove I existed in this country,” he says.

Jaime, who was born in the Philippines, fell victim to external circumstances out of his control at an early age.

 “I first came with my family to America when I was 11,” he says. “My dad found a job here as an accountant, so he had a work visa. But due to the recession, he was laid off and his work visa expired. All of a sudden, we were undocumented.”

Bright Student, Uncertain Future

When Jaime was a junior at McNair Academic High, an inner-city magnet school in Jersey City, New Jersey, he impressed his English 3 Honors teacher, Emma Solberg.

“We were reading Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ and that’s some challenging dense 19th-century prose,” she recalls. “All the other kids in the class couldn’t hack it, but Jaime was doing graduate-level work.

“He’s definitely one of the most brilliant students I’ve ever had,” she says. “Incredibly sensitive in an intellectual way and incredibly mature.” Whether it was math, science, social studies, or even art, finding the letter A next to his name at the end of the semester was as predictable as the sun rising in the east.

As the accolades and awards began to pile up, people assumed Jaime would have no shortage of college suitors. But as promising as his academic prospects were, he was keeping a secret that nearly derailed that dream before it could begin.

”Coming Out”

“When my English teacher asked me where I planned to apply, she was the first person I came out to as undocumented [at school],” Jaime remembers. “The next day, she surprised me when she handed me a list of merit scholarships for undocumented students. It turned out I could still go to a four-year college.”

Emma Solberg had stumbled on a need. “I realized Jaime wasn’t the only undocumented student in the class, and so we all did the research [on college applications] together,” she said. “We had real-world problems, and we came up with real-world solutions. They all helped each other.”

The experience left her in awe. “Just reading their personal statements, you learn about who they are and what they’ve been through, and you’re just left learning how special these kids are.”

A New Start

Drew University, a private liberal-arts university, offered Jaime a science scholarship, but he still lived under the cloud of fear from being undocumented. His situation reversed during his junior year, when his application for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was approved. Not only was he now protected from deportation for two years, he was finally being recognized by the country he loves so much.

“I remember filing my taxes, and ironically, it was one of the happiest days of my life,” he says, laughing. “Just to see my name on a paycheck or a social security card for the first time was an emotional experience.”

Paying it Forward

Today, Jaime is a high school chemistry teacher in Los Angeles—and proud to be among the first DACAmented teachers to join Teach For America.

Just like in high school, he still excels in the classroom. He was nominated for his school’s Rookie Teacher of the Year award. “I’m data-driven, and I know it’s not everything as the final measure of success by any means, but I like tracking my kids’ progress,” he says. “My last benchmark was having 75 percent of them scoring proficient or advanced in our last unit, and we reached it, so I’m proud of them.”

For some of his students, Jaime’s impact reaches beyond academics. After consulting with veteran teachers, he decided to use the first day of school to tell his class his story. When one student approached him privately after class and revealed that she, too, was undocumented, he jumped at the chance to do for her what Emma Solberg once did for him.

“When I learned Teach For America was taking applicants who got their DACA,” he says, “I saw it as an opportunity to have the same impact on kids that she had on me.”

Solberg, who has kept in touch with him over the years, isn’t surprised at all.

“I knew he’d be a huge success, and it makes perfect sense to me how I could see him being a great educator,” she says. “It’s scary, actually, to see how close he came to not being able to find out what he could do out in the world.”

 

About TFA and DACA

Teach For America supports the DREAM Act and actively recruits recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to apply for positions in our corps. Across the country, there are countless stories of children living in the shadows and being denied the opportunity to pursue a great education. Our children’s future depends on our actions today. Take the pledge to show your support and learn more about our DACAmented teachers.

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