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The Denver Teaching Model: Hiring Undocumented Immigrants

Jordan Catapano


Alejandro Fuentes Mena teaches English to 5th grade students in Denver. He has lived in the United States since he was 4 years old, speaking Spanish just like thousands of others residing in Denver. But he’s not a legal citizen of the United States—he’s an undocumented immigrant originally from Chile.

Mena is actually one of two teachers in the Denver system that does not have legal citizenship. But Tom Boasberg, superintendent of the Denver Public School (DPS) system, isn’t bothered by this. In fact, they’re even looking for more people like Mena to join the teaching staff next year.

Does this seem strange? Many think so. Yet the DPS system insists that this is a move in the right direction for not only its students, but for individuals with stories similar to Mena’s.

Under President Obama’s Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA), passed in 2012, the door was opened for Mena and others like him to apply for two-year work permits—and Denver boasts a leading edge in incorporating these people into the education system.

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Why DPS Sees Hiring Undocumented Immigrants as a Positive

The DPS system has no idea how many of its 87,400 are considered undocumented immigrants, as public schools are barred from soliciting this information. Ten to 20 percent of the student population is estimated to be undocumented, and nearly one-third of its student population qualifies as English Learning Language—the majority of which speak Spanish.

Boasberg sees two advantages stemming from incorporating undocumented workers into the school system: 1) More bilingual or multilingual teachers, 2) most of whom have a powerful life story of individual hardship and success to share. It’s this unique combination that DPS desires to leverage, boosting the success of its student population. And under the relaxed immigration employment policy of the Obama administration, the path is clear for districts to do just that.

Critiques of the DPS Decision

DPS has been working with Teach for America—a national program that brings individuals of diverse background and potential talent into classrooms—to bring in teachers like Mena. However, many critics claim that Mena is not technically a teacher, because he lacks a license and the proper training. Instead, Colorado issued Mena an alternative license, on the condition that he participate in a program that will allow him to earn his teaching certificate in one year.   

The issue is not without opposition. The Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform is one such opposing force, and is quick to cite that DPS has put an untrained adult into the classroom, entrusting him with educating children. Placing an unqualified individual—who might only have earned a high school degree or a GED certificate—in a teaching role is seen as a disservice for students.

Opposition also points out that in addition to giving undocumented immigrants a teaching position, they allow them to obtain certification in one year, whereas legal citizens have longer paths to earn the same licensing. Like other critics of DACA, naysayers also point out how many American teachers are currently unemployed. Why not plug an unemployed teacher who already has obtained the necessary accreditation into the classroom occupied by an unqualified, undocumented immigrant?

Where This is Going

Denver boasts of its initiative, with hopes of hiring more people with DACA status in the future. DPS isn’t breaking any laws, but rather it’s acting in response to actions like DACA and the DREAM Act. The federal government has made it clear that it supports finding positive solutions for undocumented individuals residing in the U.S., and Denver is simply following the lead.

Colorado may have an increased willingness to consider incorporating such workers into the education system, given Denver’s example. Any regions that feel as though they have a population comparable to adults with DACA status will likely begin exploring the possibilities. With positive reasons to follow Denver’s lead and with little standing in their way, those who are supportive of such an initiative will begin taking advantage of it.

How would you feel about having individuals like Alejandro Fuentes Mena teaching in your school? Do you feel like it’s a positive for him and the students, or does it cross the line? Share your thoughts and feelings with us!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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