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Teach For America sets youth up to make a big impact



Students learning to become leaders and advocates. - COURTESY TEACH FOR AMERICA
  • Courtesy Teach For America
  • Students learning to become leaders and advocates.

When Luis Antezana, founder of Juntos for Education in southern Colorado, moved to the state as a Teach for America English teacher in 2015, he saw a need for social change in the region's school systems. Antezana teaches at Harrison High School in southeast Colorado Springs, where he says "the majority of students come from low-income neighborhoods and low-income backgrounds, immigrant backgrounds."

He's also gotten to know undocumented students, and their experiences hit close to home, since he's also undocumented. When he was a child, his family left Bolivia and settled in Los Angeles. The 25-year-old is living and working in the U.S. through a DACA permit.

Bridging the educational equity gap is one of Teach for America's primary goals, and it wasn't long into his first year of teaching when he began to recognize familiar hurdles facing undocumented students here.

"Very quickly I saw the limitations of a school system, and I love where I work at, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else at the moment, but I saw how undocumented students in Colorado were being denied opportunities," he says.

While there are sometimes exceptions, undocumented students aren't eligible for federal financial aid, including Pell Grants and loans. Colorado offers in-state tuition and the College Opportunity Fund stipend to undocumented youth who qualify, but undocumented students must find another way to finance remaining costs, either through private scholarships or paying out of pocket.

So, Antezana and two other teachers, Rashedah Muhammad and Lyric Olivarez, established the southern Colorado Juntos program, and a GoFundMe campaign that's raising money for high school seniors, particularly undocumented students and those who don't necessarily have a pristine 4.0 GPA, but still want to attend college.

"My first year teaching, we raised about $2,000, we gave out six scholarships to undocumented students and to U.S. citizens," he says.

Antezana was ecstatic to be able to grant scholarships to deserving individuals, but he felt something was lacking. He and his partners wanted to provide more educational opportunity for students. "We needed to create a program outside of the school that specifically targeted students to educate them about how to become the transformative leaders that our community needs," he says. "Scholarships are great, and we are still doing that, but that's only a patch to the entire problem."

In October, the Juntos scholarship program added another component, the Juntos Youth Lead Program, in which students from various high schools and middle schools examine social issues within their community. Students meet six Saturdays during the school year, and with the help of Antezana, local educators and interns at local colleges and universities, they learn to recognize concepts such as privilege and oppression in their own communities. Students then choose a local issue they want to support. Antezana says students are calling for more support of the LGBTQ community, increased aid in Puerto Rico and better jobs for those in the working class.

However, students will do more than identify a problem. "The whole point is that ... they're going to start really creating their own community service projects, whether that's a campaign, an event, an artistic piece," Antezana says. Students will reconvene and assess the impact their project had on themselves and the community during the last meeting in April.

Give! donations will be used for scholarships, and transportation, workshop materials, food for students, compensation for educators and speakers, and space rental for Saturday meetings.

The 2017 TFA corps has 3,500 members nationally, with 52 serving in Colorado Springs and Pueblo combined. However, after their two-year contract with TFA ends, many continue to teach, as Antezana has. According to Kelley Pomis, executive director of the Colorado Springs region, 90 percent of TFA members are still teaching, and many, like Antezana, start projects outside the classroom.

"We are not a teacher placement organization," Pomis says. "We are a leadership development organization."

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