Associated Press

DENVER (AP) _ Colorado’s largest school district sees teaching potential among immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally when they were children.

They are people like Kareli Lizarraga, a 22-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate who grew up in California and Arizona after her parents brought her to this country from Mexico when she was 4.

Lizarraga, who is finishing her first year as a reading teacher for seventh-graders in Denver, told The Associated Press on Friday that she still remembers feeling shocked that she could not communicate when she first arrived in the United States. And, even more vividly, she recalls a Spanish-speaking teacher who reached out to help.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said his district began reaching out to what he saw as a talent pool soon after President Barack Obama took steps last year to allow young people living in the U.S. illegally to stay and work. Lizarraga is one of two teachers who qualified under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, and started work in Denver this school year. Boasberg said more will be hired this coming year.

“Anything that touches on immigration generates a level of attention and controversy,” Boasberg told the AP. “But for us, this is about finding the very best teachers for our kids.”

Fred Elbel, director of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform, told the AP his organization questioned whether the project was fair to other job seekers, and whether sufficient emphasis was being placed on teaching students English.

Antonio Mercado, an actor, director, theater professor and former Denver public high school teacher, said the district would likely face backlash from job seekers and veteran teachers, as well as from groups like Elbel’s.

“It is a risk,” Mercado said. “But what it means is (district officials) care about a huge population of their students.”

Mercado recently brought a production exploring the issues faced by children who immigrated illegally to a Denver school. After performances, he said, several students who had seen the show spoke about seeing their parents deported in recent weeks. That experience, he said, underlined the importance of having people in the classrooms who can talk about such issues.

A grant from Ben and Lucy Ana Walton has helped fund the hires through Teach for America, Boasberg said.

Lizarraga said she first contacted Teach for America during her junior year at Penn, but could not pursue a position because she lacked a Social Security card. That changed just as she was graduating thanks to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

She laughs when she recalls surprised reactions in her class when she told her students she spoke Spanish. She said her language skills help her communicate with parents, allowing her to work with them to show their children that “together, we really care about you.”