CAMDEN, NJ — Thriving as an undocumented or immigrant student can be difficult, says Camden school board member Falio Leyba-Martinez.

The financial strains brought on by COVID-19, entering into a remote instruction format while learning English and having to worry about what your parents' legal status means for the resources you'll be able to tap into just being a few examples. 

"People are struggling during these times, especially undocumented families. Not only with the language barrier but as far as [acquiring] federal grant money that, because of their status, they don’t have access to," Leyba-Martinez said over the phone.

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Knowing that education is among the places where such families can gain helpful free resources, Leyba-Martinez has worked with non-profit ImmSchools throughout the year to cultivate initiatives to better the community. He also helped pave the way for a “Safe Zone” resolution in Camden City passed in May - making it clear that staff and faculty do not have to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on school grounds.

This past Tuesday, a resolution he sponsored was passed during the Camden City School District (CCSD)’s monthly meeting - allowing ImmSchools to help shape part of the curriculum around education for the undocumented and immigrant population.

“I’m proud to be able to use my position as a board member to push city schools to become more inclusive spaces for all students. The stakes are high to get this right because the undocumented population is so vulnerable. ImmSchools has the expertise to provide educators with the right tools to tackle these complex and sensitive issues,” said Leyba-Martinez.

It will be the first time that ImmSchools, founded in 2017 by three formerly undocumented educators, will be bring its programming to New Jersey - where there are roughly 43,000 undocumented students enrolled in K-12 and 1 in 11 children live with undocumented parents. 

“We are thrilled to expand our impact in a city with such a vibrant immigrant community like Camden,” said ImmSchools co-founder and Chief Program Officer Vanessa Luna. “We are grateful to Camden Education Fund and Camden City School District for facilitating this partnership and for their commitment to better serving this often overlooked population. As someone who grew up undocumented, was a former DACAmented teacher and was the first person in my family to go to college, I have a deep commitment to support the needs of our immigrant community in our schools."

Luna says $45,000 from the Camden Education Fund (CEF) will make the efforts possible. 

Per the CCSD resolution, a variety of sessions will be held through June 2021 such as professional development with educators and school staff, as well as design programming for immigrant students and families. 

The district’s agenda item states the following goals:

  • Deepen relationships and build trust among immigrant families and students by hosting programmatic activities that increases their knowledge, participation and access to opportunities, services and resources within K-12
  • Provide relevant professional development to teachers and school staff that develops and enhances their capacity to support, provide effective instructional programs and build an inclusive and welcoming school culture for immigrants students and parents

The non-profit said sessions — also accessible to students in other school types — will kick off in October. Among other things, programs will aim to improve the culture of school environments regarding how to treat undocumented students and help those students better prepare for college.  

“We are thrilled to support ImmSchools in bringing their engaging and actionable workshops to Camden. With 1 in 7 Camden residents foreign-born and nearly half speaking Spanish at home, it is essential that we find ways to effectively and compassionately reach our immigrant and undocumented youth. Camden’s educators are committed to making all students feel safe and welcome, and soon they will have new tools to help students confidently apply to college, pursue financial aid, and most importantly, feel valued in the school community,” said Naeha Dean.

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