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Award winner understands immigrant students

click to enlarge Andrea Morales McKenna Milken Educator Award winner image

Let us now praise a newly famous school teacher — Andrea Morales McKenna, who teaches English as a second language to sixth- and seventh-graders at J.O. Kelly Middle School in Springdale. She recently was named this year's Arkansas winner of the Milken Educator Award, worth $25,000.

McKenna, 34, whose enthusiasm bubbled through our phone conversation, has been teaching in Springdale 10 years. She's in Arkansas thanks to a sister who went to work at Walmart and, later, a husband who also works at Walmart.

She's a gift to the state and a reminder of the human face of a group too often demonized in the fight over immigration, "official language" laws and all the rest.

(Can you believe this? A Republican activist told me that he thought a local Republican legislator, Rep. Bill Pritchard, did something risky by attending the surprise pep rally at which McKenna's award was announced. Pritchard faces a Republican Senate primary next year.)

McKenna is "legal," born in Colorado. But she went to kindergarten as a better speaker of Spanish than English and was herself assigned to ESL classes.

"I didn't know I was in them. I just knew I was different and that I was pulled out of class twice a week to see a different teacher," she recalls. "I looked back in my yearbook years later and saw she was an ESL teacher."

Her father was one of those "illegal aliens," a Mexican who crossed the border and stayed for work as a migrant farm laborer. Her mother was born in Texas, but also was a Spanish-speaking farm laborer. Neither finished more than elementary grades and they learned English only later in their lives, as work demanded. They worked beet and bean fields and followed other crops. They married after meeting in church.

The Morales family settled in Colorado with stability provided initially by turkey plant work. McKenna's father eventually earned his citizenship. His daughter recalls his fierce study for the test. McKenna, the youngest of three sisters, was inspired by her older sisters' college success and also by a 10th-grade English teacher.

"It was the first time a teacher had really encouraged me," she said. "I didn't feel as smart as other kids. I always felt behind. She told me, 'You are a good writer.' I just loved to work hard for her because she was so nice to me."

She went to college to become a teacher and began with two years in an inner city school in Dallas. "I wanted to make a difference and encourage kids and help those who fall through the cracks," she said.

She works mostly with Spanish-speaking students, but also Marshallese and Laotian kids. She has no doubt that some children, or their parents, don't have legal residency status.

"It is hard for me. I know my dad came here illegally. My heart goes out to them. I've had students whose parents were deported." Others have work permits, but if a job goes away, so does residency status. "It's heartbreaking for any teacher."

McKenna didn't strike me as strongly political, but, yes, she said she could see the point of DREAM Acts, which would provide college help — at least in-state tuition rates — to students without legal residency status. "I want what's best for my students. If they want to go to college, but can't, that breaks my heart."

Me, too. I'm just glad U.S. Immigration didn't discover little Andrea Morales' father was an illegal and sent him back to Mexico.

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