Emily Francis: Perseverance Personified
May 02, 2018 02:23PM
By Jason Huddle
Emily Francis: Perseverance Personified
Astrid Emily Francis is quickly becoming a rock star. The subject of a People magazine article in January, then an appearance on Ellen in February, she’s put W.M. Irvin Elementary School on the map.
More importantly, Francis has drawn attention to the students there – many of whom have experienced a journey very similar to hers.
Francis was born in Guatemala, a Central American country bordered by Mexico to the north and west, Belize to the northeast, Honduras to the east and El Salvador to the southeast. Having endured dictatorships and civil war, it’s now a democracy that still struggles with poverty, drugs and crime.
The Hispanic family structure is steeped in tradition. It’s the patriarch that works, provides for his family and disciplines his children. Women are the caregivers, focusing on the children, cooking, laundry, ironing, etc.
Francis is the eldest of five, raised by a single mother. “We didn’t own a house and jumped from place to place,” Francis explains. “My mom had her own business selling fruit. I would help her at markets. I would be on one end; she would be on the other end. I am the oldest so I also changed diapers, and fed my brothers and sisters.”
This meant she attended school intermittently at best. Then, when she was 14, her mother made a decision to leave. “My mother thought she would go to the U.S. for a while to make money. We were left in Guatemala, all scattered – two of us here, two there. We really missed each other.
“My mom was undocumented and worked taking care of elderly people. She would send us money for shoes and food, but there was still the fact that we were unhappy, out of balance. People told us, ‘Your mom is going to forget you, she is never going to come back for you,’” Francis says.
Upon getting word about her children being so unhappy, Francis’ mother came home after spending a year in the U.S. “We built a hut in a neighbor’s back yard made of wood and cardboard,” Francis shares.
“My brother was three and always called me Mom because I was the mother he knew. I learned life skills, but we grew up dreaming about the golden streets in America – jobs, opportunities for school. We watched the TV shows.”
A year later, Francis’ mother decided to go to the U.S. again. People told her to bring her kids. “Smugglers picked up me and my two sisters in November 1992,” Francis says. “The two little ones had a different dad so they stayed. We took little book bags with some photos and little kid things. We traveled for two months – walking, taking carriages through Mexico.
“On January 23, 1993, we took a plane from Mexico City to New York City. I remember the last placed we stayed before leaving Mexico. There was a picture framed in the house that said, ‘I am the truth, the life, the way.’ It gave me so much hope.”
A stranger played the girls’ father, presenting passports to Customs agents in New York. When they were taken into a small room, they knew something was wrong. “It turned out our passports were illegal,” Francis, then 15, says. “There were hours and hours of questioning, we were crying for Mom. Then we saw the guy who came on the plane with us handcuffed and ankles shackled.”
As luck would have it, Francis’ mother had reconnected with her own mother and sister in the U.S. a few years prior. Those women – documented – walked into the room at the airport, claimed the girls and promised to take care of them in the U.S.
“We got our little fingerprints taken and walked out of the airport. We were given three years to get legal documentation; I got my green card in 1997,” Francis says. “With lawyers, Immigration appointments and a lot of money, I missed a lot of school. But when I saw the interpreter at the Immigration office, that’s when I was inspired first. She was switching back from one language to another. I wanted to do that!”
Three grades behind, Francis enrolled in public school, but because she was 15 years old she couldn’t be enrolled in middle school. That meant she had to catch up in an environment that didn’t speak Spanish. She checked out a dictionary from the library, staying up late at night to make sure she understood her homework. She faced teachers and classmates that didn’t empathize and treated her like she was stupid when the actual obstacle was English.
“It took me 1 1/2 years to learn English,” Francis shares. “As soon as I passed the test, I could register for core courses and get the credits I needed to graduate from high school. I went to a.m. school, p.m. school, summer school. In Economics, I started reading a book about supply and demand. I think I read that entire book. It was an amazing moment that I was understanding another language. I got 42 credits; I was able to make it.”
But she didn’t make it. Even after having photos taken of her in her cap and gown, Francis was unable to pass the American History Regents Exam – a requirement in New York State.
“On the last day, I walked into the guidance counselor’s office. She told me to go home, study for the test and come back. But I had given it my all. I kept thinking, ‘Why would you give up on a kid?’ You say, ‘Here, just go and come back.’ What was I going to tell my mom, my brothers and sisters? I couldn’t graduate.”
Francis took a job as a cashier to help her mother pay household bills. It actually benefited her English because she was having conversations with customers. She also found Spanish and English alphabets and words were similar, which helped.
Meanwhile, Francis’ aunt had moved to Cabarrus County and, in 2000, invited her down. “I enrolled at RCCC; it took me six months to get my GED,” she says. “I met so many people like me.”
She got a job at Bass Pro Shops at Concord Mills, but knew she wanted more. She applied with Cabarrus County Schools but didn’t hold out much hope for anything in the classroom. She was shocked when she actually got called in to Mt. Pleasant Elementary School for an interview for a 1st grade teacher’s assistant position.
Francis didn’t feel the interview went well but; however, the teacher whose class she interviewed for was shopping at Bass Pro the next day and got stuck at checkout when the register malfunctioned. Francis went over to help and a happy reunion took place. The teacher stepped up for Francis with school administration and she was hired in 2004. She spent eight years in that classroom, not just as a teacher but as a student. She found herself learning proper English along with her 1st graders.
One obstacle preventing Francis from becoming certified as a teacher was the Praxis test. Required by the state, it “measures the academic skills and subject-specific content knowledge needed for teaching,” according to the Educational Testing Service (ETS).
She took the test six times – given only in English – before being told by her advisor that she could earn her bachelor’s degree in another area, then return for her masters. Besides earning an Associates degree in Art at RCCC, she obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Spanish at UNC Charlotte and a Master’s degree in English as a Second Language (ESL), also at UNC-C.
“I fell in love with Latin American literature – poetry and authors I’d never heard of,” Francis shares. “And during my undergrad, I was able to take graduate courses.”
She proudly displays her degrees, certifications, even photos of herself as a child on a wall of fame in her classroom at W.M. Irvin, where she works as an ESL teacher to 70-plus children. She says it’s to show her students that anything is possible, no matter where you come from.
Cabarrus County uses the Pull-Out and Push-In models for teaching ESL. “Students in kindergarten, 1st and 5th grade can be pulled out of their class for immersion. When the proficiency level is low, we use Pull-Out.
“Language is not learned in isolation. I look at what content they’re learning in their classroom. The only difference is, I use literature that grabs their attention. Little Red Riding Hood with a Spanish twist. They get a lot more opportunity to speak to each other. And I use my Spanish with newcomers.”
Francis uses the Push-In model with Irvin’s 4th graders, going into each classroom and working with the whole classroom, even if only a handful are Spanish.
“Both models are great,” she says. I think Push-In is most effective. There’s a negativity in a student getting pulled out, more acceptance in the mainstream classroom.”
What has catapulted Francis at W.M. Irvin is her inclusion of her students’ families at the school. With the language barrier, most Hispanic parents are fearful of coming to their children’s school. They were raised to provide family with a home, food and clothing. Education was not a priority.
“That’s why we have workshops for our parents,” Francis explains. “It’s about respecting the families, teaching them how the U.S. system works, what our expectations are for them. Mom cooks, Dad watches TV, we bring them in and they unite.
“I don’t call it educating a parent. I value their parenting knowledge. I’m providing alternative resources. We honor the parents for what they are.”
An honor came back to Francis in 2016 when she was named Cabarrus County Teacher of the
Year. As such, she held the position of teacher liaison to the county’s school board for one year. It gave her the opportunity to provide research to the board about the effectiveness of Irvin’s Bilingual Immersion program. (The board was on the verge of eliminating it.)
She embraces English as this country’s official language but says, “They were expecting results too soon. Our kids learn Spanish their first five years and then they come here and, boom, they have to speak only English.”
This month, Francis will celebrate Cinco de Mayo with her students and their families. Spanish food and a festive atmosphere put parents at ease. So does meeting a Spanish-speaking teacher in a classroom bathed in both American and Spanish cultures.
Francis has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Hispanic parents attending her Spanish-language events. With their support, she’s emphasizing the need for reading at home, even if it’s in Spanish. It’s all about embracing their culture while learning about another.
With the current state of immigration, Francis worries about the children – especially the ones that have been here a long time and are assimilated.
“Our kids here in the U.S. are having to go back. They’re missing school because they’re getting their passport. Separating a family is the same thing as a death. They (Hispanic schools) don’t know how to serve them because the kids don’t know how to speak Spanish – only English.”
Story by: Kim Cassell
Photos Courtesy: Cabarrus County Schools, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Michael A. Anderson Photography