When Jose Trejo considers what drove him to become an educator, he often returns to a childhood memory. The 9-year-old had just arrived in Davenport, Iowa, where his mother, who was undocumented, had spent nearly a year saving enough money to pay a coyote to bring her son to the US from his hometown outside Salvatierra, Mexico. In Davenport, Trejo was one of just two immigrant students in his elementary school, so the school offered no English-language learner program. “My teacher would tell me to sit in the back of the classroom where I’d play Pac-Man on one of those old Apple computers with the green screens,” recalls Trejo, 39. “I remember every night going home and asking my mom, ‘You brought me here for this? This is what you consider a better education?’”
Trejo held that question close over the next two decades as he moved through Milwaukee Public Schools (Trejo moved to Milwaukee in elementary school) and worked his way through college at Milwaukee Area Technical College and UW-Milwaukee. “I didn’t want anyone else to go through what I experienced,” he says.
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Trejo first began tackling the issue as an organizer with Voces de la Frontera, the nonprofit that advocates for immigrant, student and worker rights. There, Trejo, who lived undocumented for the first 10 years of his life in America, focused on ensuring undocumented, college-bound students had the help and guidance they needed. “I really didn’t have support when I was applying to college,” says Trejo. “I had so many questions and so few answers.”
In 2009, Trejo took his mission one step further and got a license in bilingual education from the UWM School of Education, Trejo worked for several years as a teacher before shifting to professional development. In 2019, Trejo was hired as the assistant principal at South Division High School, and he took over as principal last summer. For Trejo, the job at South, where 55% of students are English-language learners, brought his story full circle. “It was really personal,” he says. “When we first got to Milwaukee, we lived just a few blocks from the school. It’s really a privilege to come back and serve the community.”
One way he plans to invest in that community is by inspiring a new generation of educators who, like Trejo, understand the immigrant experience. Last month, Trejo got approval – and funding – from the school district to introduce an honors education track for South students interested in teaching. He plans to roll out the program next year. “For me, education was the key to a better future,” says Trejo. “That’s why I became a teacher. And now, I want to use my story to encourage students to consider doing the same.”
What work needs to be done to improve a sense of community in Milwaukee?
“It is critical for us to break down some of the silos that exist in the city. There is a real need to understand and appreciate one another’s personal stories and backgrounds, and our educational institutions can help make that happen. Schools are places where people from all over the city come together. They are places where we can start to appreciate those things we have in common.”
Join us in toasting the inaugural Unity Awards winners in a virtual event including a panel discussion moderated by Dominique Samari of P3 with the honorees and a keynote address from featured speaker Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu. We would like to thank our presenting sponsor Quad and our keynote sponsor Molson Coors. The event is 7:30-9 a.m. on Feb. 25. For more information go to: milwaukeemag.com/unityawardsevent.