Carolyn Delfino’s belief in the power of education starts in her parents’ home country of Brazil. “My parents grew up there, in severe poverty,” she says. “They viewed education as a way out of that, so I’ve always been passionate about that idea.”
Her passion for teaching first took her far from Oakland, to South Korea where she taught English. “While it was massively different from teaching in an American public high school, it awakened the possibility of a career.” Eager to get involved upon her return to the states in 2011, she joined OUSD’s family engagement office through AmeriCorps, and later spent a year working in the Linked Learning office.
“But I wanted to have a greater direct impact,” she says. Carolyn soon earned her Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) through the University of Southern California, and is now in her second year of teaching at Fremont High School. To support the school’s recent influx of newcomer students, Carolyn teaches 11th-grade history and 9th-grade ethnic studies—all to newcomers.
Fremont’s newcomers have lived in the U.S. for less than four years, are all English Language Learners, and most have come to Oakland from Guatemala and El Salvador, with others arriving from Mexico, Honduras, the Philippines, Vietnam, and a growing population from Yemen.
“Most have overcome immense obstacles just to physically arrive here in the U.S.,” says Carolyn. “Many are escaping extreme poverty, war, violence—all of this added to the regular challenges of adolescence.”
Fremont and other Oakland schools are also seeing more unaccompanied minors, children who’ve crossed the border alone and are now adjusting to a dramatically new home. “Families being separated or reunited for the first time in a long time creates complications in academic and home life,” says Carolyn. “If they’re separated from their parents, they may be homesick and depressed. But they’re so motivated to succeed. They’re so great to work with, so grateful, sweet, respectful, hardworking. It’s just a joy to teach them and get to know them.”
A path to empathy
As her newcomer students make their way through the school year, Carolyn pays close attention to how they are connecting with the rest of the students on campus. Occasionally, she’ll notice students buying into stereotypes about other groups, often after one negative interaction. “When that happens, it’s a big red flag for me,” says Carolyn. “I try to appeal to their empathy. As immigrants, they themselves have experienced that type of stereotyped animosity. So I try to work empathy into our lessons whenever possible.”
With this fresh in her mind earlier this year, Carolyn happened to catch the trailer for the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. “I heard the narrator say, ‘The story of the Negro in America is the story of America, and it is not a pretty story,'” says Carolyn. “That immediately spoke to me, and I thought, ‘My kids have to see this.’ If they could see on the screen what African-American oppression has looked like throughout history, then they might better understand that these effects are still being seen and felt today, and that they have a lot in common with other minority groups that experience discrimination.”
A mini-grant miracle
The film was set to debut at Oakland’s historic Grand Lake Theatre in February, and Carolyn was determined to make a field trip out of it. “Just as I was wondering how I was going to pay for student transportation and everything, I got an email from the Ed Fund announcing the A to Z Fund mini-grants. The timing could not have been more perfect—it was a mini-grant miracle!”
With her students being new to the United States and its history, Carolyn’s classes did a “ton of prep” before the trip, studying the Civil War and slavery, segregation, civil rights activism, and more so that they’d be versed in the film’s themes. At the Grand Lake Theatre, her 50 newcomer students sat rapt during the screening. “The images and themes really stuck with them,” says Carolyn. “As we discussed it over lunch after the movie and in class, I could see them showing more empathy and a new perspective toward other minority groups’ experiences.”
While the field trip was clearly a milestone, Carolyn has no shortage of other proud moments teaching Fremont’s newcomers. She shared this recent story about a student who got off to rocky start in her class:
“This student has been in the foster care system and bounced around a lot,” says Carolyn. “Not much stability or security in her life, and at first she had a tough exterior and was resistant to any support.”
During career prep sessions in the classroom—writing resumes, applying for internships, doing mock interviews—the student would not engage. “She was just not doing it, and I didn’t know what to say,” recalls Carolyn. “But I just kept encouraging her and treating her with love and respect. I don’t know when it happened, exactly, but she turned a corner and ended up having a really positive experience.”
“We’ve been really connected after that,” says Carolyn. “Now she’s happier, doing better in school, more motivated. We really connected on a personal level. Now she says she thinks of me as a second mother. It’s been really touching. She’s so positive and hardworking now, in spite of everything she’s been through and not having many caring adults in her life. The other day I saw her explaining math to another student,” Carolyn says. “I would never have expected this before. It’s been amazing to see her grow like this, all in the span of two to three months. It’s been incredible. Now I look to her for inspiration all the time.”
Relatively new to Fremont and the Bay Area, Carolyn has quickly come to respect the Oakland pride she sees on campus and across the city. “Just here at Fremont, two of our newcomer teachers are Fremont alumni, plus three or four other staff members are Fremont graduates,” she reflects. “So many people you meet in OUSD, they’re proud to tell you, ‘I went to this Oakland elementary school, this middle school.’ I feel like you don’t see that everywhere, but people here are so dedicated to this town and community.”
She’s also felt the love as she’s navigated her first couple years as a teacher. “Everyone’s been so caring and loving and accepting. As long as your heart is in the right place, you’re part of the Oakland family.”
If you’d like to support teachers like Carolyn to provide extraordinary learning opportunities for their students, please make a gift to our A to Z Fund here!