Olivia And Katterine

Olivia Allen is a 2010 Staples High School graduate. After graduating from Northeastern University, she joined Teach for America.

Her story of her experiences as a 1st-year teacher in North Carolina was published last week in the Charlotte Observer. As the immigration debate rages nationally, it deserves a broad audience — especially here in Westport.


Katterine walked through my classroom door in August 2014 on “meet-the-teacher” night at Newell Elementary. She hid behind her father, Cesar, who indicated that she had recently arrived from Guatemala, was very nervous, and spoke zero English.

Olivia Allen

Olivia Allen

As a 1st-year teacher, unsuccessfully trying to evade questions about my young age, and wearing a heavy blazer advertising that I was clearly new to North Carolina summers, I was just as nervous. I too had a lot to learn, including picking up more Spanish.

I responded, “podemos aprender en juntos … we can learn together!” At that moment, we both employed a growth mindset – a mutual dedication to hard work and resilience.

As the year progressed, my teaching abilities improved, as did Katterine’s English proficiency, grasp of 5th grade content, and comfort with her peers. Never unnerved by others’ behaviors, always showing a palpable sense of gratitude to me and other teachers, and regularly motivated during our Saturday morning tutoring at her house, she began to exemplify success.

A few weeks into school, after having used her bilingual classmate Ashley as a conduit for all communication, she finally broke her silence and answered a question in English. Her 27 10-year-old peers erupted in applause without any prompting, as they knew this was an important first glimpse of Katterine’s growing confidence and success. Her impenetrable work ethic paid off: she scored in the 99th percentile for growth, and in just one school year, she grew 3.3 and 2.2 grade levels in math and reading, respectively.

If this is not the narrative that comes to mind when you think of an undocumented immigrant, you are not alone. Katterine is undocumented, and I did not learn of her illegal status until the summer after she had left my class. Next month, I will say goodbye to Katterine when she is deported back to Guatemala.

The sacrifices made by Katterine’s family to educate her in the safety of the United States and the tragedies they suffered in Guatemala that unfortunately do not warrant refugee status are astonishing. But let me focus on their contributions, which often go unnoticed.

Katterine and Olivia Allen.

Katterine and Olivia Allen.

Katterine’s parents, also undocumented, pay taxes (they have Individual Tax Identification Numbers) and are exemplary in their interest in their daughter’s education. During home visits, they asked for lists of reading apps for their tablet and frantically called me before her science fair project was due to ensure her model volcano met the requirements. Despite their own hardships, they demonstrated empathy. When another classmate, Ramon, was in the hospital for cancer treatment, Katterine brought in an envelope with a card and a $20 bill from Katterine’s family to his.

I am aware that one family’s narrative does not warrant dramatic policy change; not every undocumented family exhibits the same values. However, from the narrow lens of my classroom, I contend that Katterine gave and contributed more to my school and our city than she took. Students who come to Charlotte solely to be educated safely are not deserving of deportation. We need to recognize that these students are not draining resources, but rather are sources of boundless potential.

In a city like Charlotte, which has the country’s lowest rate of social mobility, we must find a way to capitalize on the success of our students, not force them back into terrible circumstances. Education can be transformative for disenfranchised students like Katterine, and as an educator, my goal for all my students is that they attend college. I truly hope Katterine can return to the U.S. one day, as her story deserves to end with a college acceptance, not a one-way ticket to Guatemala.

(After Katterine was hospitalized with appendicitis, Olivia set up a GoFundMe page to help with medical and legal expenses. Click here for more information. Hat tips: Julia McNamee and Cecily Gans)

17 responses to “Olivia And Katterine

  1. Thank you for sharing, Dan.

  2. A poignant story that’s beautifully written.

  3. Olivia grew up in the house right next door to us. She and her two sisters were always such great role models for our young kids who they would babysit. I am so proud of you Olivia! No matter how old or accomplish you and your sisters become you will always be thought of, with much love and affection, as simply “the Allen Girls” in our home. Katterine and all you other students are blessed to have you in their lives – just as we were! Best, John Suggs

  4. Good story, thanks. It should be obvious whom we shouldn’t select as the President of the US this fall.
    adw Staples 1956

  5. Beth Orlan Berkowitz

    This is so true! I believe that there are many more GOOD hardworking people/families out there that would be more than willing to be legally documented and come here thru legal channels, if the process was accessible for them. There are many governments like Guatemala’s that make it extremely hard for these people to leave their country and to get the legal visas and permission to be able to enter our country thru legal channels. They would happily pay taxes and go through the entire bureaucratic process, if they could. Then our government could vet them and make sure they followed through on paying taxes and contributed positively to our communities and society. They often try to learn English, but not all of them have the ability to take English courses when they have to work when these courses are available or they don’t have enough money to pay for the classes that may be more flexible for them to learn better English. Thank you Olivia, for writing this so well and for publishing it Dan.

  6. Olivia was and is an awesome writer and now a teacher too. What an enormous difference she is making in the world.

  7. More stories like this one please.

  8. Olivia’s article should be sent to Pres. Obama and Sec’y of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.

  9. Good job olivia and dan
    Lets hope these stories continue in positive directions

  10. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    There are other countries for this family to consider.

  11. Mary Schmerker

    This article should go viral. Our country needs to be reminded of people like Charlotte and her family . Olivia is a shining example of what a teacher can accomplish with a child. We all should remember that even if it was several centuries ago, like my family, almost all of us crossed a border to get here.
    Thank You Dan. This story needs to be told and retold in this election year especially.

  12. Olivia, you are inspirational in every way. What a role model for other young people. You so beautifully put your passion into action.

  13. Horrible that while we make room-visas and citizenship for war criminals and their associates, we deport this girl and her family, it sounds like they would be model USA citizens not least because they seem to actually like Americans and American Culture. I’m trying to figure out who in Congress we can reach out to with your story, so tell me is Olivia’s family still in Westport, CT?

  14. Margaret (Olivia's mom)

    Hi Susan, I’m Olivia’s mom and live still live in Wesport. Whatever ideas you have to help Katherine and her family would be appreciated!