Carolyn Sacco, Contributing Photographer

The New Haven Board of Education presented Wilbur Cross High School teacher Kristin Mendoza as New Haven Public Schools’ ‘Teacher of the Year’ last Monday. 

Mendoza is a twelfth grade English teacher at Wilbur Cross who works primarily with immigrant students, many of whom are English language learners. Since her start in teaching fifteen years ago, she has focused on these students. According to the school’s principal, 18 to 19 percent of Wilbur Cross students are immigrants, and Mendoza serves a critical role in preparing these students for success in their new country.

“She helps them not just in school, but to navigate life,” said Wilbur Cross Principal Edith Johnson in an interview with the News. “Some of our students are parents. Some of our students are working to help support their families, and she’s constantly providing them resources, information, even translation services and all those things to help our kids be successful.”

Every year, each New Haven public school nominates a teacher for the Teacher of the Year award and the selection committee of teachers and administrators selects 10 semi finalists from this pool of teachers. These semifinalists must then submit a questionnaire regarding their philosophy of teaching, perspective on education issues and their work within the community. The selection committee then narrows down these semifinalists to four finalists and interviews them before deciding who to award. 

The award, said NHPS Senior Talent Recruiter Kanicka Ingram-Mann, is meant to celebrate “excellence in teaching by recognizing teachers who have inspired a love for learning in their students and who have distinguished themselves in their profession.” 

Mendoza told the News that she was “surprised and flattered” when she was notified of her selection as ‘Teacher of the Year.’ 

She added that she has focused on setting her students up for success beyond the walls of Wilbur Cross.

“I think about making sure my students can access the language of power in this country, which is English, and teaching them to be able to do that effectively but certainly not at the expense of their first language, and their own culture and who they already are,” Mendoza said.  

Aside from the English language, Mendoza ensures that her students leave the classroom knowing they can pursue post-secondary education — and with an understanding of the means to access this education, such as scholarship opportunities and their rights as immigrants. 

At Wilbur Cross, Mendoza has co-advised Cross in Action, a student-led civil rights group. The club played a key role in student Mario Aguilar Castañon’s release from ICE custody last year by participating in local protests and testifying at the state capitol in Hartford. The group has also held workshops for Wilbur Cross teachers to ensure that staff members are aware of how to best serve their immigrant students.

Johnson emphasized that Mendoza has similarly advocated among her own colleagues, sharing resources on immigration law, cultural sensitivity and post-secondary opportunities for immigrant and undocumented students among her fellow educators. Mendoza said she believes that teachers want to help their students, but sometimes they lack the information to do so. 

Mendoza’s dedication to lifelong learning and sharing new information with her peers has made her an invaluable part of the school’s faculty, Johnson said. 

Community members outside of Wilbur Cross echoed praise for Mendoza’s work with undocumented immigrants.

“Mendoza understands the undocumented community,” said New Haven Public School Advocates volunteer and Semilla Collective co-founder Fatima Rojas in Spanish, as translated by the News. “She knows and has seen what the undocumented community lives through and she is conscious of their struggle.” 

Mendoza’s husband is from Guatemala, and she told the News she has learned a lot about the immigration process by watching him learn English and earn his own teaching certification. Mendoza has also demonstrated her dedication to multiculturalism at home, raising her daughter to speak English, Spanish and the Mayan language of her husband’s youth.

At her Board of Education presentation, Mendoza used her platform to propose policy changes that would help undocumented students. She suggested an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program to include undocumented immigrants, the opening of local trade schools to undocumented students, an increase in scholarship opportunities for undocumented students and the creation of a pipeline that supports multilingual students seeking to become bilingual educators.

Mendoza noted that New Haven citizens outside of the public school system can also make a difference in the lives of immigrant students by pushing local legislators to adopt her policy changes; petitioning to expand HUSKY, Connecticut’s public healthcare system, to immigrants and supporting the Semilla Collective, a New Haven community organization dedicated to immigrant welfare, with their mutual aid fund and food garage.

“The whole community needs to step up and help figure out solutions for those things, and then the kids will do well in school because their families will be more able to support them,” Mendoza told the News.

There are 1888 teachers within the New Haven public school system.

Christian Robles |

Jordan Fitzgerald |

Christian Robles covers education & youth services. He is a sophomore in Davenport College studying Political Science and Economics.
Jordan Fitzgerald is a staff reporter covering gender equity and diversity. She is a sophomore in Trumbull College majoring in American history.