Whenever sixth-grader Brett Offutt began feeling overwhelmed by the transition to Gunston Middle School, he knew he could confide in his science teacher, Luz Chamorro.
"She really cares about her students," Brett said. "She liked to see you outside of school and just talk."
Anytime Katie Morley needed a break from the commotion of the Gunston cafeteria, she was welcome to eat lunch in Chamorro's classroom, where she would seek guidance from her teacher on navigating the vagaries of middle school life.
"She is easy to become close friends with and she's really interested in what is bothering you," Katie said.
Yet Katie and Brett may be among the last generation of Gunston sixth-graders who experience Chamorro's warm smile and helping hand. For Chamorro's application for permanent residency has just been denied by immigration officials, and she has been ordered to leave the country.
The Gunston school community is reeling from the news that one of its most beloved teachers may not be back when school resumes in September.
"It would be a tremendous loss," said Carol Offutt, Brett's mother. "She is the type of teacher you pray will come along."
CHAMORRO came to Gunston, where she teaches in the school's unique Spanish Immersion program, from her native Colombia in 2000, through the Visiting International Faculty Program.
Her J-1 Visa stipulated that she return home after three years, but in 2002 she married fellow Arlington resident Ronald G. Walters, a freelance photographer. The two had first met in 1999 while Chamorro was studying in the area for her master's degree.
In order to continue teaching at Gunston, Chamorro received a work permit, and applied for a waiver to stay in Arlington, but her application was denied.
Then earlier this month came the heartbreaking news that her second request for permanent residency had been turned down, because her departure would not constitute a "hardship" for her husband.
"We were totally shocked," Chamorro said. "I couldn't believe these people said that if we were separated for two years it wouldn't be a hardship."
The decision does not necessarily mean that Chamorro will deported in the coming weeks. She has retained a lawyer and hopes to appeal the ruling before an immigration judge.
In the meantime, she is again applying for another work permit.
Chamorro is facing the possibility of having to spend two years in Colombia before she could return to America. Being separated from her husband for such a long period is not an option, she said, and it is unlikely he will be able to make a living in Colombia.
One of the most difficult aspects of leaving the country, would be saying good-bye to her pupils. Chamorro said she would be "devastated" if she could now longer work at the school.
"I want to come back. I love working at Gunston," she added.
The government's decision has also been difficult on her students; many started crying when they first heard the news.
"It would be pretty sad because she's such a good teacher," Katie Morley said.
MANY OF Chamorro's students said that she sparked their interest in science through creative projects. At the end of the year Chamorro had them study owl pellets and reassemble the skeletons of the dead animals.
More than 120 students have signed a petition asking the government to grant her residency, and have forwarded the signatures to Rep. Jim Moran (D-8th).
"She always helps us and she inspires us to never give up and to keep trying," the petition reads.
Parents interviewed said her ability to teach science in a lively manner in both English and Spanish was a rare gift, and would be tough to replace. "It's not something that can be filled by just anyone," said Nam Morley.
But what distinguishes Chamorro from other teachers is her connection with her students, and their comfort in opening up to her about personal problems.
"I watched my son go from feeling kind of vulnerable to having much more self-esteem toward the end of the year, and I attribute that to her guidance," said Carol Offutt.
Now that the school year has ended, Chamorro is anxiously waiting to see if her work permit will be approved, and preparing for an eventual immigration hearing.
The outpouring of support from parents and fellow teachers has helped bolster her spirits during this trying time.
"I'm optimistic," Chamorro said, flashing her trademark grin. "They will go to the hearing and speak on my behalf."