The story of an immigrant student, Maria, and how one “failing” San Francisco high school is helping her get ahead:
Maria’s middle-school experience all but ensured she’d join the 52 percent of foreign-born Latinos who drop out of high school. She graduated from eighth grade without learning to speak English. She had a hard time writing in Spanish and didn’t know how to multiply.
And then everything changed. At Mission High, the struggling school she’d chosen against the advice of her friends and relatives, Maria earned high grades in math and some days caught herself speaking English even with her Spanish-speaking teachers. By 11th grade, she wrote long papers on complex topics like desegregation and the war in Iraq. She became addicted to winning debates in class, despite her shyness and heavy accent. In her junior year, she became the go-to translator and advocate for her mother, her aunts, and for other Latino kids at school. In March, Maria and her teachers were celebrating acceptance letters to five colleges and two prestigious scholarships, including one from Dave Eggers’ writing center, 826 Valencia.
But on the big state tests—the days-long multiple-choice exams that students in California take once a year—Maria scored poorly. And these standardized tests, she understood, were how her school was graded. According to the scores, Mission High is among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the country, and it has consistently failed to meet the ever-rising benchmarks set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
"Kids play T-ball, then baseball; they play games and have practice every week and, if they’re serious about it, pre-season and post-season too. We never think, “Let’s have kids play baseball for eight weeks in seventh grade,” and then expect that in five years they can join the majors or even be on a college team. But for some reason we do this with civics. We say, “We’re going to have you do a penny harvest in fifth grade and a service learning project in tenth grade, and then we’ll teach you abstractly about government for a semester in twelfth grade.” Then our students enter the major leagues of citizenship, and we give them the vote and expect them to keep our country going. And that’s just crazy!"
The Florida state legislature sparked controversy recently when it struck down a bill that would have allowed U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rate like all other Florida residents.
Lawmakers voted to kill the bill despite emotional testimonies from several college students, including 20-year-old Carla Montes. Montes described how she cried for three days after being denied in-state tuition because her undocumented parents couldn’t afford the out-of-state tuition rate, which is three times higher. Under U.S. law, children born in the country to undocumented immigrants are American citizens, called “birthright citizenship.”
Unmoved, Republican legislators interrupted Montes multiple times as she told her story, attempting to refute the notion that their ruling was unfair.
“As a U.S.-born American citizen I can vote, I pay taxes, I attended school in Florida, ” Montes told the committee.
“No, no, no, we’re talking about your parents,” barked Sen. Steve Oelrich. “That’s how we establish residency in the state of Florida, by the status of your parents.”
Montes shot back: “With all respect, the person who is sitting in the classroom, the person who’s giving back to this economy is me, not my parents.”