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One Undocumented Teen's Tale

Separated from his parents, accepted by 13 colleges, a Mission High wrestling star defies deportation.

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 1:00 PM EDT

"At first, I said, you can come by any time, this is your safe zone," Robert told Jakob. But in 2009, Jakob asked Robert to adopt him. In May 2010, Robert did, pronouncing his commitment to guardianship at a San Francisco court. "Jakob used to have huge trust issues. That piece of paper in the court made a huge difference," he said. At home in Daly City and at Mission High, Jakob can temporarily tune out the anxieties of facing daily threats of deportation. In San Francisco? Maybe not. Last year, a controversial program called "Secure Communities" rolled out in 32 states. In San Francisco, local authorities are required to send identification and fingerprints to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement database and flag suspected violators of immigration law. Federal authorities could then request local agencies to hold suspects for possible deportation. A student at Velez's class told me that her friend at Mission High was detained and separated from his family for eight months because of this law. But the San Francisco Public Press reports that the city is working to revive a portion of its long-standing "sanctuary city" policy, which would allow local agencies not to report minor arrests to the federal officials.

Most students in Amadis Velez's senior English class this year were accepted to colleges.: Photo: Mark MurrmannMost students in Amadis Velez's senior English class this year were accepted to college. Photo: Mark MurrmanBecause of such barriers outside of schools, only an estimated 20 percent of undocumented students enroll in college. Velez is famous at Mission High for his dedication to sending more undocumented high school seniors to college. This year, he is celebrating a record with Jakob's class. "Out of 29 of my students, 22 will go to four-year colleges, three students are going to vocational schools, and one to city college," he told me last week. Four undocumented students got accepted to UC schools, but only Jakob might be able to go, thanks to financial support from Robert. The rest won't go, since despite endless scholarship applications, they didn't get enough funding. "We don't have enough college graduates for many high-skilled jobs in this country. It's such a waste of potential to me," Velez said. He laments the fact that former CA governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant himself, vetoed the state DREAM Act, which would grant undocumented students access to financial aid benefits. The federal version of the DREAM Act, which would grant citizenship to students like Jakob, is also stalled in Congress.

One recent afternoon, Jakob's class and I watched Waiting for Superman, a documentary which connects education reform and the achievement gap with the shortages of high-skilled, college-educated workers in the US that Bill Gates discusses in the movie. Some students were upset that the film director, Davis Guggenheim didn't shoot any footage in public schools like Mission. They were also upset that their school is considered a "failure" judging by standardized test scores. "What do you think Guggenheim would think if he looked at Mission High's test scores from the outside?" Velez asked. "Bunch of gangsters here," one student said. "Bad school," Jakob added. "Our test scores are low, but Guggenheim didn't mention how many immigrants there are in California. Our English test scores are bad, but that doesn't mean our school is bad," Marisa, Jakob's classmate, added.

I frequently think about how success stories like Jakob and his classmates seem invisible to education reformers, who use standardized test scores to label "broken" schools and propose solutions. Jakob's standardized test scores and SAT scores are not that great. But that's not why Jakob's grades or his writing was good, getting him into UC Berkeley, or why he has gold medals in his room. Having spent five months at Mission High school, it seems that Jakob succeeded because the school's staff—from the security guard to teachers to volunteers like Robert to Principal Guthertz—constructed a strong safety net for its students. They know Jakob by name and talk about his progress as a team. Whenever life threw another problem at Jakob, the school community made sure that he didn't fall through cracks. There wasn't one "hero" teacher or one "savior" counselor. It was a collective effort driven by Jakob and supported by the school community, and Mission High's low--although improving--test scores don't measure this important progress. It then means that this work is invisible to policy makers, and is not promoted in other schools. Most teachers at Mission High think that we need external measures to rate schools, but the nation's first, serious try in the form of standardized testing is not the right way to do it. Jakob and his classmates don't think test scores mean much either. Out of 22 students I talked to in Velez's class, all seniors highly recommend Mission High for incoming freshman despite what the standardized test scores might say.

Meanwhile, Jakob is busy writing college scholarship applications, and hopes to gather enough funding to go to UC Berkeley. His immigration lawyer assures him that some day the laws will change, and Jakob will be able to get financial aid, work, drive, and live openly in San Francisco. For now, there is a lot of uncertainty. But that doesn't stop him from living and acting like an American in spirit. "There are so many people who are not blood-related who helped me," Jakob said. He is already considering how to "give back." He applied for a non-profit status to run a summer sports camp for other immigrant kids, but didn't raise enough money. He still has a sweet tooth, he says too, but instead of climbing mango trees, he can now bake on the weekends, and invite friends over for tastings at the new house Robert recently purchased in Daly City.

*Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Names of students and Jakob's guardian are changed. Read more: "Do you chop, mince, slice, or grind the ingredients of salsa?" Plus more questions Mission High students are pondering on the California Standardized Tests this week.
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