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Saturday, September 29, 2012

When Policy Reaches the Street: Antonio Reaches for the Dream

I first noticed the change when a kid named Antonio walked back into our program a month ago. I'd always liked Antonio -- we'd gotten along well.

The kid is nineteen years old, bright, moderately well-skilled, but angry. He plays bass in a psychobilly band and earns his living doing unlicensed tattoos because he's got talent and no papers.

Our program is built for kids like Antonio. We're a second chance alternative program attached to a major comprehensive high school. We're the only place in Watts where a kid can go when they've screwed up or gotten derailed by pregnancy or the penal system, and get back on track to graduate with an actual, honest-to-goodness, college preparatory high school diploma.

I know we're right for him because he's been with us before, a couple of times actually, but each time he's enrolled with us he's dropped again shortly after.

He didn't drop because he couldn't handle the work -- he has the smarts to get his diploma. Antonio lacked the will. We'd talked about it before he dropped last time. He and his family aren't in country legally but he's been here since before his 9th birthday. His English is better than his Spanish but even so he couldn't see the point in doing all the work for a diploma when he couldn't get a real job here anyways.

What he could do is play music, draw (on walls, paper, and people), and hang out until he got arrested and deported, so that was his plan.

Until now.

When I walked over to him he gave me a bro' hug and we stepped into the hallway where I asked him what he was up to. He was nervous, rocking back and forth on his skateboard and looking everywhere but at me.

"I came to get back in school," he says.

I nod. I want him to come back, too, but I'm not going to come out and say it. Not yet. It's a lot of work to enroll and unenroll kids in our program because we have multiple funding mechanisms and multiple outside partnerships for which we are a nexus and each one of them needs to be notified each time we add or subtract a student. Separately,one of the big issues that all programs like ours are judged on is our "transiency rate" which is the educatese term for students who stop showing up. Antonio, in his three times with us, has been reported as three separate drop-outs. Even though I want him back, if he drops again it can hurt us.

"What's going to make it different this time, Antonio?" I ask him.

He shrugs and then turns in a big surly yet graceful circle while shaking his head which lets me know that he's really serious. Eventually he says something but he's turned away from me when he says it so I have to ask him to repeat it.

"I don't wanna get deported."

"Are they threatening you?"

He shakes his head. "Naaah."

And then it clicks. "Obama's thing," I say. "The Dream Act."

He nods. "I gotta get my diploma."

He does. I reenrolled him that afternoon. He's still Antonio -- he's easily frustrated and he has a tendency to be loud and inappropriate but he's also funny and fun. And he's grateful for the chance and for the first time he feels a real reason to finish this stuff so he's even showing up and making some real attempts to follow the rules. I'm proud of him.

And he's not alone. We've had two other kids come by in the last couple of weeks. For the first time in my tenure in Watts we're excusing kids from absences for days they're spending at the immigration office instead of just the clinicas, the County Building, and the courts.

Alicia, a bubbly and proud teen mom who's hanging in with us because of The Dream. She is married with three children at 19 and she is working two jobs but she's still coming to school because when she's done she'll get both a diploma and a green card which means she can live free.

Bartolo is another one. He dropped out two years ago with only two classes to go because he couldn't see the point but he's back now because now that there's a reason to finish.

And there's probably others who've come back to us for the same reason who simply haven't told us.

Last June when Obama made his executive order a lot of people, including me, thought it was pretty weak tea. There was no path to citizenship and there was no promise that it would extend beyond his seemingly tenuous hold on the presidency. And if there was a message of hope, it didn't seem to be penetrating the hazy bubble of drama and distraction in which most of my students exist.

Most of the time when a national political change is noticed by us down on the educational streets it's because we are handed new commandments with regards to testing or accountability -- most of the rest of it dissipates into the levels of bureaucracy above our heads and I was pretty sure that this would be another example of politically palatable good intentions having little direct effect on the lives of the people for which it was intended.

I was wrong. The message got through and it is making a difference in the lives of people and on behalf of Antonio, Bartolo, Alicia and all of us who work with kids like them everywhere:

Thank you, Mr. President. And maybe in your second term, together we can make it permanent.