The Other 60 Percent

Boot camp aims to remake school meals

Mindi Wolf, food service director for Keenesburg and Fort Lupton schools, uses a meat thermometer to check the doneness of some roasted chicken.

Wendy Blake and her two kitchen assistants turned out 56,000 meals this past school year to feed the students in Wiggins. Blake, the food services director for the school district, admits they relied on a lot of processed frozen food in order to do it.

But Blake says she learned a valuable lesson in kitchen time management this week. “I’ve learned it takes the same half hour to thaw and reheat chicken nuggets that it takes to roast a fresh chicken,” she said.

You can bet that Wiggins students are going to be seeing more roasted chicken and fewer chicken nuggets next year. More fresh produce and less frozen commodities. More scratch cooking and less reheated processed fare.

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Wiggins food services director Wendy Blake gets a lesson in handling roasted chicken.

Blake was one of two dozen nutrition directors and school cafeteria staff to participate in a free five-day School Chef Culinary Boot Camp at Adams City High School in Commerce City this week. By the end of July, more than 100 school food service workers from 32 districts around the state will have been through the training, which is also scheduled for Colorado Springs, Montrose and Aurora. Last year, 11 districts participated in similar boot camps.

The boot camps, led by two New York City chefs who specialize in school lunch reform, are coordinated by LiveWell Colorado and funded by the Colorado Health Foundation and by a federal grant. The students get hands-on training in the fundamentals of scratch cooking, knife skills, kitchen time management, food safety, recipe and menu development, breakfast strategies and tips on things like commodity ordering and even promoting nutritious school lunches on Facebook.

Total investment in each student is about $3,000, said Venita Robinson-Currie, who is coordinating the boot camps for LiveWell.

“I don’t expect everything will change tomorrow,” said Chef Andrea Martin, who put the students through their paces Thursday morning barbecuing chicken, whipping up mashed potatoes and enough other dishes to serve a cafeteria-ful of visitors, there to check out the progress of the boot camp. “But we’re teaching them culinary techniques, professionalism. And there are some immediate steps they can all take. They can look at what they’re serving. They can eliminate chocolate milk and replace it with low-fat milk. They can serve cereal with little or no added sugar. They can make sauces and salad dressings from scratch.”

“Our goal is to ensure that every student in Colorado gets nourishing and delicious meals at school, which is vitally important in reducing childhood obesity,” said Maren C. Stewart, president and CEO of LiveWell Colorado. “These boot camps do not simply teach school food service personnel how to prepare healthier meals. They also arm them with the tools to build and sustain school food programs that will positively impact the health of Colorado’s children.”

And by all accounts, Colorado’s children are in dire need of some help. A 2008 study found that only 8 percent of Colorado children eat the recommended amounts of fruit and vegetables daily. More than a quarter of children ages 10-17 in Colorado are overweight or obese. In 2003, Colorado ranked third in the nation for fewest obese children. By 2007, Colorado had slipped to 23rd.

Weight problems are particularly acute among the low income. According to a 2007 study, 24.7 percent of Colorado children who live in households where the income is less than $25,000 are obese. In households where income is greater than $75,000, just 8.8 percent are obese.

Since school lunches and breakfasts take on an especially critical role in meeting the nutritional needs of the poor, the culinary boot camps are being offered free to school districts of at least 5,000 students in which at least 40 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches. In Commerce City – Adams County District 14 – 82 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

In addition to the training, each participating district will receive a grant of $1,000 to buy kitchen equipment to help in the preparation of fresh foods.

Culinary boot camp students sample the fresh mashed potatoes.

“We have a lot of equipment issues,” complained Mindi Wolf, food services director for Keenesburg and Fort Lupton schools. “We have ovens and that’s it. If we could get an immersion blender and some slicers, then we could do a lot of stuff. But we just don’t have the staff right now to be slicing vegetables. Maybe in two or three years…”

Back in the kitchen, Jeremy West, director of food services for Weld County District 6 in Greeley, marveled at the low-fat macaroni-and-cheese dish he was making. “We learned to make a sauce from butternut squash, so there’s actually very little cheese in this,” he said. “It’s very low-fat, and it’s delicious. We could do this in Greeley.”

For more information

Click here to read the 2009 Colorado Health Report Card, published by the Colorado Health Foundation

talking SHSAT

Fair and objective or useless and biased? A Chalkbeat guide to the case for and against New York City’s specialized high school test

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing for admissions changes at specialized high schools.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to scrap the exam that serves as the sole entrance criteria for New York City’s vaunted specialized high schools, he led supporters gathered in the gymnasium of a Brooklyn middle school in chants of “The test has to go!”

Just days later, protesters flooded the steps of City Hall to defend the Specialized High School Admissions Test. “What do we want? SHSAT!” they yelled.

The pushback against de Blasio’s plan hasn’t stopped. In the more than two months since he launched a push to overhaul admissions in an effort to admit more black and Hispanic students, former allies have backed away, political opponents have put forth their own proposals, and the mayor has contended with a steady stream of protests.

The debate gets emotional quickly, and facts can be hard to find. Here’s our guide to the arguments against de Blasio’s plan and the most common alternatives proposed: what’s true, what might work, and what probably won’t.

Argument: The SHSAT shouldn’t be eliminated because it will cause the quality of students’ education at the specialized high schools to suffer.

This argument hinges on the idea that the students admitted under de Blasio’s plan will be less prepared academically. To judge it, we need to know how the academic profile of students admitted to specialized high schools would change. The city has some answers: Under de Blasio’s proposal, which would offer admission to top middle school students across the city, the projected average grade point average and state test scores of the incoming classes would remain about the same as they are now.

The education department says that students’ state test scores would slip slightly: incoming students would go from an average level 4.1 to a 3.9 (out of a possible 4.5). The grade point average of admitted students would hold steady at 94.

Then, there’s the question of whether those are appropriate metrics for judging who is prepared for the specialized schools. Research suggests that GPA may be a better predictor than the SHSAT of how students will perform in specialized high schools, at least for those who are admitted with lower scores on the entrance exam. But some argue that the specific kind of rigorous preparation typically required to succeed at the SHSAT helps students do well at the demanding schools, too.

Integration advocates have pushed back against this argument because it suggests that black and Hispanic students aren’t as bright as the students who now fill specialized high schools.

Argument: The SHSAT shouldn’t be eliminated because it is a fair and unbiased way to select students.

Defenders of the SHSAT say it is an objective way to determine merit: If you do well enough on the test, you’re in.

The exam is particularly appealing to Asian parents, who have said they worry that more subjective measures, such as interviews, would be biased against their children. Case in point: the recent controversy at Harvard, where Asian students vying for admission were consistently assigned lower scores on personality traits, according to legal documents in a suit claiming the university discriminates against Asian applicants.

A recently released study also found the SHSAT generally predicts which students are likely to be successful early in high school.

There’s no doubt that the exam is a clean-cut way of making admissions decisions — and clarity is rare in the New York City high school admissions system, where sought-after schools can all have different criteria and students are eventually admitted by an algorithm.

But we also know that not all eligible New York City students are taking the SHSAT, and its use shuts out lots of students who can’t afford test prep. Students also have to know how and when to sign up to take it. (The city has tried to address some of those issues. It hasn’t worked.)

Researchers say the recently released study doesn’t do much to settle the debate around the SHSAT, either. “It tells us something we already knew: Kids who do well on the SHSAT do well in high school,” Aaron Pallas, a researcher at Columbia who reviewed the study, recently told Chalkbeat. “But it doesn’t tell us what is the best combination of factors that predict who might do well in an exam school.”

Argument: The SHSAT shouldn’t be eliminated because the proposal is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist — a lack of diversity.

The debate around specialized high schools is complicated by the fact that they are already full of students of color: enrollment is about 62 percent Asian.

Some argue that changing the admissions system to admit more black and Hispanic students would come at the expense of Asian students, who have the highest poverty rate of all racial and ethnic groups in specialized high schools (but not citywide). At the eight schools that use the SHSAT for admissions, 63 percent of Asian students come from low-income families, according to data provided by the city.

“What’s so frustrating about the mayor and City Hall’s narrative is that it seems to, at best, deny that Asian Americans are people of color too,” Ron Kim, a state assemblyman who represents heavily Asian neighborhoods in Queens, recently told Chalkbeat.

But the disparity between the specialized schools and the city is wide. Only 10 percent of students at the high schools are black or Hispanic, even though those students make up 70 percent of public school enrollment citywide.

Specialized high schools fall short on a range of other diversity measures, too.

Citywide, about 74 percent of students come from poor families. About half of all students in specialized high schools come from low-income families. At High School of American Studies at Lehman College, a small specialized high school in the Bronx, the poverty rate is only 20 percent.

The specialized high schools also enroll a tiny number of students with disabilities, and almost no students who are learning English as a new language.

Research has shown that integrated classrooms can benefit all students. Studies have found that racially and ethnically diverse classrooms can reduce prejudice, improve critical thinking, and lead to high levels of civic engagement.

“Learning doesn’t just involve balancing multiple extracurriculars, enrollment in several Advanced Placement classes and acceptances at Ivy League institutions,” Bo Young Lee, an Asian-American graduate of Stuyvesant recently wrote in an op-ed for the New York Daily News. “It’s also having a perspective challenged and broadened by others who look and live differently.”

Argument: Admissions to the high schools shouldn’t change because they’re already producing successful students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Students of color and those who come from poor families often lack access to schools with experienced teachers, advanced courses, and strong graduation records. Specialized high schools offer all that, plus a reputation for sending graduates to top colleges.

But research suggests that the stellar results of specialized high schools have more to do with the students themselves.

Susan Dynarski, a professor at the University of Michigan, recently reviewed two studies on specialized high schools in both New York City and Boston that were conducted by other academics. She summed up their question like this: “Do the exam schools produce academically outstanding graduates, or do they simply admit stellar students and enjoy credit for their successes?”

Two studies suggest the latter, at least for students who were admitted to specialized high schools with lower SHSAT scores. They found that specialized high schools had little effect on whether those graduates went on to college, were admitted to a selective university, and whether they earned a post-secondary degree. (There could be other benefits, outside of academic measures or later in life, of attending the selective schools.)

“While the exam school students in our samples typically have good outcomes, most of these students would likely have done well without the benefit of an exam school education,” researchers wrote in a 2014 report on Boston and New York.  

One counterproposal: Increase access to the test — and to test prep.

Rather than scrapping the SHSAT, many have called on the city to expand test prep to level the playing field. Others argue that prep courses should be more widely available — and better advertised — so more students have a chance to actually take them.

The city has already tried to tackle those issues, and it hasn’t made a dent in changing the demographics at specialized high schools.

The city has begun to offer the SHSAT on a school day at some middle schools in underrepresented communities, and boosted public test prep programs and outreach to increase the number of test-takers. Those efforts haven’t resulted in many more black and Hispanic students passing the exam.

Another counterproposal: Focus on improving elementary and middle schools first.

Some SHSAT defenders say the key to helping more students do well on the exam is to make sure they get a solid education earlier in their schooling. Rather than scrapping the test, the city should do more to make sure students can reach that bar — and that means investing in schools that have long been under-resourced.

“The results of the SHSAT are merely a reflection of the failure of the city to properly educate our black and Hispanic students,” Tahseen Chowdhury, who attended Stuyvesant, recently wrote in an op-ed.

Integration advocates call this argument a red herring since it suggests that unless everything can be solved at once, nothing should change. It also suggests there aren’t more black and Hispanic students already in the system who are capable of doing well in specialized high schools.

The reasons why schools struggle are complex, and often tied up in issues relating to segregation and poverty. Educators and policy makers far beyond New York City have grappled with how to improve academic outcomes for the country’s most vulnerable children, but there has been slow improvement in test scores and graduation rates for black and Hispanic students.

Meanwhile, the existence of New York’s robust test-preparation industry reflects the reality that many families turn to outside help — regardless of the quality of their child’s school — to prepare them to win a spot in specialized high schools.

A third counterproposal: The city should expand gifted and talented programs so more students are ready for advanced academic work.

Many alumni and elected officials have called on the city to expand gifted programs, which are seen as a reliable pipeline into specialized high schools. At the Anderson School in Manhattan, which has one of the most selective gifted programs in the city for elementary school, 76 percent of eighth-graders who took the SHSAT got an offer to a specialized high school this year.

“If we do that, we would not have a diversity problem,” Wai Wah Chin, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, said at a recent rally at City Hall. “We need to meet the needs of children who are above grade level.”

But only 22 percent of students in city gifted programs are black or Hispanic. Absent specific integration measures, experts say that an expansion of gifted programs probably won’t help more of those students get in. The city has already expanded a new kind of gifted program in a few neighborhoods, resulting in more diverse classrooms.

Still, just like specialized high schools, admission to gifted programs usually hinges on the results of a test. Few children take the exam in poor neighborhoods, where schools often enroll more black and Hispanic students. An even smaller number score well enough to get into a program, which many experts attribute to extensive test prep.

“As long as gifted and talented program admissions are based on a single test, advantaged families will be able to game the system by prepping for it,” researchers Allison Roda and Halley Potter, who have both studied gifted programs in New York City, recently wrote in an op-ed.

There’s also the unanswered question of whether gifted programs serve as a funnel to specialized high schools simply because they admit students who do well on tests and come from savvy families — or because of the impact of the schools themselves.

Getting to college

This undocumented student is ready for college. But in Indiana, it might be out of reach

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar
Jessika Osborne, ESL coordinator and Title 3 Coordinator for Manual High School, left, talks with Lester at Emmerich Manual High School, Monday, July 31, 2018. Lester moved to Indianapolis when he was 15 years old and is set to graduate from Manual in 2019. Lester, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, dreams of going to college. He hopes that football will help him pay for that dream.

This story was produced by the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School, as part of an ongoing series on the intersection between education and immigration.

In collaboration with WFYI, the Teacher Project will host a panel discussion on college access for undocumented students on Aug. 15. The event will be from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 15 in the Reuben Community Room at WFYI, 1630 N. Meridian. For more information, including RSVPs, click here.

On a campus tour of Ball State University last fall, 17-year-old Lester Gomez gawked at the 20,000-seat football stadium, the red-trimmed locker rooms and the gleaming engineering computer lab. It was the Honduran immigrant’s first trip to a university in the U.S.

Eagerly, he quizzed the tour guide about the central Indiana university’s minimum GPA, graduation rates and tuition costs.

Lester, who just started his senior year at Manual High School, is on track to graduate with an Indiana Honors Diploma for students who complete college-level work in high school.

His teachers speak glowingly of his work and potential.  His football coach said Lester, a talented recent convert to the sport who can kick a 40-yard field goal, has a shot at an athletic scholarship.

Yet the path to college remains arduous — and unlikely. Lester, whose immigration status is uncertain, arrived in the U.S. two and a half years ago after a long journey stuffed inside a tractor-trailer with 50 other migrants.

Officials have allowed him to remain in the U.S. until a court hearing can be scheduled to determine his long-term fate. So, at least for now, Lester is living here legally. That said, his status doesn’t allow him to qualify for state or federal financial aid because he doesn’t have a green card.

That means his parents, who make a combined $35,000 annually as a used furniture saleswoman and Buffalo Wild Wings cook, would likely be paying full freight.

Moreover, most high schools, including Manual, lack expertise — or even basic awareness — of how to guide students in Lester’s situation through the college application process. “High schools are doing very little,” said Monica Medina, an associate professor of education at Indiana University.

Medina said guidance counselors rarely “feel confident about what to do.” That can leave students like Lester largely on their own when it comes to complicated tasks such as figuring out how to take college entrance exams without a federal or state ID or locating private scholarships for immigrant students.

Approximately 1 million students whose legal status is unclear are enrolled in U.S. schools, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Every year, about 65,000 of them graduate American high schools, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education. Of those, an estimated 5 to 10 percent enroll in college; an even smaller percent graduates.

To be sure, how best to handle children who have entered the country illegally is a contentious issue. Some argue that children who have done well in school should be afforded the opportunity to be full contributors in the U.S., regardless of immigration status. Others feel just as strongly that students who are not U.S. citizens should not receive assistance such as financial aid or in-state tuition—benefits that should be reserved exclusively to students who are in the country legally.

But for Lester the issue is more simple. He is here. And he wants to make the most of it.

Pursuit of the best education possible has shaped many of his actions over the last 17 years, and he isn’t ready to abandon the quest now. With the threat of deportation always looming, the teen plans to apply to several colleges, including Ball State, this fall.

His story speaks to the financial, legal, and practical obstacles that put college out of reach for tens of thousands of students whose immigration status is unresolved. But it also speaks to an undying faith that, in America, anything is possible.

“There are a lot of opportunities, and if you don’t take them, it’s like you are sleeping,” Lester said.

“I really want to go to college. It’s like a dream.”

The Winding Path to Indianapolis

Fifteen and a half years ago, a 19-year-old seamstress with a sixth-grade education set off alone from El Progreso, Honduras, without telling her parents. The woman, named Johana, left behind her 2-year-old son, Lester, not knowing what dangers the journey to the United States had in store.

Lester’s father had disappeared before his son was born, but Johana felt confident that the toddler would be safe staying with his grandparents. The decision to leave, Johanna said, was excruciating. She hoped that in the U.S. she could find a job and send home enough money for Lester to attend a private school, since the city’s public schools were notoriously violent.

Johana eventually settled in Indianapolis, where an aunt lived, and began selling used furniture out of her garage. When Lester turned five, she started sending $300 a month to pay for his tuition at a private, Catholic school in Honduras.

Johana married a Guatemalan man with a green card, and they had three children of their own, all U.S. citizens. But she talked to Lester on Skype every day of his childhood.

“It’s very ugly,” she said in Spanish, “to have a piece of yourself in another place.”

In El Progreso, Lester attended school daily, went to chapel at school every Monday and Friday, and played pickup soccer with his friends many afternoons. He excelled in computer science and math, joining an after-school program to fix old computers three days a week. There, he started thinking about how college would allow him to “get deep into computer science.”

One fall afternoon three years ago, two older teenagers approached Lester as he walked home from school. Their arms were covered with tattoos, and they wore decorative bandannas over their faces; one wore black, the other green. They told Lester, then 14, that they knew all about him: when he got out of school, which bus he took, where his grandparents lived.

The teens were members of the notorious MS-13 gang, and Lester realized that he had been targeted for recruitment. “I was like, ‘What did I do?’”

Gang members even threatened Lester’s 54-year-old grandmother as she walked home one day, telling her they would kill her if Lester didn’t join them. The family’s fear deepened when his mother missed some private school tuition payments, so Lester briefly had to transfer to a public school — one where some of his classmates were members of MS-13.

During Lester’s adolescence, the murder rate soared in Honduras, reaching 130 per 100,000 residents in Lester’s city of El Progreso in 2012, according to a report from the World Bank. MS-13 was responsible for much of the violence as the gang expanded its territory and battled with rival groups.

After the threats, Lester and his grandmother knew the family was no longer safe. He had to leave Honduras. “It wasn’t a choice,” Lester said. He had just two days to pack his belongings and say his farewells. “I could only put him in God’s hands,” his grandmother said, speaking in Spanish, during a phone interview.

On Feb. 21, 2016, Lester checked into a hotel near his grandparents’ home; a car picked him up at 3 a.m. the next day and set off for the Guatemalan border.

A Legal Scramble

Hundreds of thousands of immigrant children are, like Lester, stuck in a legal limbo.

According to the Transactional Records Clearinghouse, a data organization based at Syracuse University, about half of the more than 200,000 young immigrants who’ve arrived at the U.S. border since 2004, most of them fleeing gang violence and civil unrest in Central America, are in the same position as Lester: They can stay until a court date, when a judge will decide whether to expel them.

Those court dates are typically long in coming: The average wait for an immigration hearing in Chicago court is over 1,000 days.

In a two-year span from 2014-2016, asylum officers approved only 37 percent of the almost 6,000 unaccompanied minor asylum claims they reviewed across the country, according to an Associated Press investigation. The regional office in Chicago that would hear Lester’s case had OK’d only 15 percent of applications — the lowest rate in the country, the investigation found.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled that fear of gang violence does not qualify a migrant for asylum.

Under federal law, all students must be allowed to attend public K-12 schools, regardless of immigration status. Shortly after Lester arrived in 2016, his mother easily enrolled him at Manual High without delving into her citizenship status. She chose the school because the bus route passed their home and she had heard it offered English classes for new immigrants.

But unlike K-12, college access in Indiana is inextricably tied to immigration status. Students such as Lester do not qualify for federal financial aid like the Pell Grants that help millions of low-income students attend college; and they can’t receive federally subsidized loans, which require the co-signature of a U.S. citizen.

And in at least six states, including Indiana, they also can’t access the heavily discounted in-state tuition rates at public universities. (Young immigrants known as “Dreamers,” who, unlike Lester, arrived in the country before 2007, are protected by President Barack Obama’s 2012 DACA order and can sometimes qualify for in-state tuition rates in Indiana.)

Without an athletic scholarship, Lester would be paying $24,000 in tuition each year at Ball State — two-thirds of his parents’ income. Most Indiana residents pay $8,000.

In 2011, the Indiana state legislature passed a law restricting in-state tuition rates to students “lawfully present” in the country.

Republican State Sen. Mike Karickhoff of Kokomo, who authored the bill, said the rationale is simple: Students who “have not contributed … to the tax base that helps operate these colleges” should not get the benefit of the discounted rate.

In January, State Representative Earl Harris Jr. of East Chicago introduced a bill that would allow anyone who has lived in the state for three years and graduated high school to qualify for in-state tuition. “We have a shortage of skilled, trained people in Indiana,” he said, adding that many state universities are under-enrolled.

Lester’s family is desperate to find a way for him to stay for the long term. Before the teen decided to flee Honduras, Johana had for years been on a crusade to bring her son to Indianapolis legally.

Twice, Johana and her husband have been the victims of real-estate fraud, targeted by criminals who prey mostly on Latino immigrants. The first time, in 2012, the couple bought a $23,000 ranch-style house in East Indianapolis from a woman who gave them a fake deed.

The city actually owned the property. The man in charge of the city agency that resold abandoned properties, Reginald Walton, agreed to sell the house back to the family for a discounted rate.

But shortly after that second transaction went through, in early 2013, Johana received a call from the FBI. They told her Walton — who was later convicted of accepted bribes and kickbacks in the land bank fraud scheme — had defrauded her again, overcharging the family by several thousand dollars. She was wary of cooperating with the FBI, concerned that Walton might seek revenge. But they made an offer that changed her calculus, she said.

The agents promised to help her apply for an ‘S’ Visa — known colloquially as the “Snitch Visa.” It is a little-known law enforcement tool that officers can offer as an enticement to testify in criminal investigations.

Only 200 such visas are handed out each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and the agents didn’t make any guarantees. But they submitted an application on Johana’s behalf and set her up with a pro-bono lawyer.

An S Visa would mean a path to permanent residence for Johana, and, most temptingly, a legal way to bring Lester from Honduras. “In my mind, Lester was going to come,” she said.

Johana testified and helped secure the conviction of Walton, and his accomplice David Johnson. The trial took about a year, and while the S Visa application was pending, she obtained a temporary work permit and social security number. She bought a vacant property across from their house and opened her own used furniture business. Things were looking up.

But a couple of months after her testimony wrapped up in late 2015, Johana learned that Lester was bound for the U.S. on his own, a decision that both angered and scared her. It also complicated her plan to bring him to Indianapolis legally.

Then, in the fall of 2016, Johana learned that officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had decided her case did not merit an S Visa. The decision came without explanation, but it was not unusual: Immigration advocates have criticized the FBI for dangling S Visas as an incentive for witnesses to cooperate without actually following through. A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment, referring questions to the Department of Homeland Security.

A Legal Aid Society lawyer representing Johana pro bono agreed to help her apply for a green card through her husband, Edgar (already a permanent resident), but the lawyer said she couldn’t take on Lester’s case.

Johana decided the family’s limited resources would better be spent on legal fees for her husband’s citizenship application. Edgar passed the citizenship test in July. The family now plans to apply for a green card for Lester as the stepson of a citizen.

But they haven’t been able to afford a lawyer for Lester, and have missed key deadlines as a result. Since Lester turned 18 in early August, it will be harder for him to obtain a green card through his parents. He could be called to court any day.

An Uncertain Educational Future

From his first day at Manual, Lester was determined to excel.

“He put himself out there,” said Manual’s English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instructor, Jessika Osborne. “He didn’t let the language barrier keep him from doing that.”

Lester’s athletic abilities — he’s now a part of the school’s soccer, football and wrestling teams — have helped him acclimate socially. So has his playful sense of humor: He has a personal nickname for most of his classmates and even some of his teachers — Jessika is “the famous Osborne.”

Lester still loves math and takes an honors-level class in the subject. He’s progressed rapidly in English, thanks in part to the time he spends around English-speaking peers. Lester’s English was strong enough for him to test out of the ESL program last spring, although he elected to take another class with Osborne this year.

Manual has become a destination for immigrant and refugee students since it was taken over by the state and, in 2011, turned over to a charter operator. Seven years ago, the ESL program enrolled three students. Now it serves more than 80.

Yet the school — like most — still has little expertise in how to help even the most successful students who are facing immigration issues navigate their way to college.

High schools seldom know how to counsel such students through the college admissions and financial aid process, said Guadalupe Pimentel Solano, a 26-year-old activist with the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance. Counselors lack basic knowledge about private scholarships that might be available to students such as Lester and don’t how to talk about sensitive legal issues, she said.

Solano wishes high schools would do more, such as making information so accessible that students don’t need to disclose their status to access it.

Carmen Lynch, one of Manual’s two guidance counselors, said no student in her six years at the school has confided to her that they may be in the country illegally. That makes it hard to know how to help them. “I don’t know how to overcome that challenge in getting kids to feel safe telling us, so we can find the universities that will still enroll them,” she said.

Lester met once with Lynch to talk about Ball State, but he didn’t mention his immigration status. He said he might bring it up this school year.

Those conversations take time and trust, Osborne said. Lester first told her his story after more than a year in her class. “You can’t push these relationships,” she said.

Because Osborne knows Manual’s immigrant students better than most of the other teachers, she has found herself stepping into a new role: college advisor. That includes developing relationships with colleges and searching for scholarships.

It’s not easy. Osborne recently signed up a batch of students to take the SAT — only to realize that few had the legal ID card (driver’s license, passport or social security card) required to take the exam.

“My stress is that that’s all on me,” Osborne said. “And that’s not my job.”

So far, none of Osborne’s estimated 50 students who face immigration issues have made it to college (at least among those who aren’t protected under Obama’s 2012 DACA order). Many of them, especially the Hispanic male students, drop out to work full time. Others become overwhelmed by the bureaucratic nature of the financial aid forms. Or they decide they don’t have a reliable way to attend college classes without a driver’s license. “It’s too much,” Osborne said.

This fall, Lester will take the SAT for the first time, as well as some college-level courses.

For his family, the priority has always been education. Three of his closest friends dropped out of high school last year to work full time and support their families.

But Johana is dead set against Lester following a similar path. “At four years old, I told them all, ‘Your job is to study. And we’ll do the rest,’” she said. Lester wants to help his family financially. So by way of compromise, he has a weekend job as a roofer and chips in for the family’s internet bill.

But he knows little about the practicalities of the college admissions process. And even the local community college, the cheapest option, would cost Lester $8,000 a year in tuition, compared to $4,000 for in-state residents.

His options for finding a job to defray the costs are limited: Without a change in his legal status, he can’t obtain a work permit or a driver’s license.

Lester said he felt a twinge of resentment when a classmate recently mentioned that he overslept a driving exam. “I was like, ‘wow bro,’” Lester said. “You know how hard it is for us to get a driver’s license?”

But he doesn’t let that resentment linger. “I wouldn’t judge someone,” he said. “Everybody has his opportunity someday.”

It’s still tough for Lester to open up about the hardest parts of his journey, even with his mother. “We barely talk about it,” she said.

Osborne said it would be tough for the casual observer to recognize how much hardship Lester has already endured.

“I think every day,” she said, “‘How did he have that story?’ You would’ve never guessed. He’s definitely the light of my classroom.”

Lester knows the future might bring more setbacks. It makes him even more determined to make the best use of the time he has — even if he never makes it back to Ball State for a longer stay.

“I would still be glad (that I came to the U.S.) because I finally met my family,” he said. “I studied. I didn’t waste my time.”