up in the air

DREAM Act advocates hope Obama action nudges Cuomo

Nataly Lopez at her kindergarten graduation. (Courtesy of Lopez)

At 20 years old, Luis Saavedra has used his exhausting list of accomplishments — high school valedictorian, purple belt in taekwondo, track and field star, 3.8 GPA in college — to earn enough scholarships to pay nearly the entire amount of his school tuition.

Still, the Bronx resident’s plans to finish his bachelor’s degree at Lehman College and attend medical school will be impossible to achieve if his pool of scholarship aid dries up.

Like other undocumented students, Saavedra cannot rely on government financial assistance or on private bank loans.

But Saavedra, like many immigration reform advocates, hopes that President Barack Obama’s recent announcement to halt some deportations will push Gov. Andrew Cuomo to support New York’s version of the DREAM Act today, hours before the state’s legislative session ends. The act has languished in the State Senate without Republican support for more than a year.

Cuomo has said he supports a federal DREAM Act but has declined to endorse the state’s version and, unlike other elected officials, did not praise Obama’s policy announcement last week.

The state’s bill would give undocumented students access to financial aid through the state-funded Tuition Assistance Program, which provided $885 million to students in 2010-2011. Extending financial aid to undocumented students could cost about $17 million more, a 2 percent increase.

“The state has invested so much money into the education of undocumented youth,” said Saavedra, a graduate of Harry S. Truman High School who moved to the U.S. from Mexico when he was nine. “Why not follow through with financially helping them go to college?”

The odds of the bill passing seemed to improve last Friday after Obama’s surprise announcement. Using an executive action, Obama temporarily lifted barriers that prevented undocumented immigrants from getting a driver’s license and working legally. The action would apply to illegal immigrants who came to the country before age 16 (but still under 30), lived here for at least five years, are enrolled in school, and are either high school graduates or military veterans in good standing.

Obama’s announcement is important to the New York’s DREAM Act because it answers some of the questions that Cuomo raised, said Razeen Zaman, the legislative coordinator at the New York State Youth Leadership Council, which has led the fight to pass the bill.

With the federal promise of work permits, undocumented students have the chance to use their degrees and find a job in their field.

“It’s not just another bill on the table. It’s about students’ lives,” said Zaman. “Governor Cuomo has run out of excuses.”

“We never imagined that something would be done at the federal level first. It’s now about Governor Cuomo catching up to the Obama Administration,” added Zaman. “There will be several students who won’t be able to go to college if the bill doesn’t pass.”

Nataly Lopez knows this fate too well. The 21-year-old dropped out of Baruch College because she couldn’t afford to pay tuition when the school started charging her the out-of-state rate because she could not prove that she grew up in New York City.

Lopez and her friend, Marissa Tjartjalis,at their high school graduation in Queens. (Courtesy photo)

Although she worked as a waitress and babysitter, Lopez didn’t attend school for a year because she couldn’t pay the tuition.

“I fell into a huge depression because I started coming to terms over what it means to be undocumented because even if you graduate, you can’t get a job,” said Lopez, who grew up in Queens after leaving Ecuador when she was a toddler.

Lopez found a way to pay the in-state fee by 2010 and started attending Baruch part-time. She also won a scholarship from the New York Immigration Coalition in January, which helped her enroll with a full course load this past semester.

“The New York DREAM Act means people will not have to work three jobs while managing a full course load,” said Lopez, who now actively campaigns for immigrant reforms. “I still have a couple of years left in school, so I can apply for financial aid.”

Many undocumented students rely on private donations, said Sonia Sendoya, a college counselor for the nonprofit community organization Make the Road.

Sendoya estimates that she advises 30 to 35 undocumented students every year. She searches for scholarships open to all students, such as those that don’t require information like a social security number. She also helps undocumented high school seniors arrange payment plans with CUNY schools so they aren’t financially overburdened.

“If it doesn’t pass, I’m not going to give up on them and say you can’t go to college,” said Sendoya. “It’s important that they finish. Nobody can take your education away.”

Sendoya added that some parents criticize her for encouraging their children to attend college since they can’t use their degrees to get a legal job.

“I always tell them, what if by the time your child receives that education, there’s a change in the immigration reform,” said Sendoya. “Nobody expected Obama to say what he said. I didn’t.”

Since State Sen. Bill Perkins introduced the NY DREAM Act in March 2011, the bill has stalled in the legislature, despite receiving support from critical political players. New York City Mayor Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and the Board of Regents have vocally supported the bill.

“I don’t believe it’s going to happen by the end of session,” Perkins said by phone from Albany on Wednesday. “The next session will be more promising based on the discussions we’re having.”

Perkins added that while there was no question the president’s announcement could benefit the NY Dream Act, the bill needed support from the state’s Democrat governor.

As a sign of the NY DREAM Act’s fate on Wednesday, the Republican-led senate failed to vote on a similar bill called the “Dream Fund,” which would create a fund to collect private scholarship aid for undocumented students.

But the Dream Fund bill wouldn’t have made a significant difference because undocumented students already receive private funding through scholarships, according to Zaman, the youth advocate.

“Illinois implemented a similar fund a year ago; a year later there’s zero money in that fund,” she added. “What we’re fighting for is a DREAM Act, not the fund.”

Even if the state’s funding policy doesn’t change, undocumented student Eduardo Resendiz said he’s already preparing for his 14-year-old sister’s future. The 22-year-old’s family arrived in the country under false assurances by their immigration lawyer, whose practice was shut down in 2010 following an investigation by Cuomo, then the state’s attorney general.

With his parents help, Resendiz saves some of his earnings from his jobs — all off the books — for his sister, Alejandra, who will be going into ninth grade.

“She has a bank account,” Resendiz said. “We’re saving a little bit of money for college so she won’t have to go through with what I’m going through right now.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.