Marlen Garcia: Gage Park school jumps hurdles for undocumented kids

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As soon as Solorio Academy opened its doors to freshmen in the Gage Park neighborhood in 2010, teachers and administrators set out to get their students to college.

It’s every high school’s goal. But as graduation neared in 2014 for Solorio’s first senior class, a harsh reality hit. Its students who were undocumented immigrants were ineligible for federal and state financial aid. No grants, publicly funded scholarships or loans were available to them. That is still the case.

“They were devastated by the outlook,” principal Victor Iturralde recalled in an interview. “I personally felt like we had lied to them. We tell them, ‘The world is your oyster. If you do everything we ask, you can be anything you want.’

“But without qualifying for financial aid, the reality was their options were very limited.”


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In the absence of new law to put undocumented kids, known as Dreamers, on a path to legalization or enacting laws to include the undocumented in financial aid candidate pools, high schools will continue to find themselves at a crossroads. How do they keep kids motivated to graduate and attend college when students see only road blocks?

“It is definitely an obstacle,” said James Clarke, principal of Multicultural Academy of Scholarship in Little Village. Clarke’s school has partnered with community groups to counsel Dreamers about college, he added.

“When students enroll as freshmen, we do ask if they have Social Security numbers but we stress that they don’t have to disclose it,” Clarke said. “Then throughout four years there is an open environment. We can track how to better support the kids.”

A proposed bill to make Dreamers in Illinois eligible for state aid was unsuccessful earlier this year but has been revived as the Student Access Bill. This movement has received support from former Gov. Jim Edgar and Archbishop Blase Cupich.

For now the burden is still on the kids, their families and high schools. Educators are driven by compassion to help undocumented students but it’s also part of their educational mission since they are judged by kids’ success on tests and their college readiness. They need every student to succeed.

Some aren’t sure how to help.

Solorio’s principal hired a longtime organizer on immigration reform, Rigoberto Padilla-Perez, as a college and career coach. He helps kids sort through scholarship opportunities offered by private colleges and foundations. There isn’t a lot of money out there for undocumented kids, yet there’s more available now than there was years ago. It helps that the new Star scholarship through City Colleges is open to Dreamers, and the Illinois Dream Fund has helped some. At Solorio, teachers and staff have pitched in to create a small scholarship fund.

The school’s first valedictorian, who was undocumented, dropped out of college because she ran out of money, leaving her and Solorio teachers crestfallen. But last year Vicente Garcia, a Dreamer and top student, won a full ride to Loyola University, a Jesuit Catholic school. Private and religious colleges aren’t bound by federal and state financial aid statutes.

It was a triumphant moment for Garcia and Solorio. “The colleges I dreamed of going [to] were basically not reachable for me,” he said by email, referring to financial aid limitations.

Life is better now. Garcia’s experience thus far at Loyola, he said, has been amazing.


Follow Marlen Garcia on Twitter: @marlengarcia777

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