Araceli, 19, looks like most of the other students on campus at Northwest Vista College. Petite, intelligent with big brown eyes and a wide smile, she easily fits in. No one would guess how unlikely it once seemed that she, as an undocumented immigrant, would be taking college classes.
Were it not for San Antonio Can High School, a charter school that specializes in alternative schedules and credit recovery methods, her changes would have been even more slim. Like many San Antonio students whose circumstances don’t fit the traditional school system’s model, Araceli needed a school that could educate her in a very vulnerable time in her life.
Four years ago, 15-year-old Araceli moved out on her own, dropped out of high school, and began a cycle of instability that cripples many students. Without a car, she had a hard time managing school and work. Without a family support system, she had a hard time managing the distractions and anxiety of fending for herself. To complicate matters, Araceli is undocumented. She has been in the United States since she was 6, but she has no social security number.
Araceli has never known stability. Born in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, she does not really know her father. Her mom was a police officer when the city descended into violence at the hands of warring gangs and organized crime. One day, Araceli said, her mom didn’t come home. She was effectively orphaned.
Her grandmother decided that Araceli, then 8 years old, should join her in Oregon where she was living with her second husband. Araceli’s biological grandfather insisted that Araceli’s 8-month-old brother stay with him in Mexico.
“I think about him every day,” Araceli said. “I feel like its my responsibility to do good so I can help him.”
When Araceli was in 7th grade, she and her grandmother moved to San Antonio. She enrolled in school in Castroville, and did well. Her grandmother was a strict Catholic and soon Araceli was a willful 15-year-old who wanted to do more than go to church and school. That’s when she moved out.
She lived with an aunt, and then a friend of her grandmother’s, and then a friend of her own. Wherever she went, she was expected to pay rent, which meant working. Without a social security number, the jobs she found were mostly in small restaurants where she worked late shifts, sometimes ending at 2 a.m. School started at 8 a.m., and she was exhausted.
Academics could do little to compete with survival for her attention.
“I was always thinking, ‘I need to pay for this. I need to pay for that. School can wait,’” she said.
She dropped out of school twice before a friend recommended San Antonio Can.
One of 13 schools in the Texans Can charter network, San Antonio Can exists to fit students like Araceli. The traditional school model assumes that students ages 14-18 can focus solely on their studies, that they do not have to juggle jobs or parenthood. San Antonio Can assumes that they do.
“This is the Superbowl of Superbowls (in education),” said Mark Tribett, principal of San Antonio Can.
Like other “alternative” campuses, San Antonio Can divides the day into two four-hour school days. Students can attend both morning and afternoon sessions if their schedule allows. Students receive breakfast and lunch and free transportation. For teen parents, whose responsibilities are around the clock, the school provides an accredited day care, shared by faculty and community members.
Tribett feels the term “alternative” has a punitive connotation, so he likes to think of the school as “progressive.” It’s educating students that the traditional model cannot, by using flexible tools and added services.
San Antonio Can has four staff members devoted to students’ out-of-school needs. They monitor attendance and help students access healthcare, legal help, and other resources. One staff member helped Araceli begin the process of applying for citizenship.
It wasn’t smooth sailing once Araceli entered San Antonio Can. Her situation still wasn’t stable, and she still felt overwhelmed. She dropped out again, but this time, San Antonio Can was there to redirect her. They simply wouldn’t accept her decision without protest.
“A counselor actually came to my house,” said Araceli .
This personal connection is necessary, according to Tribett, which is why the Texans Can Academies tend to stay small.
Students in her situation need help keeping their goals in front of them, Araceli said.
For her, that goal is her brother. The diploma, the degree, and citizenship are all aimed at bringing her brother to the United States.
She also wants to help her grandmother. Now that she’s older and wiser, Araceli is thankful for the sacrifices her grandmother made to bring her here.
“I love the fact that my grandma brought me here,” she said, “I thank her every day.”
She looks back at her cousin who stayed behind in Nuevo Laredo. At 19, the mother of three with no education gives Araceli a mirror image of what her life might have looked like if she had not left.
In a mere two and a half years, Araceli, a three-time drop out, achieved her diploma. She is about six months behind the four-year timeline. The school tries to stick to the four-year traditional timeline as closely as possible. Not only is this essential to their accreditation with the Texas Education Agency, which rates alternative campuses only as “met standard” or “did not meet standard,” but students who have not graduated after five years are much less likely to do so.
Some students enter San Antonio Can with no credits at all. The school takes immigrants from Latin American countries who, at 16 years old, have never been in school, Tribett said. Some students come in at 19 years old with the credits of a freshman or sophomore. Like all Texas schools, they do age out at 21, so time is of the essence.
The school’s flexible schedules and blended learning allows students to earn up to 16 credit hours per year, over half of the 26 total they need to graduate. But the school doesn’t sacrifice breadth and depth for speed.
Extracurriculars aren’t ignored either. The school has sports teams and clubs. This year students will attend four performances at the Majestic Theater. Using a reading curriculum developed by the president of Texans Can Academies, Richard Marquez, and Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment process, Tribett feels that the school, which was founded in 2001, successfully moved from phase one, viability, to phase two, enrichment.
“We’ve come to that wall, and now we’re exploding through it,” Tribett said.
In phase three, what he calls San Antonio Can 3.0, Tribett wants to see increased college and career readiness. Each Texans Can school has a Ready-to-Work program coordinator on site to help students make targeted choices, whether into the workforce, higher education, or the military. By thinking through their skills and interests earlier in the process they are more likely to achieve the goals they set.
For students like Araceli, the clock doesn’t stop ticking when they move onto the next phase. Many still have to provide for families, or fend for themselves.
Araceli feels the mounting pressure of her undocumented status. Midway through the filing process, she hit a wall, and has been unable to navigate the bureaucracy any further. She needs an immigration attorney, and fast.
“I want to do so many things in my life that I cannot do if I’m not legal,” she said.
Her life has taken a positive turn in one respect.
“I met a boy…” she says shyly.
While this is where many stories derail, Araceli moved into her boyfriend’s mom’s house, and has, for the first time, been allowed to focus on being a student as her primary responsibility. She does not have to pay rent as long as she is in school.
What money she makes at her restaurant job, she sends to her grandmother, as a way to make amends for trouble she feels that she caused.
Top Image: Araceli, 19, moved to Oregon from Mexico with her grandmother after her police officer mother was killed by gang violence. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
The student in this story was given an alias to protect her privacy.