Twenty-two-year old Norma never thought she would earn a high school diploma. Her grandparents in Mexico couldn’t afford to keep her in school once she completed the elementary grades, and she was resigned to a life of menial jobs.
A few years ago Norma saved her money, paid a smuggler to help her cross the border and ended up in Houston. Her first job: cleaning the offices of Enron at night.
She wanted to go to school but did not have an option that fit her schedule or her needs. Houston is a hub for immigrants, and the need to do something for others in situations like Norma’s was becoming obvious to educators.
Scheduling a New System of Classes
Something radically different was needed to service the educational needs of Houston’s youth. One Houston principal noted kids were dropping through the cracks daily.
“Several years ago we were looking at students who were coming to Lee High School, then leaving us. They weren’t staying. They were dropping out. We knew we had to find a way to serve them,” said Steve Amstutz, principal at Lee High School on Houston’s west side.
His response was to design a school within a school for students between the ages of 17 and 22 who had been living in the United States for fewer than three years, had fewer than six credits toward graduation and limited English.
Classes would be offered at night and on Saturdays, to accommodate the students’ work schedules.
A 1982 Supreme Court ruling forbids school districts from asking students if they are citizens, and federal law requires that any child residing in the United States be educated without regard to citizenship. “Public school systems cannot determine whether young people are legally in our country or not,” Saavedra said.
‘Something That Motivates You’
The Newcomer school opened with 125 students, and another 200 are on a waiting list.
The director of the school, Monico Rivas, knows each student and understands his or her needs, as he was an immigrant himself. He said the key to the Newcomer school’s success is flexibility, as each of the students also holds down a full-time job.
Classes for students at Newcomer run for 12 months, in the evening and on Saturdays. These students don’t get summer breaks, just an occasional three-day weekend.
Norma added that when she gets her high school diploma, she hopes to go to college and one day become a teacher. She wants to give back to the country that has given her so much.