PROVIDENCE, R.I. __ A beloved motif in sitcoms and cartoons is the bumbling high school faculty. Teachers, principals and guidance counselors are portrayed as incompetent fools who can hardly help themselves, much less their students. But in Rhode Island, this image is itself divorced from reality. The Ocean State’s high schools are on the offense, helping undocumented students navigate the thorny process of applying to college.
Kyleen Carpenter, Head of Blackstone Academy Charter School in Pawtucket“We get so much information. We’re feeding it to the students and their families,” says Kyleen Carpenter, Head of Blackstone Academy Charter School in Pawtucket. Since the passage of the in-state tuition policy for undocumented students in 2011, Rhode Island high schools have bombarded undocumented students with information, making clear their education doesn’t have to end after high school.
“You will see their faces brighten up. It’s a powerful feeling,” says Patricia Martinez, Director of the Family Support Center at Central Falls High School. “The fact that their dream is not lost,” she says, motivates students to embark on what is already a frightening journey -- frightening, especially, for the undocumented student.
“They’re petrified. Their parents say, ‘Don’t you dare say a word,’” says Lou Toro, Director of Guidance at Classical High School, noting that families typically fear deportation.
To start the conversation with undocumented students, Martinez will say, “I just want to see if I can help you. Where were you born?” Then, what she calls a “more intrusive question: ‘What is your status?’ Then you will see a blank on their face.”
“[We] let them know they’re going to be on a different path. It’s going to be demoralizing,” says Carpenter.
Still, the policy change -- which allows undocumented students to attend state schools at in-state tuition rates -- has inspired a heretofore unseen hope in Rhode Island’s young and undocumented community. “We don’t have to have these demoralizing and depressing conversations,” says Carpenter, one of the several educators who founded Blackstone.
“Kids are aware now. It helps all the way around,” says Toro.
Since the policy change, Toro and his fellow educators have worked to ensure that students are aware of the policy and the new opportunities it brings. Toro has worked with the Diocese of Providence (a partnership he says has been quite helpful), while Martinez has invited members of CASO (Coalition of Advocates for Student Opportunities) and the International Institute to her school.
Carpenter views all this as a means of accessing the “vast untapped potential” of students. A state dense with aging Baby Boomers means an aging workforce, and the education of Rhode Island’s up-and-coming workers is increasingly being seen as a necessity. Documented or not, Rhode Island needs educated workers for its future.
“Why recruit kids from other states?” says Martinez. “[Students are] not asking for handouts. [They’re] just asking to be validated.”
Nor is this validation asking much (or anything) of documented Rhode Islanders -- both Carpenter and Martinez note that should they decide to attend college, most students flock to Community College of Rhode Island, an open-door institution.
One Blackstone graduate did just that, Carpenter says, and “[The classes] were really hard. He went and struggled mightily. That was actually a great lesson for all of us.” Martinez says only two Central Falls grads are at CCRI full-time.
“Part time?” says Martinez, “Really everyone.” She encourages students to take one class. “You could figure out what the next step is,” she says.
Toro finds that the policy “opens the doors for students not spending an exuberant amount of money,” but many students are still disadvantaged in their access.
Regardless of any lingering cynicism, Rhode Island’s educators seem happy to ally themselves with undocumented students on their path to college. Says Carpenter, the policy change was like a “celebration. [Students] could finally access something they could not access before. [It was] this liberation for them.”
Far from the nincompoop educators of the silver screen, high school faculty in Rhode Island are working with and for their students, hoping to achieve as much as possible through this policy change.
Alex Castro, RWU ’14