#NeverAgain protest

‘Really scared and extremely angry’: Why Colorado students are walking out of school Wednesday

From left, Emanuel Lamboy, Jackie Estrada Hernandez, and Elena Skaro, eighth-graders at Grant Beacon Middle School. (Melanie Asmar)

They want this time to be different.

Whether they’re walking out of school on Wednesday to call for new gun laws or whether they’re “walking in” to broader community conversations about violence, Colorado students told Chalkbeat they want the 17 lives lost a month ago in Florida to serve as an impetus for changes that have proven elusive for years.

Students at dozens of schools around Colorado are planning to walk out at 10 a.m. Wednesday, part of a national action to commemorate the victims of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. EMPOWER, the youth branch of the Women’s March, has recorded more than 2,500 planned walkouts around the country.

The issue of mass shootings has a terrible resonance in Colorado, where the murder of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in 1999 shaped a generation. Last year, that attack fell off the list of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern American history.

Colorado has been the site of two other school shootings that quickly passed from national awareness: the 2006 Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis, in which Emily Keyes was killed, and the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting, in which Claire Davis was killed.

Students in the Denver metro area also have a history of political activism. They’ve walked out in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and in support of classmates and teachers affected by President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Unlike in other parts of the country, many, though not all, school leaders here support and facilitate these walkouts, rather than threaten students with punishment.

At the same time, some students have chosen other ways to respond that they find more meaningful than walking out of school.

Here’s what these Colorado students had to say about why they’re doing what they’re doing:

“I was terrified of going to high school because I had heard of Columbine.”

Mariah Clute, a junior at Grandview High School in the Cherry Creek School District, was upset and worried after the shooting in Parkland. People with unstable minds know schools are easy targets, she said. It’s a feeling she’s lived with since middle school.

Back then, she said, “I was terrified of going to high school because I had heard of Columbine.”

Mariah Clute, a junior at Grandview High School in the Cherry Creek School District.

Clute, 17, plans to participate in Wednesday’s walkout because she wants to see real changes that make schools safer.

“I feel like even though this movement is getting pretty big, I think it will get even more attention as people show that they’re serious and they care about it.”

While Clute acknowledges that gun control is a “political minefield,” she said she’d like to see a return to an Obama-era rule that prevented some people with mental health conditions from buying guns.

She’d also like to see stepped-up school security. She’s heard talk about arming teachers and while she thinks that could help, she said, “I don’t feel like all teachers should have guns, at the same time.”

“Really scared and extremely angry”

Saroja Manickam, 15, is one of several students at Eagle Valley High School in western Colorado helping organize Wednesday’s walkout at her school. The sophomore, who said she’s been doing lockdown drills at school since first grade, was moved to get involved after the deadly shooting in Florida.

Saroja Manickam, a sophomore at Eagle Valley High School in western Colorado.

“When I read the news about the Parkland shooting I was just really scared and extremely angry about what was happening,” she said.

Manickam believes the Parkland shooting has resonated so strongly across the country because, “It’s the youth, it’s the kids from the actual shooting talking about it.”

Manickam said the point of her high school’s walkout is to spur action, though she also recognizes the tension in talking about gun control in a rural community where many people use firearms recreationally.

“We’re not saying we need to take away all guns,” she said. “This is to honor the victims and say something should be done.”

Manickam and her fellow walkout organizers have met with their principal and gotten permission to walk along a stretch of road in front of the school. She hasn’t made the sign she’ll carry yet, but she’s considering this message: “Could I be next?”

“Staying in and finishing what they started”

Eighteen-year-old Jabari Lottie is not planning to walk out of school Wednesday. Instead, the senior at northeast Denver’s Manual High School is helping plan a “walk-in” later this month so students from several nearby schools can come together to talk about gun violence.

The events that occurred happened while students were in the building,” Lottie said. “I feel like walking out is almost more disrespectful than staying in and finishing what they started.”

Manual High School student Jabari Lottie. (Courtesy Jabari Lottie)

Lottie has participated in protests before, joining other Manual students in walking out in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. He was also part of a walk-in at which Manual students hosted Denver police officers for a conversation about the relationship between law enforcement and the community. He said he preferred the conversation.

“We did a silent walkout and yeah, the people saw us in the streets, policemen saw us in the streets, but at the end of the day, it’s only a representation of what we think,” Lottie said. “But (with) a walk-in, we can really have a discussion.”

The planned walk-in on gun violence will feature students leading conversations about the necessity of guns and the dangers of them, the arguments for and against stricter gun control laws, and how other countries regulate guns compared to the United States, Lottie said.

Lottie said he believes something has to be done to keep people from killing each other with guns, a problem he sees as uniquely American. “If we all didn’t have guns, these altercations would not end in violence and mass shootings wouldn’t occur,” he said.

“It really does take a group of people to say we can’t take this anymore.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, a senior at Hinkley High School in Aurora, said the Parkland shooting had a magnified impact at her school when students were placed on lockout the same day.

It’s not entirely clear what happened. There was a report of someone in the school with a gun, Aurora police said, but a gun was never found. Three juveniles were charged with trespassing. A spokesman for the school district said the lockout was a precaution, and the police determined the school was safe.

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, Hinkley High School, Aurora (Courtesy Brianna Mauricio-Perez)

Mauricio-Perez said many students and parents feel the school district didn’t provide enough information about the incident and some question whether the correct response was used if the threat was reported inside the school.

“It started making us feel unsafe,” Mauricio-Perez said. “Even though nobody was hurt this time, what is it going to take for something to change?”

When she walks out Wednesday, Mauricio-Perez wants to send a message to her Aurora school district that communication should improve between students, parents, and officials so that all can work together to help keep schools safe. She also wants lawmakers to consider gun regulations.

“Things have to change,” she said. “It really does take a group of people to say we can’t take this anymore.”

“We need to show that this time will be different.”

A few weeks ago, Madeline Dean and several of her classmates from the Denver School of Science and Technology’s Stapleton campus went to the Colorado Capitol to testify against a bill that would have allowed people with concealed carry permits to bring handguns on to school grounds.

This bill, sponsored by a survivor of the Columbine massacre who now serves as the top Republican in the House, is part of Colorado’s perennial gun debate. Every year, Democrats kill this legislation after hours of emotional testimony.

It was there that students from DSST: Stapleton heard about the walkouts and started talking about doing their own. Many people thought Sandy Hook would be a turning point, said Dean, a senior, especially because the victims were so young. But nothing happened. She hopes this time is different.

“There is a lot of fear when you go to school and when you have lockdown drills,” Dean said. “In a lot of ways, students are directly affected by this, but they haven’t spoken out before. … Now that it’s happened again, we need to show that this time will be different, and we won’t accept this anymore.”

Dean sees the problem of gun violence as much broader than just mass shootings.

“A lot of people aren’t thinking about how it’s connected to other issues like police brutality and mental health,” she said. “We don’t talk about that, but people who care about those issues should care about this one.”

“We are honoring those people who lost their lives, with action.”

Caitlin Danborn, a 17-year-old junior at Arvada West High School in Jeffco, decided to organize a walkout at her school because she was inspired by the students in Florida, upset that shootings continue to happen, and worried after threats were made at her school just days after the shooting in Florida.

Caitlin Danborn, 17, Arvada West High School, Jeffco. (Courtesy photo)

“That really spoke to everyone at our school,” Danborn said. “We’ve had tightened security measures since then. We have to do things like sign out when we go to the bathroom.”

School administrators heard about Danborn’s plans when her Facebook event for the walkout had about 50 people confirming they would participate. Working with the administration, teachers, and other students, Danborn said the plans for Wednesday’s walkout will call for students to walk across the school to a field where students will form the shape of a heart. A drone will take aerial photos. Throughout the day, there will be letter-writing stations at the school where students can write a letter to their representatives.

“We wanted to have something tangible and very intentional that would be very visible,” Danborn said.

She thinks it’s unfortunate that students who are in fear have to stand up for change, but says that is why things are different after the Parkland shootings.

“I hope that people can see unity, and they can see that school safety and gun violence are two issues kids feel passionately about — enough that we’re willing to get up and walk out and do something visible,” Danborn said. “I also hope they can see that we are honoring those people who lost their lives, with action.”

“People will stop and say, ‘What are these kids doing?’”

Eighth-graders Ada Youngstrom, Lillian Lemme, and Rachel Zizmor say they’re motivated to walk out of school by love for the community they have at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver.

“One of the big things we were talking about when we presented to our classmates is that one person with a gun could destroy our community,” Youngstrom, 13, said. “Skinner is a family, and gun violence has made us understand that that could go away so fast.”

From left: Lillian Lemme, Rachel Zizmor, Ada Youngstrom, all eighth-graders at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver. (Courtesy Ada Youngstrom)

The students all come from politically active families, attended the Women’s March, and frequently discuss current events in social studies class. They’re frustrated that previous school shootings haven’t created any policy changes, and they don’t want this one to fade from the public eye.

“One thing I really want adults and politicians to take from this is that we’re not going to forget anymore,” Youngstrom said. “I’m never going to forget about the 17 (people) who are killed. From the day of the shooting on, we are holding their memories and their lives in our hands. I’m not going to just stand by.”

The organizers are hoping that between 300 and 600 students will walk out of school. Seventeen students will stand outside the school to represent the 17 lives lost as their classmates march out to West 38th Avenue, the main thoroughfare in the neighborhood.

“What we’re hoping to accomplish is that because 38th is a busy street, people will stop and say, ‘What are these kids doing?’ and know that we are doing something and maybe become aware,” said Lemme, 14. “If there’s a procession of 300 to 600 students, that’s not something you can ignore.”

The students said they know that walkouts by themselves won’t change laws, but it’s a way to honor the lives lost and keep the pressure on policy makers.

“This is powerful because it’s silent to show respect for the students in Florida, but by itself, it’s not going to change anything,” Zizmor, 14, said. “It’s a step in the right direction. … Just because we’re kids and we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference.”

“17 different things that would make a change”

The eighth-graders organizing the walkout at Denver’s Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver are hoping to focus on more than just the debate over gun control. Part of their goal is to give their fellow students different ways to honor the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting.

They’ve timed their walkout to last 17 minutes, with sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders each leaving school through different doors and taking similarly timed routes to the same public park. There, the students will read the names of the 17 victims and hold a moment of silence for each.

But for those who don’t want to walk out, or who want to do something more, the students are offering another option – one with its very own hashtag: #What’sYour17? The idea is to encourage teenagers to do “17 different things that would make a change,” said 13-year-old Jackie Estrada Hernandez, one of the students planning the walkout.

Those things could be as simple as smiling at 17 new people, the students said.

“It would help the community out because some people have problems, but if you smile and give them a compliment or something, it would probably make their day,” said Elena Skaro, 14.

Emanuel Lamboy, 13, had a different take.

“I imagine I’m smiling at the 17 people that died and trying to commemorate them,” he said.


Immigration fears

Chicago on Trump administration changes: ‘A sicker, poorer and less secure community’

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
A scene from an August immigration rally in downtown Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel submitted a public comment on the proposed public charge rule changes on Monday.

The possibility of tougher rules on immigration and citizenship has provoked “tremendous fear” and plummeting participation in publicly funded daycare programs and afterschool care, according to a federal memorandum the City of Chicago submitted Monday.

The Trump administration has proposed changes that would weigh participation in programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, or housing assistance when granting residency and citizenship.

The changes could be devastating, the Chicago memorandum warns.

They could affect 110,000 Chicago residents, according to the filing. One in three Chicago residents receives Medicaid benefits, which the proposed changes would affect.

Chicago and New York led a coalition of 30 cities that filed comments to the Department of Homeland Security over changes to the so-called “public charge” rule, which is used by immigration officials to decide who is allowed entry and permanent residency in the United States.

“History teaches that, given this choice, many immigrants will choose to forgo public aid, which will make them a sicker, poorer, and less secure community,” according to the City of Chicago’s comments. You can read the entire document below.

Already, the city said, a group called Gads Hill that operates child care centers in Pilsen and North Lawndale has struggled to enroll children because of families’ worries about the impending rules.

Another operator, Shining Star Youth and Community Services in South Chicago, saw families start to keep children home since the proposed changes were announced.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago told the city that participation in its after-school programming also has taken a hit, the filing said.

The changes to the proposed rule do not specifically mention Head Start or any of the publicly funded child care programs. But many families are fearful that participation in anything offered by the government — from child care to health care to even food programs — would bring them to the attention of immigration authorities.

Early childhood advocates shared similar concerns at a November meeting of the Early Learning Council, an influential group of policymakers who help set the state agenda for children ages birth to 5.

“Families are very confused about the changes,” Rocio Velazquez-Kato, an immigration policy analyst with the Latino Policy Forum, told the group. “They think that by enrolling in Head start or free and reduced-price lunch at school — that it will factor against them.”

Public comment on the proposed rule change was due Monday. The 60-day public comment period is required by law before the federal government delivers a final recommendation.

College Dreaming

A new law is helping undocumented students in New Jersey attend college, but challenges remain

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/Chalkbeat
Gloria, Nestor, and Sergio at Gloria’s graduation from Essex County College in Newark in 2018

This story was produced by the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School, in partnership with Chalkbeat and WNYC. Ashley Okwuosa is a reporting fellow with the Teacher Project.

When New Jersey’s governor signed a law in May giving undocumented immigrant students access to state financial aid for college, Gloria Rodriguez was prepared. The 22-year-old Orange resident had been working toward this moment for nearly a decade — about the same time it had taken the law’s supporters to get the bill passed.

Years of motivated, diligent schoolwork had enabled her to graduate as the valedictorian of her class at West Caldwell Tech High School in 2016. But without access to state or federal aid at the time, Gloria could only afford community college.

“That was my only plan,” she said.

She attended Newark’s Essex Community College and applied last spring, as she was wrapping up her associate’s degree, to four-year universities to continue her education. But while accepted to several, she had little hope of attending any of them. Money in her family, which includes her parents and four siblings, was too tight. Her father, who migrated from Puebla, Mexico 18 years ago, worked as a landscaper, earning roughly $30,000 a year.

The new law suddenly gave Gloria hope. She immediately gathered her parents’ tax returns, proof of residency, and high school verification — all required for the application — and submitted them online in June. Then began a nervous wait.

New Jersey is the tenth state in the country to provide both in-state tuition discounts and state financial aid for college for undocumented students. As of 2016, New Jersey had about 60,000 undocumented residents between the ages of 18 and 24, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute, who are potentially eligible for this new assistance.

Just shy of a third of these residents are already enrolled in college — either two or four-year institutions. Another subset of students — no one knows exactly how many — are not high school graduates or haven’t attended a New Jersey high school for at least three years, a requirement to receive aid under the law.

And then there are students like Gloria, one of 1,365 undocumented New Jerseyans who applied for the aid by the first deadline of September 15. The number is small owing partly to a bumpy rollout and to less-than-ideal timing, an experience that holds lessons for other states looking to expand access to higher education.

Among the biggest challenges have been simply spreading the word and gaining the buy-in of students and families that often have little familiarity with an already labyrinthe process of college admissions and financial aid. This is especially true at a political moment when distrust of the government is running high, due to high-profile roundups of undocumented workers across the country by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE.

“I think today’s national climate makes things a little bit trickier,” said Nicholas Ramjattan, assistant manager of financial aid at Rutgers University-Newark. “There are a lot more folks who are more fearful today than they were two years ago.”

Teachers and administrators say they have also received little to no information about the specifics of the new law, a task that has largely fallen to already besieged local immigrant groups and overworked college representatives.

“There’s no mandatory training for [high school] counselors to have to know this stuff,” said Nedia Morsy, lead organizer at Make the Road New Jersey, an immigrant advocacy organization. And although educators and immigrant advocates say New Jersey should be applauded for how quickly it has tried to implement the program, more needs to be done if access to higher education is to expand in the ways the law’s backers imagined.

A decade-long fight

The battle to provide this aid is partly a Newark story, beginning with Teresa Ruiz, a former pre-kindergarten teacher who grew up in Newark’s North Ward and who in 2008 became New Jersey’s first Hispanic woman elected to the state senate. In the years since, she has become a political powerbroker and a leading voice in state education policy. (Ruiz reportedly played a critical role, for example, ensuring that Roger León, a lifelong Newarker and the son of Cuban immigrants, would become Newark’s first Hispanic schools superintendent and the first to oversee the district after decades of state oversight.)

Three weeks after Ruiz was sworn into office, she and Democratic colleagues in the senate introduced a bill that would grant undocumented students access to in-state tuition rates. It also outlawed community colleges from barring undocumented students from enrolling.

The bill fell short of the necessary votes. Five years later, Ruiz tried again after Chris Christie, the state’s former Republican governor, took office. Christie, however, was eyeing a Presidential run at the time and was leery of the proposal, worrying in 2013 to one radio station that he didn’t want New Jersey becoming “a magnet state” for undocumented immigrants.

But citing the economic benefits to the state, Christie did eventually back Ruiz’s original bill, giving it the support it needed to pass. He called it an opportunity for New Jersey to maximize its investment in undocumented students whom the state had already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars educating in grades K through 12. Starting in 2014, undocumented students became eligible in many cases for in-state tuition levels, which lowered the cost of higher education for their families. Actual aid, however, remained off the table.

“It definitely helped a lot more people be able to go to college, and it made it affordable — but not affordable enough,” said Giancarlo Tello, co-founder of UndocuJersey, which provides educational resources for the state’s undocumented students. A 2015 report from the College Board listed New Jersey as the fourth most expensive state for college in a state where undocumented families make just under  $35,000 annually on average.

After Christie left office, Ruiz found a new ally in newly-elected Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, who campaigned on a promise to support New Jersey’s undocumented population. Legislation to provide state aid for college for undocumented students advanced quickly after Murphy was sworn in last January. The bill passed both the senate and assembly by April, and moved off Murphy’s desk the next month as law.

It had an immediate impact on Gloria Rodriguez.

A journey from Mexico — and a father’s “biggest blessing”

Unlike some other states, under New Jersey’s new law, students can use its financial aid at both public and private universities within the state. As a result, Gloria was able to accept admission to Bloomfield College, a private university not far from her family’s home. She liked this proximity and how the campus’ verdant lawn was surrounded by small bungalows. Most important, the college’s education program was well-ranked. As early as elementary school, Gloria had dreamed of becoming a special education teacher.

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/Chalkbeat
The Rodriguez family at dinner

“It’s something that I know that I have the patience for,” she said. “I would do anything to help someone who needs my help.”

For years, Gloria’s family had been on a personal mission to get at least one of the family’s five children — all undocumented — into a four-year college. Her father, Constantino, a farm worker, emigrated from Mexico on his own in 2000, hoping for better treatment for his severe asthma attacks. He quickly found work as a landscaper. His wife, Valentina, and oldest son, Sergio, joined him two years later.

In 2004, Gloria, her two older sisters, and younger brother, Nestor, followed. They traveled by car from Mexico. Gloria remembers very little about the trip other than it was long and uncomfortable. But the promise of being reunited with her family kept her spirits up.

“We couldn’t think of anything else other than the fact that we were going to see my dad and Sergio,” she recalled.

Her father, a devout Catholic, described having his family together in New Jersey as his “biggest blessing.”

Sergio, the oldest Rodriguez son, had dreamed of attending university and studying to become an engineer or architect. But when he graduated from East Orange High School in 2012 near the top of his class, undocumented students were not yet eligible even for in-state tuition rates. Sergio, 25, says he did not get a welcoming reception from most of the community colleges and vocational programs he approached. They all asked if he had a green card or social security number.

“I used to say no,” Sergio said. “And they were like, ‘Oh, well, you have no chance to study.’”

Sergio decided to save for college by painting houses and doing other small jobs. But he quickly realized that paying tuition out-of-pocket wouldn’t be feasible for years, if ever. “I gave up trying,” he said. His two sisters, Rosa and Rufina, decided to go straight to work after high school to contribute to the family’s income.

“An Ivy League School — or Essex County College”

After graduating high school in 2016, Gloria picked up the baton, applying to half a dozen schools in the state, including Rutgers, Montclair State University, and Fairleigh Dickinson. But she only received one scholarship offer, from Fairleigh Dickinson; at $10,000, it barely made a dent in the more than $30,000 sticker-price for tuition.

So Gloria decided to scale back her ambitions and enrolled at Essex, where she could receive a small scholarship from an organization called The Dream.US that helps recipients of the Obama-era DACA program attend college.

Jose Mercado, a guidance counselor at Newark’s Science Park High School, says that Gloria’s case is far from unique, even at a top public magnet school like Science Park, which has selective admissions. Before the new law, undocumented students with strong academic records in New Jersey typically had only two options: Get into an elite private school that could afford to offer a large scholarship — or community college.

Such students “either went to an Ivy League school — or Essex County College,” he said. “There was no middle ground.”

So when the new law was approved late in the spring, immigrant families and advocates were elated. But the timing left little time for recent graduates to change course or benefit in time for the fall semester.

“At this point, students are already wrapped up,” said Brian Donovan, vice principal of the bilingual program at Newark’s East Side High School.  “For someone who’s a senior, and they’re finding out this information at the end of the school year, it’s kind of hectic.”

The confusion was evident at a June event at the school, where about 100 undocumented students and parents gathered to learn about the change from school staff, recalled Donovan. They lobbed question after question about who was eligible for the aid, how to apply, and the status of DACA, given President Trump’s stated desire to rescind the program.

Donovan said that he struggled to enumerate the eligibility requirements and necessary documents — much less whether it was safe to apply at all. “It was like when a teacher needs to teach something, and they’re not prepared,” he said.

Like other teachers, Donovan noted that the school had never received guidance from the state — or anyone else — about how to communicate with students, a problem that has arisen in other states with similar programs. Instead, the process is often left entirely to individual educators to research if they wish to share their states’ laws regarding undocumented students and college access. (One undocumented student from Plainfield, for instance, said that her high school counselor suggested she attend college in Canada, because the counselor was unsure what options were available to the student in New Jersey.)

Even for those who did apply over the summer, uncertainty reigned. Nicole Romero, a 22-year-old undocumented student from Peru who lives in Paterson, said that although she applied in May as soon as the application appeared online, she didn’t hear back until after the new school year had started in August.

“I spent the whole summer stressing about whether or not I would get aid,” she said.   

A coveted scholarship declined

Gloria Rodriguez was luckier. Because she had already applied to four universities and been accepted that spring, she was in a position to take advantage of the potential aid. She heard in August that she would receive an estimated $12,000 from the state’s Tuition Aid Grant program in addition to a private scholarship from Bloomfield College.  She was one of 665 students statewide who were approved for such assistance. As of November, 350 other applications were still pending, and 350 had been denied.

College “was one of my biggest dreams, and now it’s actually happening!” she said.

But Gloria’s brother, Nestor, the baby of the family, wasn’t so fortunate. He was a high school senior at West Caldwell Tech High School last school year and a soccer star on the school’s team. Not knowing that he was undocumented, the soccer coach at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morris Township last winter offered Nestor an athletic scholarship. But it still wasn’t enough, by itself, to make the college’s tuition affordable.

Given the uncertainty about whether additional aid would be available, Gloria encouraged Nestor to focus his sights on community college — as she had done.

“I told him go to Essex County College, make sure you do well in all your classes. And once you graduate, you might be able to transfer,” she said.

By the time Nestor learned he might qualify for state aid under the new law in addition to the sports scholarship, Nestor, who loved nothing more than playing soccer, had declined the coach’s offer.

“Are they going to take my parents away?”

The timing of the law has presented other challenges as well. Morsy, the lead organizer at Make the Road, says that with DACA in flux and a barrage of immigration-related dispatches from the federal government, it’s been hard for schools to stay on top of laws and policies affecting their immigrant students — much less win their trust in deeply uncertain times.

In 2017, President Trump signed an executive order stating that anyone living in the country illegally would be subject to arrest, detention, and possible deportation. This, coupled with increased cooperation between law enforcement officials and ICE in New Jersey reignited a fear among undocumented families who had lived in the state for years.

Yari Pares, a guidance counselor at Newark’s East Side High School, said some of his immigrant students feared applying for the new aid might lead to deportation. “They asked, ‘If I sign up for this, are they going to take my parents away? Are they going to come and get me?’”

Other states with similar programs have seen the numbers of undocumented applicants shrink since Trump’s election. In California undocumented students have qualified for state aid since 2013 but the number of applicants plummeted last winter.

“The headlines about immigration make people feel like they’re really in the spotlight,” Jane Slater, a teacher at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, Calif., told the Los Angeles Times. “Kids are more afraid for their families than they are for themselves.”

Even for undocumented students in New Jersey who have the courage to apply, the specifics of the process can still prove daunting, said Natalia Morisseau, director of financial aid at Rutgers University-Newark. The Higher Education Assistance Authority, or HESAA, which administers the aid, often asks students to verify information, including tax forms, proof of income, or New Jersey residency. This can be difficult for students whose parents get paid under the table or live with relatives and don’t have their names on apartment leases.

“It’s a population of people who’ve lived under the radar for many, many years,” she said. “When you live undocumented it’s just that, undocumented.”

“A pain in the butt”

New Jersey adopted an ambitious timeline for rolling out the aid: making the application available online immediately after Murphy signed the bill on May 9. In other states with similar laws, the legislation did not go into effect within the same academic year. David Socolow, executive director of HESAA, said his team began preparing months in advance out of a desire to serve as many students as possible as quickly as possible.

“Their motives were good,” said John Gunkel, vice chancellor for academic programs and strategic partnerships at Rutgers-Newark. “But it was a very short timeline,” which he suspected “made it difficult to think through and communicate through the issues.”

Like California’s, New Jersey’s first iteration of the application form was an online PDF. Even officials from HESAA admit that this was inconvenient for both students and the agency, because students could not easily save partially completed applications. As a result, the agency often received multiple versions of the same application when students resubmitted it if they made an error.

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/Chalkbeat
Nestor and Gloria at his high school graduation in 2018

“It would be easier if it were a computer system where people could do ten questions, take a break, and come back a day later, but we couldn’t get that up and running in time,” said Socolow.

Romero, the student who spent the whole summer anxiously awaiting word about her application, said the process would have been “overwhelming and scary” without support from Make the Road. When she heard from the state in August, she learned she’d been approved for $6,000 in aid, which she is now using to attend Montclair State University.

Another student who attends New Jersey City University said that he was told the state had three applications under his name, which delayed his receipt of funds. “That was my first experience with the application,” said the student, who asked that his name not be used given his immigration status. “I said if it’s going to be like this, that’s going to be a pain in the butt.”

Delays are normal for any student receiving state aid, not just those who are undocumented students, said Jennifer Azzarano, a spokesperson from HESAA. Students are often asked to submit additional tax and income forms, and colleges have to certify that students are attending or registered to attend.

“That’s for anyone,” she said. But the process is usually simpler, Azzarano added, for aid renewals.

On October 1, HESAA launched a new online application for the 2019 spring semester and the 2019-20 academic year. So far, students and advocates say it’s much more user-friendly. “It’s way easier and more understandable,” said the New Jersey City University student.

A role model: “I see her study every day”

In the meantime, in the absence of better guidance and support from schools, students have looked to immigrant organizations like Make the Road, which held weekly workshops over the summer when school was not in session for students to work on their applications. But no matter how user-friendly the process becomes, increasing undocumented students’ access in New Jersey could benefit from broader changes.  

For example, undocumented students could be encouraged to apply for state aid as a matter of course, in the same way other students routinely fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, (which is so ubiquitous that over 18,000,000 students applied in 2016-2017).

“We need to normalize it the way we’ve normalized FAFSA,” said Jennifer Ayala, director of the Center for Undocumented Students at St. Peter’s University.

The process went more smoothly for Gloria partly because she had practiced filling out the FAFSA forms as a high schooler. But even a sister’s coaching and concern did not prove strong enough to propel her younger brother Nestor to college, at least not this school year. Four days before the start of the semester, Nestor decided not to enroll in community college because he wouldn’t be able to play soccer. During the day, he now works as a cashier at a pharmacy not far from his family’s home in Orange; in the evenings, he practices the game. The entire family was devastated — especially Gloria.  

“It’s unbelievable,” she said. “There are other students who wish they could go to college and don’t have the opportunities that he has right now.”

Even a brief detour from an academic trajectory can be costly. Research shows that those who don’t immediately go to college right after high school can lose “academic momentum” and are less likely to attend or earn a college diploma in the future. Rates of college attendance in Newark, for example, have risen in recent years. But many students, especially those from low-income households, have still struggled to complete college within six years or don’t end up at more rigorous, four-year institutions. The prohibitive cost of tuition and the difficulty juggling necessary jobs and college coursework are among the potential barriers to completion.

With the help of state aid, Gloria has quickly acclimated to life at Bloomfield, where she’s already a member of the honors college; her favorite class is Western literature. Ever prepared, she has already begun practicing to take a teaching certification exam called the Praxis and plans to spend as much of her winter break as possible studying.

At family dinners, she regales her siblings with tales of college life and what she’s reading; she works on homework late in the night in a small home office littered with building plans from her brother Sergio’s construction work.

“I see her study every day,” said Sergio.

As students see their siblings, classmates, and peers pursuing college degrees, this model may provide additional assistance to undocumented families. In Gloria’s household, this is already proving to be the case. Inspired by his big sister’s example, Nestor said recently that he plans to apply to college for next year.

Gloria’s drive has reignited his passion and motivation (not to mention a small competitive streak). “I’m trying to be like her —  if not better,” he said.

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