Graduation season is supposed to be a time of jubilation and glee, but the cruelty of President Trump’s budget has hung like a cloud over this season. As our high school seniors were making college decisions and many of our alumni were graduating from colleges in May, the White House released a $4.1 trillion budget titled, “
A New Foundation for American Greatness.” This proposed budget does little to strengthen our country. It slashes billions in funding for K-12 education and federal financial aid programs that have made college more affordable for generations of low-income Americans. It cuts programs that help prepare teachers and allow recent graduates to take jobs in government and nonprofit organizations. The consequences would be dire for our nation’s schools and communities, crippling our ability to give all students a high-quality education and prepare more students for college. Besides exacerbating inequality, the budget would also intensify another crisis for schools: dealing with the consequences of federal agents that will continue to aggressively arrest immigrants—including some who are here legally—and break up our students’ families. Since January, federal agents have arrested 41,000 undocumented immigrants—a 40 percent increase over the same period last year. The administration is now asking for $2.7 billion to build a border wall and a massive deportation force that will only sow fear in our school communities. Many of our students and families are deeply worried. I have a sense of what they are going through because I was once in their shoes. I was born in Mexico and came to the United States when I was four years old. I was undocumented—a detail I kept from most people because I was afraid. What would others do if they found out my family was in the country illegally? Would they question my worth and lose respect for me? Would they think we were criminals and call the police? These fears haunted me as a child and still haunt me as an adult, although I am now a U.S. citizen. While I have the security of citizenship, I fear for our children who live in this fear every day while trying to access an education.
Changing the Trajectory
Despite growing and learning in fear, I prevailed and became the first in my family to graduate from college. What changed my trajectory was a handful of teachers who recognized my potential, challenged me academically and restored my confidence. To them, it did not matter that I came from a neighborhood where there were more high school dropouts than graduates. It did not matter that I had an accent. Because of them, zip code and nationality did not determine my destiny. It was something that took me a long time to recognize and that fueled my ambition in life—to build and lead exceptional schools where all students are empowered to succeed. That’s what the
Camino Nuevo Charter Academy network of charter schools has done over the last 16 years. Ninety-eight percent of our seniors are going to college. These students are the children of immigrants who live in some of the most underserved communities in Los Angeles. The majority are headed to four-year colleges, including top schools like University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Los Angeles, Pitzer College, Syracuse University, Tufts University and University of Southern California. Rigor, social capital, community and agency accelerate our students to success. Fear that families will be torn apart and concerns that their children will not be able to afford college do the opposite. Growing up as an undocumented student, similar fears and concerns threatened to hold me back. Ultimately, however, I succeeded against the odds. Today, 30 years later, dramatic cuts to education and the shift in immigration policy would make it impossible for me to prevail.
As graduation season comes to a close, we should all stand in our students’ shoes for a moment. We must recognize that as leaders in our schools, communities and cities, we can and must do better to ensure that our students access the very best educational opportunities. We must mitigate the fear and help propel our next generation of leaders to a better future. We cannot forget that education will be one of the defining legacies, not only of this administration but of the resiliency of the American Dream. As a parent, immigrant, first-generation graduate and a school leader, I cannot support a budget that would make college less affordable for our students, deprive families of essential services and make life more unstable for immigrant communities. I do not expect our elected officials and allies to do so either.
Photo courtesy of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy.
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...