July 28, 2008

Life After High School

By Stephen Wall

The San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools office has put out a new brochure informing illegal-immigrant students of their right to pursue higher education in California.

A 2002 law allows longtime California residents, regardless of citizenship status, to pay in-state tuition fees at public colleges and universities if they meet certain requirements.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that all students - even those in the country illegally - are entitled to a free public education from kindergarten through 12th grade.

But many parents and students who aren't legal residents don't know about academic opportunities available after high school, education advocates say.

"The reality is undocumented students feel there is no life after high school," said Gil Navarro, a San Bernardino County school board member. "They can't get a job (legally). They don't have a Social Security number. With this law being in existence, it will give them a new opportunity they weren't aware of before."

Navarro pushed the county superintendent's office to create the brochure, available in English and Spanish, through the Parent Information Resource Center. The pamphlet is similar to one put out by the Colton Joint Unified School District.

The federally funded center - one of two in the state along with the Alameda County Office of Education - works with local school districts and parent leaders to disseminate the information.

"Education is an opportunity that should be available to students," said Christine McGrew, spokeswoman for the county superintendent's office. "This is a law that has made that available. We have a role to at least provide that information."

Assembly Bill 540 allows illegal immigrants who attended a California high school for at least three years and graduated to pay the same college tuition fees as legal residents and U.S. citizens.

Before the law went into effect, illegal immigrants were charged "out-of-state" tuition, which is as much as eight times higher than the amount paid by California residents.

Hector Gonzalez, a 23-year-old student at Cal Poly Pomona, entered the country illegally with his parents when he was 3.

As a student in the International Baccalaureate program at Cajon High School in San Bernardino, Gonzalez graduated near the top of his class in 2003.

But he thought his illegal status prohibited him from going to college.

"I didn't think I had any options except work since I was undocumented," said Gonzalez, who works full-time at a Mexican restaurant to pay for his studies. "It was pretty disappointing and heartbreaking."

He found out about his higher-education opportunities a year after he finished high school. Then he attended Cal State San Bernardino for two years, studying psychology.

In 2006, he transferred to Cal Poly Pomona and changed his major to mechanical engineering. After getting his bachelor's degree, he plans to apply for the master's and doctorate programs at UC Riverside.

Elsa Valdez, a San Bernardino City Unified School District board member, said the law is another way to increase the number of college-bound students.

"Regardless of how you feel about immigrant students," Valdez said, "it's better to have a large working productive society rather than thousands of uneducated students with low skills who can't contribute to the economy."

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