The border isn't school boundary

Web Posted: 07/22/2006 11:41 PM CDT
Jenny LaCoste-Caputo
Express-News Staff Writer

Celinda's morning begins before dawn.

The 22-year-old mother rises first, keeping the tiny house in a Reynosa colonia dark while her husband and four children sleep.

She gathers school clothes for Pablo, her oldest son, packs his backpack, then tiptoes into the sparse room he shares with his three baby sisters. She wraps the 7-year-old in a blanket and carries the sleepy child, like he's still a baby himself, to her car.

The early mornings are necessary to get Pablo to school on time. He doesn't attend the un-air-conditioned, cinderblock escuela nearby, where children play in an unshaded dirt courtyard. Instead, Celinda crosses the bridge from Reynosa, Mexico, to Texas to take her son to a school near the border.

Rosario Acebo lives in Reynosa too, in a roomy brick house behind a gated wall, just a few miles, yet a world away, from Celinda's family. She shares her home, with its spacious kitchen and brightly painted walls, with her husband, Jesus, and their two sons, Guillermo, 12, and Jose Miguel, 9. Baby pictures of the boys dominate the walls.

Rosario's morning also begins before daybreak. After preparing breakfast and making sure the boys are dressed in their pressed school uniforms, she loads them in the family's SUV and prepares for the 45-minute drive to Hidalgo, where they attend school.

There is much that separates Celinda and Rosario, but what they have in common is something parents everywhere share — a determination to find the best education for their children. Each day, the two Reynosa mothers cross a city of more than 1 million people and an international border to achieve that goal, one by breaking the law, the other by obeying it.

While the rest of the U.S. is embroiled in a vitriolic debate about immigration, people on the border for generations have been accustomed to a life that flows naturally between Texas and Mexico. There is perhaps no better illustration of this than the schools.

Some border school districts estimate as many as 10 percent of their students live in Mexico. More affluent parents like Rosario and Jesus gain access to U.S. schools legally, by paying tuition or establishing residency. Others, like Celinda, who spoke on the condition she not be fully identified, fake residency by providing districts with addresses where they claim to live but don't.

Whatever means parents use to enroll their children in U.S. schools, there's little to no hand-wringing along the border over what to do with these children.

Educators look at it this way: Teach now, or pay later.

"Our philosophy is that these children are going to end up in the U.S.," said Olivia Hernandez, Hidalgo Elementary School prinicipal, less than a mile from one of the three bridges connecting the U.S. to Reynosa. "We might as well educate them now."

Invisible borders

On weekday afternoons, parking lots at elementary schools in Brownsville, McAllen, Harlingen and other towns are dotted with cars bearing license plates from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The cars belong to parents picking up their children from school.
A 1982 federal court ruling does not allow public school districts to ask whether a child is a U.S. citizen. Students do, however, have to show proof that they live in the school district. By court order, school districts must enroll children who live with a relative in the U.S., regardless of their immigrant status, as long as they live within district boundaries.

The issue of Mexican children attending U.S. schools isn't limited to the border. When four teenagers from Monclova, Mexico, began playing baseball for Burbank High School in the San Antonio Independent School District, some parents questioned their immigrant status, but the school district could only verify they lived in the district. They later were declared ineligible because of recruiting violations by the coach.

Some families are so eager for their children to attend American schools, they allow them to live with aunts, cousins or grandparents during the week and come home to Mexico on the weekend.

"You can tell on Mondays. The traffic on the bridge is always terrible," said Hernandez, the Hidalgo Elementary principal. "A lot of times they'll stay all weekend and their parents will bring them back Monday morning for school."

Public school officials in the Rio Grande Valley report that a handful of families, like the Acebos, pay tuition. More parents are likely to use false addresses, they said. Celinda, for example, has told offficals in her son's school district that Pablo lives with a relative whose home is near the school.

Small school districts don't have the resources to investigate such claims and there is little inclination to do so in a place that feels more like a hybrid culture than a single nation.

When many Mexican parents see what's available in the U.S. — the sprawling campuses, the shiny playground equipment, not to mention the tantalizing promise of learning English — it's no wonder they find a way to get their children educated here. That is especially true in the midst of critical shortages of schools, teachers and money in Mexico.

In Reynosa, Mexico's fastest-growing city, the proliferation of more than 200 maquiladoras, or manufacturing plants, and the jobs they provide has fueled the problem of too few schools for too many children.

Products built in the maquiladoras are often assembled and shipped from McAllen — another example of the partnership and fluidity along the border.

The school Pablo could attend — Club de Leons No. 4 — didn't exist 14 years ago. Parents in the colonia built it themselves. It started as one ramshackle hut and now consists of two long wings of cinder-block classrooms that face each other and open to a dusty courtyard.

"The children here are very poor, but everything you see came from their parents," said school director Maria Herlinda Gonzales Quiroz.

There is no playground, no library, no lunchroom, no computer lab. Most classrooms have concrete floors and ancient wooden desks. Windows are left open to let air in but do a better job of filling rooms with exhaust fumes and noise. On a recent day, a loudspeaker mounted on a bus blared a commercial for a local political candidate.

"The parents set aside money every year, whatever they can afford, to support the school," Gonzales said in Spanish. "Almost nothing comes from the government."

Mexico's federal government pays for books and teachers' salaries but little else. Gonzales said her teachers get paid every 15 days, on average between $270 and $300.

About 10 percent of children in Mexico who finish elementary school never complete middle school. That's because parents can't afford to send them or there is no school nearby. In Reynosa, Gonzalez said, there aren't enough public secondary schools to accommodate all the children.

Celinda said the sacrifice it takes to send Pablo to school in Texas is worth it.

"We let him go to school here just once," she said of the Reynosa escuela. "The facilities were awful. There was nowhere for the kids to play, really. Trash was overflowing outside the classrooms. That's not what I'm used to. That's not what a school should look like."

Celinda, who went to school in Texas, is a U.S. citizen, as is Pablo, who was born in Texas. But Celinda's husband was deported a couple of years ago after being stopped at a checkpoint along U.S. 281 north of McAllen. His papers, which he says he thought were legal and allowed him to work in the U.S., were forged. He's been working ever since to gain legal access back to the U.S., but the process is long and expensive.

In the meantime, Celinda isn't willing to let her son's education suffer. She knows that what she is doing is not legal, but Pablo comes first.

"My husband works hard so that we can bring Pablo over here," she said. "He knows those schools there are no good."

Sporadic policing

Elaine Hampton, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who studies cross-border education, said four main factors drive parents across the border in search of better education for their children: Access, resources, the chance to learn English, and opportunities for a better future.
"The doors are so much broader on this side," Hampton said.

Hidalgo Superintendent Daniel King estimates about 10 percent of his district's enrollment — roughly 300 kids — are from Mexico. About 15 of those students pay tuition.

"It's a tough issue," he said. "We can't really afford to have people that investigate. We do not have enough employees to stand at the bridge every day and watch who crosses."

King said it's not unusual for families to "rent" addresses. They usually pay about $25 a month to someone who allows them to use their U.S. address, though the Mexican family never actually lives there.

"Sometimes they won't pay and the people renting out the address will call the district and say they don't live here anymore. Then the people will pay and they'll call back and say they do live there," King said. "How much energy do you spend chasing this down?"

In neighboring McAllen, 7 miles north of Hidalgo and the border, the district is more proactive. Not only is McAllen larger — 25,000 students — with more resources, it's also growing and classroom space is tight.

"We send our guys out about two or three times a week to do stakeouts," said Rudy Armendariz, intake officer for McAllen ISD's student support services. "They usually go early in the morning before school starts to find out if they live where they say they do."

Still, Armendariz said the district only investigates if it has reason to be suspicious. If a teacher has difficulty getting in touch with parents or mail from the school district is returned or a student has an unusually high number of tardies or absences, a red flag goes up.

"We do our best to make sure the ones in our schools actually live in the district," Armendariz said. "Whether they're legal citizens or not doesn't matter. But it's nearly impossible to police because there's so many."

Not just the poor

In the Sharyland Independent School District, one of the richer districts in the Valley, many Mexican nationals buy second homes just so their children can attend school here — a legal way for those who can afford it to gain access to U.S. schools.
Roughly one-sixth of Sharyland's district is made up of Sharyland Plantation, a 6,000-acre master-planned community that looks like a resort with clubhouses and swimming pools surrounded by towering palms. Houses range from $130,000 to more than $1 million.

"We do have a very unique situation here in Sharyland," said Superintendent Scott Owings. "We have many people who have two residences. The families stay here during the week and go back to Mexico for the weekends."

Neighboring Hidalgo ISD, where the majority of students are poor, couldn't be more different. But the tiny district has consistently earned the top two rankings under the state's public school accountability system and garnered national attention for its academic success.

Recently, the H-E-B supermarket chain awarded Hildago $100,000 — its Excellence in Education award — for best Texas school district out of the state's 1,034 districts.

That's why the Acebos pay $500 a month to Hidalgo ISD so their sons can attend Hidalgo Elementary and its highly respected dual language program. They chose Hidalgo over Sharyland because of its proximity — it sits directly on the border while Sharyland is a few miles north — and its success in churning out bilingual, biliterate students.

Besides tuition, Rosaria pays about $50 more a week in gas and bridge tolls to get the boys to school. It's a sacrifice, even for a financially comfortable family that stresses education both in academics and the arts.

Guillermo and Jose Miguel take guitar lessons and Jesus just bought Guillermo a laptop computer as a reward for perfect attendance at school.

Jesus is a civil engineer. Rosario gave up her job as an accountant so she could stay at the school all day and drive the boys home in the afternoon. She stays busy in the school's parent volunteer room.

"For us, we want our children to be bilingual, that's the biggest reason," Rosario Acebo said in Spanish. "It's worth it, but we have to budget. First you have to make sure you have your tuition money. Everything else comes after."

Guillermo, the eldest, speaks impeccable English thanks to the district's dual language program. It helps Spanish speakers learn English while maintaining mastery of Spanish.

The soon-to-be sixth-grader wants to stay in Hidalgo schools until he graduates.

"I like it here and all my friends are here," said Guillermo, a tall, serious boy with dark hair and eyes. "It's difficult for my mom to help me with my homework sometimes because she doesn't really speak English. She's always getting the dictionary and looking things up. But my dad helps me with my math and I usually get my homework done at school."

Guillermo has been taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in English since the third grade. This spring he earned a commended performance rating in science.

English has come a little slower for his younger brother, Jos้ Miguel. But the third-grader is doing well in school and wants to stay in Hidalgo.

"I love, love, love to hear him speak English," Rosario said as her older son translated. "It's worth everything when I hear him speak English. I get emotional."

Unintended lessons

The Acebos have options. If they didn't send their children to school in Hidalgo, the boys would be in private school in Reynosa.
For Celinda, the daily trip across the border is the only choice, but it's not an easy one to make. Gas money can be hard to come by and if Celinda or one of the babies is sick, there is no one to take Pablo to school and no good explanation for Pablo's teacher.

"I can't tell them why he's late or absent so much," she said. "They'd kick him out."

One day, Pablo slipped and mentioned in school that he lives in Reynosa. Celinda quickly did damage control, telling school district officials her story — that he lives with a relative in Texas.

Explaining to Pablo why he has to lie about where he goes to school was harder.

"I told him, 'The school over there is no good, mijo,'" Celinda said. "We have to lie for his own good."