The border isn't school boundary
Express-News San Antonio
Web Posted: http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/education/stories/MYSA072306.01A.education_borderline.143468a.html
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."
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
"The parents set aside money every year, whatever they can afford, to support
the school," Gonzales said in Spanish. "Almost nothing comes from the
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
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
"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."
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
"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
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
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, Josť 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
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
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."