Yesterday, I encountered a former student, an earnest young woman who wants to be a nurse. Hardworking and resilient, her ambition almost breaks my heart. Her mother cleans hotel rooms for a living, for a boss who takes advantage of the fact that she is without the papers the rest of us take for granted – the social security number, the proof of insurance, the library card, and so forth. This future nurse who goes to church every Sunday, who volunteers in her community, who never misses a day of school, lives quietly, in the shadows, afraid of being deported to a country she left as an infant, in the arms of her mother.

And then there’s the student who called me last week, out of the blue, to ask if I knew any rich people, if I knew anyone who would sponsor him to continue his college education. A bright student, he tells me he’s spending his summer doing ‘Mexican jobs’ and that the scholarships have all been exhausted. I don’t know what to tell him. No longer the innocent little toddler who took his first steps on American soil, he is now a man, considered illegal, an alien, and worse. While his American born peers have graduated from high school and landed trendy jobs at the Mac store or the local Starbucks, he has depended on the kindness of strangers to get by, working for cash under the table and being transported by friends with easily acquired driver’s licenses and social security numbers. What stings most for me, as an immigrant and as a principal, are the college credits accumulated, at no cost, by his American friends, those who were able, by virtue of their birthplace, to take full advantage of the early college high school program I founded in 2003.

I continue to be dismayed and disheartened by this. Federal law guarantees a free and appropriate education (FAPE) to all K-12 students, regardless of status. In Arizona, with its plethora of charter schools, ‘free and appropriate’ can run the gamut. Mission driven, a charter school does not have to be all things to all people My school, with its early college focus, differs from from a school sponsored by the NFL, let’s say, and that’s a good thing. Families should be able to choose a school that fits their needs. But here’s the rub. Proposition 300, a referendum overwhelmingly approved by the voters of Arizona in November of 2006, provides that college or university students who are not United States citizens or permanent residents, or who do not have lawful immigration status, are ineligible for in-state tuition status or financial aid that is funded or subsidized by state monies. Students like my future nurse or my modern-day Pip, desperately seeking a Magwitch-like benefactor. This means that successful early college high schools are forced to discriminate against minors, denying undocumented children the right to the ‘free and appropriate education’ funded by their very attendance!

I’m no lawyer, but surely Prop 300 flies in the face of FAPE? Then again, who could file a complaint? Not my students. To do so, they would have to step out of the shadows and most certainly into removal proceedings.

The DREAM Act must pass. It makes sense. But we must also do something about those students who have yet to graduate from high school. How do we keep them safe?

Last year, I appeared on Horizonte a couple of times to talk about this very dilemma. A student, Noemi, accompanied me to the station and sat, in silhouette, to tell her story. What keeps her going? Easy. The knowledge that one day, when she is a pediatrician, she will take care of the grandchild of someone who voted for Prop 300.

In case you missed it …