Twenty-two-year old Norma never thought she would earn a high school diploma. Her grandparents in Mexico couldn't afford to keep her in school once she completed the elementary grades, and she was resigned to a life of menial jobs.
A few years ago Norma saved her money, paid a smuggler to help her cross the border and ended up in Houston. Her first job: cleaning the offices of Enron at night.
She was too old to go to high school and went from one minimum wage job to another, cleaning offices and homes and working at fast-food chicken restaurants.
"When I got here I didn't have any friends," she said. "I worked at nighttime and I didn't know anybody. It was hard. It was scary."
She wanted to go to school but did not have an option that fit her schedule or her needs. Houston is a hub for immigrants, and the need to do something for others in situations like Norma's was becoming obvious to educators.
"In recent years, we were receiving more and more older-age students -- teenagers in essence -- and we knew the window of time we had with them to be successful was frankly, very brief," said Abelardo Saavedra, superintendent for the Houston Independent School District.
Scheduling a New System of Classes
Something radically different was needed to service the educational needs of Houston's youth. One Houston principal noted kids were dropping through the cracks daily.
"Several years ago we were looking at students who were coming to Lee High School, then leaving us. They weren't staying. They were dropping out. We knew we had to find a way to serve them," said Steve Amstutz, principal at Lee High School on Houston's west side.
His response was to design a school within a school for students between the ages of 17 and 22 who had been living in the United States for fewer than three years, had fewer than six credits toward graduation and limited English.
Classes would be offered at night and on Saturdays, to accommodate the students' work schedules.
Saavedra agreed with Amstutz's vision, and soon after he took over Houston's school district, he gave the go ahead to the Newcomer Charter High School, which opened in January 2004..
"It's the right thing to do. We are obligated if we want to do the right thing," Saavedra said. "When you consider that these are young people that are already in our community, they will most likely be in our community for many years to come. Houston becomes better when a large part of our population is educated. If we ignore this segment of our population, then we all suffer as a result of that."
A 1982 Supreme Court ruling forbids school districts from asking students if they are citizens, and federal law requires that any child residing in the United States be educated without regard to citizenship. "Public school systems cannot determine whether young people are legally in our country or not," Saavedra said.
'Something That Motivates You'
The Newcomer school opened with 125 students, and another 200 are on a waiting list.
Illustrating that demand, kids like Erick Villalobos lined up to get into the school, taking on a demanding schedule to fit both work and his education.
While in school, Villalobos would get up at 4:30 in the morning to go to work at a factory, making coolers. He would then attend classes from 5 to 11 each night, go home and do homework, and sleep for four hours before starting it all over again.
"I was alone in the country. But when I got into this school, I got a lot of friends, and it is like something that motivates you to go ahead and get ahead," Villalobos said.
He graduated a month ago, and is now applying to colleges, hoping to major in computer networking. He is a classic example of the American dream. "If I can do it, everybody can do it," Villalobos said. "I don't have words to express how great this is."
The director of the school, Monico Rivas, knows each student and understands his or her needs, as he was an immigrant himself. He said the key to the Newcomer school's success is flexibility, as each of the students also holds down a full-time job.
"We don't count seat time. We count mastery of the subject," Rivas said. "Just to be here after a long day at work, balancing school with those responsibilities takes a different approach."
Classes for students at Newcomer run for 12 months, in the evening and on Saturdays. These students don't get summer breaks, just an occasional three-day weekend.
The demanding schedule is worth it for Norma. "It is hard, because sometimes you don't have time to be with your family. I have to go to school so we can have a better life. It is not easy. It is hard, but we can do it," she said.
Norma added that when she gets her high school diploma, she hopes to go to college and one day become a teacher. She wants to give back to the country that has given her so much.