Students at Rudsdale Newcomer High School in Oakland, before the pandemic shut down in-person learning. The school was designed for recent immigrant students, and Rudsdale has seen an uptick in enrollment since it moved online, giving working students like 'Ana' greater flexibility. (Courtesy of Emma Batten Bowen)
When it’s time for class, 17-year-old Ana will put down her mop, switch off the vacuum or stop scrubbing the toilet, then ask to borrow her boss’s car keys.
Outside whichever house she’s cleaning that day, she’ll get into the parked car. After opening her Chromebook, she'll connect her hotspot and join her high school classmates on Zoom.
It's not easy.
“I’m trying to do everything alone,” she says. “It’s so hard, I feel like crying. I want to give up.”
But she hasn’t. Almost two years after immigrating to the United States, Ana — a nickname used at her attorney’s request to protect her privacy — is attending high school for the first time. While remote learning has upended the education of so many students in recent months, for Ana, it took a global pandemic to make high school a reality.
She's not alone. In Oakland, where the school district has seen an influx of new immigrant students in recent years, distance learning has created opportunities for some of the most vulnerable among them: unaccompanied immigrant youth like Ana who face daunting obstacles to staying in school.
The Drive to Get Educated
As a child, Ana liked school, but after finishing sixth grade in Guatemala, “I had nowhere to go,” she says. Without money for textbooks, uniforms and other school costs, she began working alongside her mother, harvesting coffee.
It was both the drive to continue her education and economic need that brought her to this country. But after she arrived in Oakland, she went a year without setting foot in a classroom because her housekeeping job made high school unrealistic.
Eventually she learned about a beginning literacy class for adults, and three nights a week, after commuting from East Oakland to San Francisco and back for work, Ana took the bus to the class so she could improve her English.
The teacher, Victoria Carpenter, says Ana stood out as a quick learner.
“She was really smart, that was evident,” Carpenter says. So Carpenter was shocked when weeks into the course, as students were learning how birthdates are formatted in the U.S., she realized Ana had barely turned 17. Legally, she needed to be in high school.
Nate Dunstan, who runs the Oakland Unified School District’s program for refugee and recent immigrant students, came looking for her after getting a call from Carpenter.
“I told him I wanted to be in high school, but I can’t. I have to work,” Ana says.
For Dunstan, the dilemma is familiar. Keeping unaccompanied immigrant youth like Ana in school is one of his biggest challenges. These teenagers often find themselves in precarious living situations with relatives they hardly know, facing intense economic pressures. On top of their own expenses, some have to send money home to their families and pay down debts owed to coyotes who ferried them across the border.
Last year, the dropout rate over four years for newcomers was 36%, compared to 6% for non-newcomers. The number refers to students who dropped out anytime between the beginning of ninth grade in 2016-17 and their expected graduation in 2019-20.
These figures include young immigrants who migrated with families as well as those who came alone, and administrators say the dropout rate for just unaccompanied minors is likely far higher. They’re the students Dunstan worries about most; he’s seen too many struggle with homelessness or ensnared by labor and sex traffickers.
He's hopeful that a new grant to fund a full-time caseworker dedicated to re-engaging out-of-school unaccompanied minors will make a difference.
'What Other Choice Do I Have?'
All this was on Dunstan’s mind when he met Ana.
She made an impression.
“Going to the adult ed class at age 16 — that's incredible,” he says. “That takes a lot of motivation.”
He pulled out "all the stops” to get her enrolled in high school, connecting her with a pro bono immigration attorney and providing a small stipend to help pay bills.
Still, she couldn’t give up work entirely in order to attend school.
That’s where Ana saw how remote learning could work to her advantage.
Her aunt was skeptical.
“What are you going to do, take the computer to work?” Ana remembers her asking.
“What other choice do I have?” Ana replied.
With that, she prepared to start ninth grade at Fremont High School in Oakland.
In the turmoil of the pandemic, Dunstan has managed to enroll other unaccompanied minors. After months of trying, he finally got one young woman into high school when she was forced to stay home from work.
“I got her into a summer school class only because she had COVID,” he says. “She was quarantining and she was like, ‘Well, I might as well take a class now.’ ”
Newcomer Enrollment Surging
At Rudsdale Newcomer High School, designed to support unaccompanied minors and other recently arrived immigrants, Assistant Principal Emma Batten-Bowen says enrollment is at an all-time high.
“We're really re-engaging a lot of kids who had dropped out because they couldn't make the schedule,” she says.
Batten-Bowen is especially encouraged to see young mothers coming back to school after leaving to care for children. She says now they can be at home with their kids while they attend class online.
Whether this new way of learning translates into academic success is still an open question.
“Are they actually passing classes?” Batten-Bowen asks. She notes that some things remain unchanged. “Their lives are just very difficult.”
Two weeks into her first semester, Ana’s remarkable motivation flagged. Without home internet, she relied on a hot spot loaned by her school, which she says disconnected every few minutes. The constant interruptions made it difficult for her to follow along, and sometimes she lost all her work. She was also finding it hard to balance her job with school, sometimes forgetting to slip out to her boss’s car until class was nearly over.
She eventually got internet at home, and she says school is getting a little easier. She’s adjusting to her schedule, and working fewer hours helps, though she worries about paying her bills.
“I’m doing everything I can, but I’m finding it really difficult,” she says.
She still thinks about dropping out, sometimes, but she keeps going, “because I want to have a better future. Later, if I have a diploma, maybe I can get a better job.”