Catalyst Charter Schools: Supporting Dreamers

October 1st. Every senior at Catalyst Maria knows the importance of October 1st. The free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) opens to students across the United States. Catalyst’s OneGoal students attend retreats, with their tax forms and FSA IDs in tow, in order to be some of the first students to complete the form that will give them access to federal and state grants to support the funding of their college education. Parents fill the college and career center in our building in order to get support with the FAFSA – they know this is a key lever in making their son’s and daughter’s dream a reality. There’s a lot of excitement around October 1st. While it is often stressful on counselors (and students!), there is an undeniable sense of accomplishment as students press submit on their applications.


Students at Catalyst Maria have spent 3 full years researching colleges, attending college visits, creating lists of post-secondary pathways, and preparing for the SAT by the time October 1st hits in their senior year. For many, this day feels like the first in turning their preparation into a reality. However, at Catalyst, there are several seniors each year who watch October 1st pass them by. They are unable to complete the FAFSA, unable to gain access to the grants and loans they hear the other students talk about, and ultimately start to question if their 3 years of planning in high school will be able to amount to anything at all. These are our undocumented students. Without a social security number or papers identifying their status in the United States, these students are sidelined each year in their ability to fund their college education. Counselors feel hopeless as they search the internet for alternative paths and look for scholarships that are “undocumented-friendly”. The results are few.


In 2017, our school leaders sent an all-staff email sharing information about an upcoming Lasallian Social Justice Institute (LSJI) tackling immigration. Catalyst Maria, at its heart, promotes justice and peace: core values that are foundational to our network. Participants of the SJI would spend a week in both El Paso, Texas and Chihuahua, Mexico visiting shelters and health clinics for immigrants escaping persecution from Central America and Mexico. As educators of undocumented students, we only know the story of now. We do not know what our students and parents experienced on their journey to Chicago. The border between Mexico and the United States is 1,500 miles away from Chicago – what was their path here like? Why are our students undocumented and why don’t they become citizens? With our limitations in our perspectives and our ever growing list of questions, we knew we needed to participate in this institute. Three counselors from Catalyst Maria were chosen to attend. All three of us unequivocally state this was the most transformative experience in our careers.


While at the institute, we attended court hearing for three cases of undocumented immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. Many of them had been waiting for months for a hearing that only lasted 15 minutes. We learned how difficult it was to prove that a person qualifies for asylum and that many of the people we met that day were just biding their time. We visited an immigration law office and learned the myriad obstacles on the pathway to citizenship in the United States. The average wait time after applying for citizenship is 30 years. For those looking for a better life NOW, this is a barrier too large to overcome. We started to understand why we have undocumented students and what their families sacrificed and endured in order to get their children to Chicago. They were now in our school, in our classrooms, putting their faith in us as educators to provide their children with the opportunities they never had. Giving students an alternative activity while the other seniors complete FAFSA now seemed trivial and heartless. It wasn’t enough. Our school wasn’t doing enough to serve ALL of its students.


Upon return to Chicago, we brought the entire staff of Catalyst Maria together (teachers, office workers, technology department, security – everyone) to learn about immigration policy, hear from our partners in the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), and listen to the stories of our undocumented students. We cannot control the messages our students will hear about themselves as they watch the news or read comments on articles on the internet, but we have the opportunity to show them love and support within our building. We have the responsibility to do more for these incredible students who have been gracious and vulnerable in sharing their stories and statuses. Now at Catalyst Maria, we have assemblies that teach ALL students about what it means to be undocumented. Students create signs in support of their fellow classmates, teachers hang signs declaring they are an unafraid educator of undocumented students, and a 12-foot student created banner hangs in the college center stating “CATALYST SUPPORTS DREAMERS”. We do. We must.