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Undocumented DPS students get college help

Updated – For the first time in its seven-year history, the Denver Scholarship Foundation is allowing undocumented students to apply for funds to help pay for college.

The foundation announced the policy shift at a news conference Wednesday morning. Since the 17-member board’s unanimous vote last week backing the change, 50 students who meet or are going through the steps to meet, “deferred action” status have applied.

Nate Easley, head of the foundation and until recently a member of the Denver school board, said the policy change has been “a long time in coming.”

“It happened because our legal counsel says under President Obama’s deferred action executive order it is now OK for us to provide scholarships to students who meet deferred action status,” Easley said.

The policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, refers to the federal stance adopted in June on people born in the U.S. to parents who may not be here legally. Under the policy, people who meet the criteria and are at least 15 years old won’t be placed into removal proceedings or kicked out of the country.

Easley said the foundation board did not want to tackle the issue until they were certain Obama would win re-election. Once that happened, staff began researching options in partnership with Denver Public Schools.

“We talked to the Metro folks to find out what they went through,” Easley said, referring to Metropolitan State University’s decision to offer a special tuition rate to undocumented students. “We really did our homework.”

Anonymous donor gives $2 million

To make the transition smoother, an anonymous donor gave DSF $2 million to help those same students pay for college since they don’t qualify for federal financial aid. That money is in addition to foundation scholarships. At any given time, there are 1,600 to 1,700 students receiving foundation scholarship funds, about half of whom are “returning,” after already having begun a higher education program, and half are new. The scholarships are good for five years, Easley said.

Thus far, the foundation has awarded more than $15 million in college scholarships to 3,200 DPS graduates. About 81 percent of all scholarship recipients since 2007 have either graduated or are still pursuing their post-secondary degree or certificate.

Easley could not predict how many of the 50 applicants would meet the criteria, nor does the foundation know what to expect in terms of demand.

“It’s impossible to know how many undocumented seniors there are in DPS. No one keeps data on it. It’s kind of like, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’”

The application deadline is April 1. And “deferred action status” must be verified by July 15.

Already, word is getting out to the 16 “Future Centers,” or college access centers, operated by the foundation across the school district.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he was thrilled by the development.

“These are such momentous changes, wonderful changes for our kids and our whole community,” Boasberg said, citing both the change in scholarship eligibility and the passage of ASSET legislation, which provides in-state tuition for undocumented students.

“This means that so many more of our kids will be able to reach their full potential and realize their personal hopes and dreams.”

Boasberg said he’s met many students in DPS who will now be able to apply for the scholarships. For instance, Maria Carillo, who joined him and Easley at the press conference, wants to be a history teacher. Now she’ll be able to pursue that goal, he said.

“Until this change, a young woman like Maria would not have been able to go to college and become a teacher. What a waste – not only for her but for all of us.”

DPS board member Jimenez critical of criteria

But DPS board member Arturo Jimenez, who has called upon the Denver Scholarship Foundation to open itself up to undocumented students, said the way the foundation is doing it doesn’t make sense.

“I still believe that the Denver Scholarship Foundation is not complying with their promise to provide access to their scholarship for ALL of DPS graduates,” Jimenez said via email. “In particular, they are not working in the spirit of our federal mandate which is to serve all students in our system regardless of their immigration status.”

Jimenez, an immigration attorney, said those students who earn “deferred action” remain in limbo. He wondered whether the foundation will continue to offer a scholarship to students once deferred action expires after the set two-year period or is not renewed.

He said “deferred action” eligibility requirements are too narrow.

“One of the most difficult requirements to qualify for DACA is to provide documentation that a student was present in the United States before turning 16 years old,” Jimenez said. “It is probable that we have students who came to the U.S. at 16 years of age, have completed many years as a DPS student and are not eligible. Likewise, there are many otherwise eligible students who cannot comply with the DACA requirement to show proof of presence on June 15, 2012, because school let out for summer break in May and they have no other documentation as to their presence.”

Jimenez said the foundation should instead use criteria similar to those in the recently passed ASSET legislation, which allows undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition at the state’s colleges and universities.

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