Madera, Calif. — With just a few months before graduation, Rafael Lopez-Librado sat down with his high-school counselor—a man he didn’t remember ever meeting before.
Rafael was planning to attend a university, and he had come to complete his financial-aid forms. He had no idea just how far away he was from his dream.
First, he filled out the address to his family home, where the heater never worked and the rent had risen from $600 to $900 per month the past two years.
“Five,” he answered for the number in his household: His older sister, his younger brother, and his mother and father, who slept in the living room so their kids could share the two bedrooms.
He stopped at the education levels of his parents, neither of whom advanced past elementary school while growing up in the mountains of the state of Oaxaca in Mexico.
“Other,” he finally put. The form didn’t go any lower than middle school.
He paused again, when asked what he planned to study. “Just put welding, and once you get over there, you can change it,” Rafael remembers his counselor saying.
“Welding,” Rafael wrote, even though he didn’t know what welding was.
Then, when the form asked about the academic path he wanted to pursue, Rafael mentioned applying to the University of California and Cal State campuses. But his counselor told him he couldn’t because the deadlines had long since passed.
To qualify, he would have had to start planning at least the summer before. Ideally, much earlier. Rafael thought he was on track to attend university, but he wasn’t. Nobody at the charter school had ever told him about the specific courses he needed to be eligible for public universities in California, he said.
In fact, just four of more than 500 students in the previous year’s cohort had met those course requirements — and only about a quarter had graduated at all over a four-year span.
To keep his dream alive, he faced the daunting challenge of finishing a year’s worth of those courses in his final month of high school.
This is a story about one student’s high expectations for himself, and the people who didn’t share them: The educators that put him on a non-university path, the public charter school that never questioned it, and the state that keeps funding schools with low graduation rates and little accountability.
Rafael’s parents were just a few of the roughly 150,000 indigenous Oaxacans who settled in the Central Valley in the early 2000s, quickly becoming the fastest growing population of farm workers in California and throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Rafael was born in California but, like many migrant students, often had his early education interrupted while his family traveled across states for seasonal work that stretched from late spring to early fall.
Even in Mexico, indigenous Oaxacans have less access to education and resources, with average incomes below $5 a day. Most speak one of 57 indigenous languages. That matters when they arrive in the United States, where linguistic barriers can quickly set a student’s path.
One area that sets them apart is gifted programs. Students from native English-speaking homes are often identified for gifted programs as early as second grade, when many schools assess students for their reading level.
Migrant students like Rafael, whose parents speak a language other than English at home, are classified by California as English learners until they pass a proficiency test to show they are fluent. Until then, schools are required by law to give these students extra help in English Language Development courses, which provide extra support but experts say will likely keep them behind their peers in other courses.
Like many migrant students, Rafael often had his early education interrupted while his family traveled across states for seasonal work that stretched from late spring to early fall.
Rafael did fall behind. He entered middle school on crutches after surgery to fix a childhood hip malformation. By 8th grade, reading tests placed him at an elementary school level. His teachers worried his poor reading comprehension and his physical disability would impair his education.
Going into Madera High School, in the San Joaquin Valley, Rafael was assessed for special education based on his physical disabilities and possible learning disabilities. His physical impairments required specialized support, and while Rafael showed good attendance and desire to learn, his evaluators felt like his conditions impacted “his ability to process information at the same rate of his peers.”
He was given an IEP, an individualized education plan that lays out special instruction, supports, and services. With the plan, the report said, Rafael was taking “all of the necessary classes to graduate with a regular high school diploma.”
However, it did not include a path for meeting the courses necessary to enroll at a public university in California. These courses, which are described as “A-G,” include two years of history, four years of English, and three years of college-prep math, among others.
But Rafael and his parents didn’t know about any of that. Nor did they understand how that curriculum decision would limit his choices years later.
The translator at his first IEP review spoke Spanish, which Madera administrators had incorrectly listed as his maternal language. His parents primarily speak Triqui, aAnd there were other things lost in translation: for one, educators repeatedly referred to his mother, whose last name is Lopez, as “Mrs. Gonzalez.”
“His future plans are to go to barber school and become an auto mechanic,” his freshman year IEP concluded.
It was the last time Rafael remembers being asked by an educator what he wanted over the next three years.
The summer after his freshman year, a family friend took Rafael on a college tour that changed his expectations for himself. Peering outside their rented van — at Fresno State, at UC Davis, at UC Merced — Rafael could for the first time imagine attending a university.
Money, not higher education, was on the minds of most of his friends and relatives.
It was all Oaxacans talked about, Rafael thought: How to keep food on the table, keep the water on, keep a roof over their heads. When they graduated high school, they almost always went straight into farm work. Even the older student who had sworn to Rafael that he would one day leave Madera for UCLA.
Rafael was different though — he had to be, due to his poor health. “Don’t be like this. Do something better. Do something comfortable,” his parents told him growing up, as his dad’s own body broke down.
Rafael thought about community college, but felt like it would have just encouraged him to go into a trade that would exact a similar toll on him. University was his chance at a different life. But it was a dream he was afraid to say out loud in the Central Valley, where less than 15 percent of adults over 25 earn a bachelor’s degree.
He had gotten his hopes up before, when doctors had told him that surgery would help and it had only hurt. It was better to keep his hopes hushed. That way, if it didn’t work out, he wouldn’t disappoint his family. Or himself.
Quietly, Rafael worked hard to change his college path. It got even more difficult when the pandemic hit, leaving him to work remotely from his crowded home, where the internet was as spotty as the heater.
In past years, migrant students in California had lower rates of chronic absenteeism — students who missed 10 percent or more of school days — than white students and every other group except Asians and Filipinos. But as education shifted online, migrant students saw the highest percentage point increase of any demographic tracked by California, with chronic absenteeism nearly doubling to 17.7 percent.
To graduate, Rafael needed to catch up. Some of his Oaxacan friends and relatives told him about an alternative school where he could make up his credits faster. Many of them, including one of his older cousins, said they were advised by Madera education officials to attend similar independent study programs in the past.
Rafael didn’t suspect anything was wrong until late in his senior year, as other students started receiving acceptances to colleges while he hadn’t even applied.
Crescent View South was part of the Learn4Life charter chain, which advertises itself to students who may struggle to attend class regularly, from teen parents to family caregivers. “Change your story,” the Learn4Life website says, specifically touting high education standards with courses that “adhere to the A-G College Entrance Requirements.”
Rafael transferred from Madera High to the Learn4Life school, wedged between a furniture store and a nail salon in the back of a Madera strip mall. Each week, he met for half an hour with his instructor to turn in completed course packets and pick up new ones. He improved his grades, from a 1.14 GPA his first year of high school to over a 3.0 his final three.
He didn’t suspect anything was wrong until late in his senior year, as other students started receiving acceptances to colleges while he hadn’t even applied.
In March, Rafael received an email from Seth Holmes, a UC Berkeley anthropologist who for several summers had picked crops with his parents. Holmes had taken Rafael on that college tour years before, and was surprised to hear Rafael had applied to just one school.
“Is that what you want?” he asked.
Holmes didn’t have a problem with Rafael attending a community college, which can offer cost savings, proximity to family, and other advantages for many students. However, Holmes felt like Rafael should have other options, too.
He helped Rafael submit applications. But it took weeks, Holmes said, for Learn4Life to send transcripts to universities.
When they did arrive, they only caused confusion: The Learn4Life school had labeled Rafael as an 11th-grader for his final fall and spring semesters. It was school policy to not list students as seniors until after they had graduated, said Omar Vaca, Rafael’s counselor at Learn4Life.
The biggest problem, universities told them: Despite being on track to graduate from high school, Rafael wasn’t qualified to apply because he, like many of his peers at Learn4Life, wasn’t slated to meet the A-G requirements.
In early May, Holmes went to Crescent View South to discuss a way for Rafael to still get into a university.
The school had never re-evaluated the non-university path that Madera had put him on. They never expected Rafael might want to attend one, said his instructor Mariana Hernandez, a special education specialist.
Most Learn4Life students are Latino first-generation students for whom simply graduating high school is a significant challenge. They typically arrive already 17 or 18 years old, and a year or more behind in credits.
“Do we get them to just focus on finishing the high-school requirements, when that’s really difficult as it is?” Hernandez said. “Or, on top of that, do we ask them to retake all these courses they failed out on to meet the A-G requirements?”
But that option wasn’t even mentioned to Rafael, who thought he was on track to attend a university.
“Very few people are on that path,” Vaca said at that May meeting, adding that he meets with seniors each month of their fall semester and that Rafael had never mentioned university before.
“These are students that washed out of the public traditional school with nowhere to turn.”Ann Abajian, vice president of communications for Lifelong Learning, the parent nonprofit to Learn4Life
However, when asked later how many times he had met with Rafael before his final semester, Vaca said he doesn’t keep records of his meetings with students and couldn’t provide any dates.
“Realistically, I’m not going to lie, sometimes I do miss certain kids,” Vaca said.
Over the past five years, Vaca said he was sometimes overwhelmed by his caseload, which peaked at nearly 600 students last fall before the school hired another counselor in October.
Learn4Life says its practices align with the American School Counseling Association, which recommends no more than 250 students for every counselor. When reached for comment, the charter chain’s representative noted that California schools as a whole averaged one counselor for every 572 students in the 2020-21 school year.
“These are students that washed out of the public traditional school with nowhere to turn,” says Ann Abajian, vice president of communications for Lifelong Learning, the parent nonprofit to Learn4Life. “Without Learn4Life, these kids would be relegated to the lost potential of the 1.2 million dropouts in our nation.”
The bottom line for Rafael? He needed to make up a year’s worth of college-prep Science and Math classes to meet A-G requirements. “25 credits, if I’m counting correctly,” Hernandez said.
Meanwhile, Holmes would help Rafael apply for special exemptions at individual universities, in case he couldn’t make up those credits in time.
Learn4Life enrolls more than 47,000 students in California across 80 sites. Many of those Learn4Life schools have low four-year graduation rates, from San Diego (21%) and Sacramento (18%) to Los Angeles (14%) and Orange County (9%).
However, California doesn’t judge alternative schools like Learn4Life based on those four-year rates, because they disproportionately serve high-risk students whose backgrounds make them more likely to drop out.
Instead, the state assesses those schools by their Grade 12 graduation rate and whether those rates have improved over time.
California gives those schools latitude to decide which students are labeled as 12th graders. The state says it is “recommended” that students be placed in 12th grade “when they have sufficient credits to graduate by the end of that school year.”
Learn4Life’s policy is to classify students as 12th graders when they are within 40 credits of graduation, Abajian said, although she also noted that each individual school is a separate nonprofit governed by its own independent board (Abajian declined requests to interview other representatives from Learn4Life or Crescent View South).
Crescent View South had Rafael labeled as an 11th grader on his transcript as late as May, a month before his expected graduation — which Vaca said was in keeping with the school’s policy.
With those policies, Crescent View South reported a 92.5% 12th-grade graduation rate in 2019. That placed it in the “high-performing category” based on California’s criteria for alternative schools.
California doesn’t judge alternative schools like Learn4Life on four-year graduation rates. Instead, they are assessed by rates of graduation for 12th graders — and schools are given latitude on who they classify as one.
California has recently tried to apply more scrutiny to alternative schools like Learn4Life, including passing a 2019 charter school law to create clearer criteria for deciding whether to extend a school’s charters when they are up for renewal. More recently, the state also has placed a moratorium on new non-classroom based charters until 2025.
However, the law, which will start being applied to some schools in 2024, doesn’t change the way graduation rates are assessed. It only changes what happens to a school’s charter when it is up for renewal: Low-performing schools aren’t supposed to have their charters renewed.
A school like Crescent View South, though, could keep categorizing students as 12 graders only after it’s clear they are graduating, as it did with Rafael. If its graduation rates then kept the school in the state’s high-performing category for alternative schools, then it would benefit from a new process. As a result of the new law, those schools will likely qualify for a streamlined 5 to 7 year renewal of their charter.
Rafael spent every weekday and most of his weekends trying to finish the packets covering his missing A-G courses, occasionally meeting in person with Learn4Life’s non-credentialed aides to get through the tricker subjects. The certified subject area teachers, Hernandez said, were too busy grading assignments.
By June, Rafael managed to complete 27 A-G credits. Vaca praised his determination: “Realistically, these conversations need to happen way before their senior year: Rafael went above and beyond.”
But it wasn’t enough. Hernandez was mistaken in her course estimate. Rafael, it turned out, still needed nine more credits — and he had just two weeks left to get them.
Rafael was too exhausted to finish, but he had one more shot. Maybe those course requirements that he and his family didn’t fully understand weren’t set in stone.
With help from Holmes, Rafael asked several campuses if they would make an exception. In late July, two Cal State campuses — East Bay and Stanislaus — agreed to let him enroll anyway.
He chose Stanislaus because it was closest to Madera. When he received the email with a course schedule in early August, his dream finally felt real.
Rafael had overcome a physical disability, a cultural barrier, and the low expectations of the school and state charged with his educational journey.
He was, finally, headed to a university.
When he arrived, though, a new set of challenges awaited. He had a grant to cover his food and housing costs but the university couldn’t get him in.
For three weeks, his sister paid for gas and took time off work to drive him back and forth. Still, the 120-mile roundtrip commute proved too much. Less than a month into his college journey, he dropped out.
Note: This story has been updated to clarify the student’s medical history.
This story was co-published by EdSource, a California-based nonprofit news organization focused on education.