By Bryant Y. Valenzuela
The El Paso public education system has long exacerbated the educational inequities found among those students residing from colonia communities – unplanned, “substandard housing developments” found alongside the Mexican-American border. A lack of internet access and a systematic bias against those students who work amid impoverished conditions, induces a public educational experience where high schools in the El Paso area serve as just a pipeline to get these students in and out.
Besides this, colonia-serving public institutions (that is, those public high schools with colonia student enrollment) do not have the proper resources or information necessary to educate students on the college application process and encourage them to attend post-secondary institutions outside of UTEP and EPCC. Public Schools should not be places of inequity, yet, for these students, they are.
These colonias are characterized by a “lack of basic services” including a lack of running water, running gas, paved roads, sewer systems, sidewalks, streetlights, etc. Clint ISD holds the most students coming from these colonia communities, with San Elizario ISD following closely behind them.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, colonia students who lacked access to an at-home internet system were forced to travel to a friend’s house to submit their assignments on Google Classroom or Blackboard. When this was not an option, students had to simply wait until the next school day to submit their assignments, risking a deduction to their grade for submitting an assignment late.
With assignments that were outside of the scope of Microsoft applications (Word, Powerpoint, Excel) that required internet access to complete, colonia students were limited to the time allotted during lunch or after-school to complete these assignments.
For those colonia students who had to work jobs after-school or during weekends out of necessity and not desire, they were put in positions of deciding between their education or providing for their families without the direct support of school staff due to a lack of understanding of what it meant to come from a colonia.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on these issues for the colonia-serving institutions of Clint and San Elizario ISDs; both districts promptly issued internet hotspots for those students without access to internet at home. While gaps in the technology sphere were being bridged for colonia students, the strong-held practice of simply getting students in and out of high school only expanded.
As a student from a colonia in the outskirts of Horizon City who attended one of these colonia-serving secondary institutions, I witnessed these gaps firsthand as it related to college readiness and the college admissions process.
While students in non-colonia serving institutions around El Paso learned about the college admissions process during – or before – their freshman year of high school, I was going into the summer of my junior year blind. I learned about the college admissions process only through a summer program I attended before my senior year – a program that I applied to and researched for without the aid of my high school.
After attending this summer program, the true state of inequity found within the public education systems of colonia-serving post-secondary institutions became clear.
While students around the country learned about the college admissions process during their freshman year, students at these colonia-serving districts were forced to apply to UTEP and EPCC during their senior year as a graduation requirement. While other students utilized their summer before senior year to draft college application essays, many colonia students had no access to the internet since district hotpots were to only be used during the school year.
While other students relied on their counselors and teachers to help them through the admissions process, I created programs and websites to aid my peers through the process in the absence of faculty support. This list of inequities propelling the gap between colonia students and post-secondary educational attainment goes on and on.
Getting students in and out of high school should not be the goal, but a given. Colonia students are facing obstacles of technology access and post-secondary education attainment fueled by a lack of information about issues affecting colonias on the part of those running these colonia-serving districts.
Understanding that there is no standardization when it comes to the public school system is vital – no student’s life at home is alike, especially when thinking about students residing from these colonia communities.
This is not to say that these school districts have not attempted to rectify these issues. Through the issuing of internet hotspots and laptops during the school term and through the implementation of programs like AVID in high schools, Clint ISD and San Elizario ISD have attempted to directly address the issues that their student population face.
Additionally, summer food programs enacted by these districts have attempted to close the opportunity gap that exists amongst colonia students in terms of food insecurity. However, this is not enough. Outside of the summer food program, these programs only exist within the confines of the school year and for instructional purposes only, where students do not have access to an internet hotspot during the summer semesters.
Without access to an at-home internet or suitable laptops over the summer, and without instructional support for applying to colleges outside of UTEP, EPCC, and NMSU, colonia students will continue to be disadvantaged in a space meant to uplift them.
I was fortunate enough to break out of this system (and pull some of my classmates out with me), but I relied on secondary support from a program located 801.2 miles away that allowed me to understand that I could achieve post-secondary success outside of EPCC and UTEP; programs that lent me a suitable laptop over the summer, provided me with constant access to counselors, and who provided support in every step of the college admissions process.
Without a community effort (both in the part of school board members and teachers) to enact substantial change within Clint ISD and San Elizario ISD to serve colonia students to their maximum ability, these students will continue to face the repercussions of an inequitable education system designed against them.
Bryant Valenzuela, an El Paso native, is a 2021 graduate of Clint ISD Early College Academy and will be a junior at Harvard University studying arts, film, and visual studies and economics as part of the Class of 2025.