Unintended consequences of Prop 300
Arizona Republic
Aug. 21, 2007

Yvonne Watterson is an immigrant. An American dreamer.

"This is the place where anything is possible," she says. "That's how I see it."

In the 1980s, Watterson came to the United States from Northern Ireland. She began as a teacher and now is the principal of GateWay Early College High School on East Van Buren Street in Phoenix.

The school is in a part of town where not many kids are expected to get a higher education or even to finish high school.

"And while we've had great success, we have a situation now that is keeping me up at night," she says. "It has to do with Proposition 300."

The 240 students at Watterson's school take college classes as they move through a regular high-school curriculum. Some earn high-school and community-college degrees at the same time.

Graduates of GateWay enter professions ranging from practical nursing to automotive technology to Web development. Others go on to finish their studies at four-year institutions.

Since transitioning to the early-college format a few years back, GateWay's attendance has risen to 95 percent and its dropout rate has shrunk to 12 percent. Last year's graduating class of 15 students earned 286 college credits.

"It's been amazing," Watterson says. "Everything I dreamed of."

That is about to change. Proposition 300, which was passed overwhelmingly by voters, says that Arizona students who cannot prove their citizenship must pay out-of-state tuition for college. For some kids at GateWay, that reality will be devastating.

"I have bright, fantastic students," Watterson says. "Some of them were brought to this country as babies. Thirty-seven that I know of will not be able to take the college classes. In order to provide them with the same education we're giving the others, I will need to come up with $86,000.
Since they cannot prove their residency, they don't otherwise qualify. These are tremendous, highly motivated kids. They love the opportunities of this country. But now that has been taken away."

Watterson wonders if those who voted for Prop. 300 might see this as an unintended consequence. It's more likely, I tell her, that it is exactly what they intended.

"Do you really think so?" she says.

She tells the story of a student who dropped out of school when he heard that he couldn't attend the college classes. He was carried to Arizona as an infant after his father, a Mexican policeman, was killed. The boy's brother has a heart ailment and it was his goal to become a cardiologist.

"In some ways, this whole thing takes me back to my student teaching in Belfast in the early '80s," Watterson recalls. "I knew many of my students were engaged in sectarian violence after school. So I learned very early on that schools are and should be sacred. Places of hope and possibility.
Whereas, I knew that outside school, kids would most likely be in frightening places of discrimination and even violence. Watching these students at GateWay has aroused similar feelings in me."

Watterson is hoping that there may be people in the community who would volunteer to privately sponsor some of her students, even as she recognizes that others will condemn her for wanting to educate these kids in the first place.

"These students didn't make this problem," she says. "But they have such potential. I believe that, if given a chance, these children can change hearts and minds."

She is an immigrant. An American dreamer. To her, anything is possible.

Reach Montini at ed.montini@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8978. Read his blog at montiniblog.azcentral.com.