S.F. Mission High School students and their parents attend a meeting to
learn about filling out college financial aid forms.
Photo: Sarah Rice, Special To The Chronicle
This year, undocumented immigrants are eager to find a seat.
For the first time, those families will be able to apply for state financial aid under the controversial California Dream Act.
While federal funding is still out of reach, the state measure now allows children who were brought to the country illegally, but who attended a school in the state for at least three years to qualify for up to about $12,000 in Cal Grants to use toward college.
In San Francisco, district officials are holding meeting after meeting, in at least three languages, urging the families of every 12th-grader to fill out a form.
In prior years, about 60 percent of students completed the application for state or federal aid, and 90 percent of those who did ultimately went to college, said Maureen Carew, director of San Francisco Promise, which helps city students access higher education.
"That's why we're going for 100 percent - because we can," she said.
At Mission High School, there is at least one 17-year-old who is eager to help the district reach that goal.
Boost for top student
When Sharon was 12, her parents broke the law as they carried their two daughters into the United States from Mexico in search of a better life with greater opportunities.
They landed in San Francisco, where Sharon's mother worked as a babysitter and her father as a butcher at a meatpacking plant.
While her parents worked, Sharon kept her end of the bargain for that better life, learning English, excelling in school and dreaming of college.
Now a Mission High School senior, she has a 4.4 grade-point average, mentors younger students, does community service and plays soccer.
She did everything right, but until this year, that college dream was out of reach for her and others like her. Without a piece of paper saying they belonged here, they couldn't apply for financial aid, and without the help, couldn't afford a higher education.
"Many students that I know of didn't have this opportunity," said Sharon, who only wanted her first name used to protect her family. "They just gave up on their dream."
Scholarships typically require Social Security numbers, but even if they don't, there are one-time funds that might pay for a semester or maybe a year, said Mission Principal Eric Guthertz.
40% of class undocumented
And that meant that students like Sharon couldn't complete their degree.
"This is the girl this law was passed for," Guthertz said. "She is something else."
And there are many more like her, he said. It's unclear how many students qualify or will apply for funds under the Dream Act.
In San Francisco, district officials don't ask students whether they are here legally. Guthertz estimates that as much as 40 percent of a given senior class at Mission is undocumented immigrants.
State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, helped pass the California Dream Act in 2011.
"We often hear and use the phrase that our youth is our nation's greatest resource," Leno said. "Prior to the Dream Act, we were not making use of a significant portion of our greatest resource. It made no sense ... to be so wasteful."
Critics said the allure of college money for undocumented immigrants would only draw more people to illegally cross the border, while costing the state more than $50 million more a year.
In San Francisco, district officials are pushing to get every high school senior to fill out either the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or the alternative Dream Act application.
Some fear system
The Dream Act is not just for undocumented residents, but also citizens or legal residents who are going to school in California but don't meet state residency requirements.
The deadline to apply for state financial aid is March 2.
At Washington High School, Principal Ericka Lovrin said she fears many undocumented immigrant parents will be scared to fill out a government form requiring all their personal information.
"It's about trusting the system," she said. "I think people are a little resistant to trust this system."
Yet, Sharon will be waiting by the mailbox for her Cal Grant award in March and then college acceptances in May.
She has applied to four University of California campuses and Santa Clara University. She wants to study political science and journalism.
"I love to write," she said. "I want to tell the stories of people that aren't being told."