When Chris Brewster was a new schoolteacher and soccer coach, he was worried when a 14-year-old player disappeared from practices.
The other boys joked he would be back in a couple of weeks. He was.
“He and his family had been deported to Mexico,” Brewster said. “I don't know how he handled me yelling at him to run harder in practice when he could go home that evening and find his mom and dad deported or he could be picked up.
“From that day forward, I knew this was something we had to deal with.”Brewster started the Santa Fe South charter school in 2001. By the nature of the school's location, the majority of students are Hispanic, either immigrants or first-generation Americans. The school does not keep track of whether students are living in the country legally, but educators estimate that up to 25 percent may be undocumented. "What we are seeing is a downturn in undocumented students because many were born here. It's the first wave of U.S.-born children to immigrants," Brewster said. Santa Fe educators don't shy away from talking about immigration and the effects the federal and state laws have on their students. The teachers come from varying political and ideological backgrounds, but they tend to have similar views on immigration legislation such as the DREAM Act, often telling stories about the students. "Our philosophy is the basic belief that education is a fundamental human right rather than a privilege of citizenship," Brewster said. "It's like food, water and medical care. Others don't see it that way. We look at it as an American ideal of defending those who cannot defend themselves. "Children are what we focus on. The nuance is about kids who didn't have a choice as opposed to adults who do have a choice." 'Weird place to be' After House Bill 1804 was passed in 2007 to crack down on illegal immigration, forums were held at the school. The first concern among parents was their children. "Parents were told to get an emergency plan together right away," Brewster said. "Let kids know what to do if they come home and you aren't there - where to go, who to call." And those plans have been put to use. "What a weird place to be in our country," Brewster said. "What do you do with a kid in school whose parents have been deported? They don't train you for that in principal school." Teacher Marcie Escobar grew up in Oklahoma and has taught at Santa Fe South for 10 years. She was drawn to the college preparatory curriculum and the opportunity to use her foreign language skills. About once every six months, she said, a student doesn't show up. "I had no idea this existed - that kids are forced to live in a subculture," Escobar said. "It's wrong. It's not cool. It's not OK. We're giving their kids a good education and we can start there." Escobar said teachers feel compelled to speak about the politics of immigration. "This is our population, this is our reality," she said. "Unless you see it, live it and experience it, it's hard to know." 'If I had the chance' Luis, 18, is an undocumented student who constantly questions his dedication to education. At age 12, he spent days walking through desert and tough topography to be with his parents in Oklahoma. He spent three days before that on a bus to get to the border. A friend of his father's helped get him into Arizona. He then spent a day waiting by a Dumpster for his parents. "It's very difficult to be in the desert for three or four days," he said. "It's risky. It's hard." Life since then has been one of keeping quiet and unnoticed. He claims being popular in school is discouraged. "We know until we have papers we have to be alert and never feel safe," he said. "You never feel completely well and always take precautions. Don't pull attention to yourself with what you do. They could take you away from your family." He continues to work on his English, struggling in conversation, but understands what is being said to him. "The school is really making changes for me, especially the teachers who are worried about you learning English and getting good grades," he said. Luis is not confident about immigration reforms to help him. He does not have a sponsor to apply for residency. Even if he found a sponsor, he would have to return to Mexico, banned from re-entering for at least 10 years as a penalty for living in the U.S. illegally. "What can we do to have change?" he asks. "Will they really let us go to school or get health care? I want to stay here and have the opportunity to make a career. But because I'm illegal, I can't go to a university or college because I can't pay the tuition." Disappearing friends and neighbors are not unusual. "We don't know what happened to them," he said. "The laws are not just. They don't help us. If I had the chance to go to college, I'd do it, no doubt. I'd be a teacher to teach the new generation that they can achieve." 'Look a lot like Americans' Manny, 18, has been in the U.S. for 13 years and considers himself an American. When he was 5 years old, his parents had already crossed the border from Mexico and made arrangements to reunite with him. Manny and his younger sibling were taken illegally across the border into Texas, led by a 12-year-old who was a friend of an uncle. He doesn't remember much except having to hide. "I know we had to look a lot like Americans when we went because it was easier getting across," he said. He doesn't want to return to Mexico because of the drug cartel wars. "There's a lot of death there," he said. Manny said he has a large family with varying legal residency status. He said his father works in manual labor, usually outdoors. "My generation goes to school to do something more with their lives and do something for our country. But there are so many obstacles," he said. "I wonder, why start college and spend the money if you don't know how you can get a job after you're done?'' Manny considers himself bilingual, though he gets stumped on some words, especially with fast speakers. He was not doing well in his neighborhood public school, saying the teachers were not patient with his speech and seemed to focus their attention on the English-speaking students. At Santa Fe South, he was given some extra help on conversational English but spends most time mainstreamed into classes. He also said it is safer at the charter school. "Learning in English has not been easy for me," he said. "But it's cool here, and there aren't the fights like my other school had. I'm doing much better." 'The happy story' Escobar describes her students as having "beautiful hearts" with "tolerance, forgiveness and compassion." "There are times I've gone home and feel it's just too much, it's too unfair and it hits me," she said. "I'm waiting to see the happy story - when we start taking care of our youth." Brewster said immigration is the one issue where he differs from many of his family and church members. "I usually am in agreement on everything but this one thing," he said. "I'm all for laws of our country that are good for our country. But we have a history of laws that have not been good for our people, and we need to change those laws. "The idea of immigrant (status) is with parents in mind. But what do we do with the children?" Santa Fe South Facts * Charter school founded in 2001 by educator Chris Brewster with 125 students. * Brewster became the first Oklahoma principal to win the $25,000 Milken Family Educator Award, which he received in 2009. * Currently serves 1,300 students in grades kindergarten through 12, with 1,200 students on the waiting list. * Compared to traditional public school calendars, students attend a longer school day and have six weeks more instruction. * Teachers serve as counselors, assigned to students to monitor overall progress. * Peer mentoring program pairs students in upper and lower grades to create a unified school spirit. * Serves students mostly from low-income neighborhoods in south Oklahoma City. * Hispanic students are the largest percentage of racial or ethnic groups in the school. Between 10 to 25 percent are undocumented. * All graduates have been accepted into a two- or four-year college or university. * About 40 percent of graduates attend higher education. * Financial hardship is the most common reason cited by graduates who decline their spots in colleges and universities. * Has won 4A state championships in soccer and cross country.