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Jim GallowayJim Galloway

A cipher in the ‘dream’ kid debate tries to stay afloat

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Marco was stretched out on a hard chair in a beat-up DeKalb County school conference room, in the presence of a former teacher who’s taken up for him.

He is a bright, skinny and well-spoken 16-year-old with a flat American accent. “I try to work on it. I spent my summer in Athens. It gets better there,” Marco said.

Pronunciation slipped only when he named the Mexican village whence he came. Marco was smuggled across the border into the United States not once, but twice. First when he was a 4-year-old, then again when he was eight. “My mom knew a guy,” he offered.

Marco is now one of President Barack Obama’s “dream” kids, one of thousands of under-aged children who accompanied illegal immigrant parents into the country, and who now have been granted provisional legal residency here.

He is a mere cipher in our argument over what we should do about the millions of paperless people who now live among us – which at bottom is a debate over human capital.

But Marco may also be the only kid in metro Atlanta who has been threatened with two extra years of high school by a judge. This will no doubt come as a surprise to the jurist, who has never met Marco.

In June, Fulton County Superior Court Judge John Goger dismissed – however reluctantly – a lawsuit challenging the Georgia law that requires “dream” kids to pay out-of-state tuition for their college educations. The judge did this even as he recognized that the 39 would-be students were “intelligent individuals who seek to better themselves through education and are presumably the type of people, residents, that this state wants and needs.”

The decision is under appeal.

But for now, Georgia has drawn a bright line between high school and college that children of the undocumented aren’t allowed to cross – not without a great deal of cash, which they almost always lack.

But what happens when the line between high school and college blurs? Why, Marco happens.

Marco is one of 340 students who attend the DeKalb Early College Academy, a public school and academic boot camp aimed at kids from families without any college in their histories.

The program crams four years of high school into two. Students who survive are then introduced into Georgia Perimeter College for another two years of schooling. When they emerge at 18, they have not only a high school diploma, but an associate bachelor’s degree.

Wimps need not apply. “You’re looking at a kid who got into a highly competitive program that has kids ready for college in two years instead of four. And he has a part-time job,” said DECA principal Edward Conner, vouching for Marco. “He’s a great kid.”

Marco has completed the two-year grind, so now comes college. On Monday, his DECA classmates were charged somewhere north of $300 each for their first semester at GPC. Marco was hit with a bill approaching $4,500 – the price of out-of-state tuition at that institution.

A 16-year-old wimp would have walked away. Marco did not. He came up with $2,500 from that summer job in Athens – enough to pay for a reduced course load. In 16 weeks, he’ll have to come up with it again.

Marco’s father is a cook. His mom cleans offices. “They’re not in the best situation to help me out,” the kid said.

If Marco wanted to settle for just a high school diploma, he could return to a regular high school – in this case, Cross Keys High School. “Yeah, I’d be the brightest kid there. Yeah, I would work the hardest. But I would lose two years of my life,” he said.

The kid’s goals have succumbed somewhat to what George W. Bush once called the tyranny of low expectations. “My aim was architecture, because I’m good at math. But being realistic, architecture seems a bit too far for me right now,” Marco said. “I’m good at many other things. I can repair phones. I know how to produce movies and videos – I know all of that stuff.”

There is a first forum today in Macon, sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, between two candidates for U.S. Senate – Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn.

I plan to be in the audience, but if I had the chance, this is the one question I would pose: What do we do with Marco? Do we have enough bright, driven barn-burners that we can afford to let this one sink? If the answer is no, then how do we make room for him?

Human capital is a perishable thing. The clock is ticking for Marco and kids like him. But while others dither, he does not. One of his two courses at Georgia Perimeter College is in history. The topic hasn’t been his best subject – he got a “B” the last time.

He is sometimes overwhelmed by the myriad of details that need to line up just right in order to produce any single event. “One little slip-up, and we wouldn’t be here today,” Marco said. Amen and amen.

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