The decision was 13-year-old Mauricio Velazquez Rodriguez’s to make. Did he want to join some of his family members in Baltimore or remain in the tiny town in Mexico that he’d always called home?
His choice came down to one thing: Even as a little kid, he said he knew immigrating was the “way to get a better education.”
He flew into Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in early July 2013. A few days later, fireworks exploded over the Inner Harbor to mark the anniversary of his new home’s independence.
Six years later, Mauricio earned his high school diploma from the prestigious Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. After entering the city’s public school system knowing just a handful of English phrases, he’s headed to the Ivy League on a full scholarship.
“It’s the epitome of the American dream — except it’s real,” said his history teacher Josh Headley. “It’s a brown-skinned kid from Mexico who has said, ‘Fine, you want to put a roadblock in front of me? I’ll go over it.’”
His story, like so many Baltimore students who graduate this month, is one of resilience and perseverance. Across the city, students earned diplomas after grappling with homelessness, with poverty, with gun violence that rocked their lives and too often stole the lives of their loved ones.
Addressing the graduates on Sunday, Poly’s principal Jacqueline Williams said the group has shown an ability to “grind barriers into dust.” The senior speaker, Kassidy Jacobs, spoke of becoming the first in her family to enter college. That’s the case for Mauricio, too.
Baltimore public schools’ graduation rate has been rising steadily in recent years, reaching a high of 72.2 percent. There have been increases across every demographic subgroup, but the most striking rise has been among students who recently immigrated.
Still, the odds aren’t great: Only about half of all students designated as “English learners” graduated in four years, according to the latest available data.
Among the 367 Poly graduates who crossed the stage at Coppin State University’s athletics complex are two students who immigrated from Mexico now heading to the Ivy League.
Mauricio was raised in a small town, El Potrero, a place where he said people had the talent needed to pursue an education, but not the resources to do so. Most of the roughly 300 people who live there work as farmers. Teenagers often dropped out of school to help their parents in the fields.
He wanted something more.
Mauricio recognized his mother immediately when she came to pick him up at BWI, even though he hadn’t seen her since she’d moved to America when he was six years old. As she drove him 15 miles away to his new house in Southeast Baltimore, he remembers the nerves he felt being in such a big city.
Preparing for his first day of school, he saw the uniform called for “khakis.” He showed up at Highlandtown Elementary/Middle wearing pleated pants and dress shoes.
Though he was shy at first, he quickly found a community at the school, where 70 percent of kids are Hispanic and half are learning English.
Math remained Mauricio’s favorite subject, the numbers just the same as they were back home.
Teachers were quick to spot his potential. They told him he should consider Poly for high school.
Baltimore is a “choice district,” allowing students to select their high school regardless of what neighborhood they live in. A handful of high school require a certain composite score on an entrance exam — and Poly, with an intense focus on the STEM fields, is among the most selective.
A recent report on school choice in Baltimore found many parents and students were confused by the application process. That can be exacerbated for students like Mauricio, whose family was unfamiliar with the entrance exam, the selective high schools and the choice process overall. Student activists approached district leaders last year, saying the system disadvantaged kids who sill are learning English, and the district pledged to tackle the problem.
“Statistically, Mauricio should not be at this school,” his history teacher, Headley, wrote in his college recommendation letter. “He should be at one of a dozen other schools, with fewer options and opportunities for academic growth. He likely would be on the fringes of society, never fully contributing his full potential. Instead, he set his goal to attend the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, because he desires to be the first in his family to graduate from college.”
Mauricio knew it would be hard to earn a spot. There were 1,736 applicants for the 425 open Poly seats in 2016.
He was put on the wait list. Then, the day before his eighth grade graduation ceremony, he got the call. He was in.
Poly guidance counselor Jennifer Askey said that from the first time she met Mauricio, she knew the boy was special. He was compassionate, intelligent and kind, she said, the sort of kid who would be sure and stop to help a teacher carry a heavy box if he saw them lugging it through the halls.
He joined the football team and the JROTC, becoming what his teachers described as a quiet and selfless leader.
They recommended him for Advanced Placement course after Advanced Placement course, pushing him to challenge himself in physics and calculus and literature. He excelled in the classroom even as he worked a part-time job 25 hours a week.
Headley remembers Mauricio coming to him with concerns about not being prepared for AP U.S. History. He worried he didn’t have the same baseline knowledge that other kids had, given he didn’t arrive in the country until he was 13 years old.
Headley wouldn’t let him quit the class. His counselor told him to just give it two weeks. Mauricio stuck it out through the entire year, though he notes he earned his lowest grade there: an 89.
He set his sights on attending the University of Maryland, College Park.
In his junior year, the Poly counselors had a meeting about Mauricio. This bright kid seemed destined for a great college, they agreed, but his stalled immigration proceedings could prevent him from being able to pay for tuition. Undocumented students can’t legally receive any federally-funded student financial aid.
They presented him a list of private schools that they thought would offer him a full scholarship regardless. He gaped at their suggestions.
“There was Brown and Cornell and Hopkins,” Mauricio said. “I never thought I’d get in.”
A change of fortune came exactly one week before the Nov. 1 deadline for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Mauricio established permanent residency, and his options suddenly expanded.
Still, he applied for those reach schools. He felt like he needed to do it for his parents, to show them how grateful he was to have the opportunity to learn in the U.S. and for how hard they worked to support him.
To help his family out, Mauricio works at the downtown restaurant Fogo de Chão. He was on the clock the evening of “Ivy Day” — the date those elite schools release their decisions.
He isn’t supposed to look at his phone during work, but late in his shift he had to take out the trash. He used those spare minutes outside to log on to the portal. As he stood among the dumpsters, his screen flashed: Welcome to Brown University’s Class of 2023.
He’ll go from being a Poly Engineer in Baltimore to a mechanical engineering major in Providence, Rhode Island.
Even in his excitement, he thinks about the people in the small town where he was born — and those in the city — who won’t get such a chance.
“Sometimes I think back to where I was before. I was in a place where not many people went to college. They didn't have the opportunities there at all,” he said. “Now to be going to an Ivy League school — how did this happen? … In Baltimore, you see a lot of people who work really hard and they don't get the opportunities others get.”
Mauricio also was chosen as CollegeBound’s Scholar of the Year. In his essay applying for the honor he wrote: “College is one more opportunity that will allow me to reach where I want to be. I want to be in a position in which I can help ... people that see their life following a path they do not want.”
At graduation, speakers encouraged the students to take advantage of every chance their Poly degree will afford them as they head off to Brown or Hopkins or the University of Maryland.
As Mauricio crossed the stage, his classmates cheered and he thrust his arms open in celebration. Once he returned to his seat, he found his family’s faces in the crowd and flashed them his diploma.