Lost His Place, Lost in Space

Jose dropped out and can't figure out a way to get back in. Neither can his mom. HISD is deep into a hands-off mode.

Jose spends his days inside a dark two-bedroom apartment in Irvington Village across the street from Moody Park. When he gets up in the morning he eats breakfast, lifts weights, jogs on his newly acquired treadmill, plays video games on his Nintendo 64 and watches hours upon hours of TV. Later, he'll talk on the phone with friends. He doesn't go out. He doesn't read. Actually, he can't read.

He doesn't go to school, even though he's 13 years old. School just ended the other day for most kids in Texas. For Jose, the last day was in February. That's when he dropped out.

One day blends into another; weekends aren't much different from weekdays. Sometimes his uncle Manuel comes and takes him out, but mostly Jose stays inside because he and his mom say there's drug dealing in the projects.

Jose and mother Juana Vega can't seem to get him back in school.
Margaret Downing
Jose and mother Juana Vega can't seem to get him back in school.

He says he's never really played any sport, except for a little baseball with adult relatives in Mexico, but he'd like to try something like football, basketball or baseball with other kids. But he can't because he doesn't go out and because neither his mom nor his dad ever signed him up for anything. Hostility flares here briefly.

Jose is a pathetic poster child for anybody's stay-in-school campaign. Here's what can happen to you when you drop out. Here's how boring your life becomes, how meaningless.

But then if HISD were so smart, concerned and compassionate, it might have sent a truant officer just once to bang on the screen door of his apartment and say, "Jose, why aren't you in school?" It might have gotten after his mother, Juana Vega, and demanded: "Ms. Vega, why isn't your son in school? What can we do about getting him back?" And not let up till it got him.

Those things didn't happen, Juana and her son say. Instead, when Jose and his mother decided it was time for Jose to go back to school, HISD turned away the pair, saying they were trying to sneak Jose into a school he wasn't zoned for -- which was true.

"Where have you been?" Jose says school officials asked. "I kept telling them I was at home. They say they can't accept me. I have to go back to my old school." Which is something he doesn't want to do.

At his old school, his mother says, she was told to take him to a private school; "We can't help him here" -- this to a single mother who drives a cab when she can and pays $100 a month in rent.

Jose can tell you about his favorite shows: The Simpsons, Rosie and David Letterman. But ask him to read the words on the outside of a Blockbuster movie he's rented, and he starts, stops and stutters to a halt. Which is also a good description of his life these last several months.

It would be easy enough to write off Jose as just one more kid from the projects who never had a chance. That falls apart on a visit to the front room of his apartment where caged birds screech loudly over the hum of an electric fan, plaques dot the wall and graduation tassels hang in a corner.

His oldest sister graduated from Stanford University after winning all kinds of scholarships and awards while in HISD. His oldest brother is a University of Houston student. His next oldest sister attends prestigious Smith College. And his next oldest brother, living in Los Angeles with his oldest sister Cynthia, is in 11th grade and already taking college courses.

Even in the lower grades, the other kids were always volunteering at school, arriving early, staying late, getting involved in extracurricular activities, Juana says.

Jose has always been different, his mother says, always finding it more difficult to negotiate the worlds of academics and behavior. (Although a family friend says Jose's oldest brother had some rough times, too.) Juana thinks the main problem is that he doesn't know how to read beyond a very basic level, in English or Spanish. If he's read to and asked about a passage, Juana says, her son can answer every question. "He's smart," she insists. But he hasn't progressed much in reading even though the schools gave him specialized sessions. Juana says they didn't go far enough.

Making matters worse, Juana says, was her relationship with Jose's father, who has been in and out of their lives over the years. She finally told him to go away, she says, and her son, who loves his father, blames her.

Juana has lived in Irvington for 16 years. A year ago she moved from a larger apartment to one with two bedrooms. A handsome woman with a face gone gaunt, she is scared of many things for herself, and for her son. She is baffled and overwhelmed by the bureaucracy that is HISD. She is probably not the best advocate to represent her son.

Talking with Juana can be a frustrating experience. When first contacted weeks ago, she said she pulled her son out because of gangs at Black Middle School. Jose was being threatened all the time, she said, and after the shootings in California and other places around the country, she was terrified that he would be hurt or killed. Later she would say she pulled him out because school officials were discriminating against Jose. And most recently she would say it was because of drugs at the school. And because Jose "made me."

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