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

Lost His Place, Lost in Space

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.

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."

Then there's the matter of where they live. At first, Juana says, they have taken an apartment on Portsmouth in the Lanier Middle School zone, just so Jose can go there. Jose went there briefly the year before, likes the school a lot and says he's been told "it's the safest school in HISD." But the school won't let Jose in, even though Juana has handed in all the correct documents. She doesn't understand this.

"Her new address is still an unoccupied apartment building," says HISD spokeswoman Heather Browne, somewhat indignantly when asked about the situation. She goes on to say that Jose was "voluntarily pulled" from Black Middle School, and the principal there was willing to meet with Juana, but it didn't happen.

Asked about her home address again, Juana responds, "Sometimes I'm not there. My mom is over there every day. I have that apartment and another one. The Portsmouth one is only for the school. I don't have too many things over there."

This isn't the first time that Juana made moves on paper to get a better place for her son. Jose had gone to Lanier the year before but was tossed out when the school declared Jose's residency bogus. Juana had given the school a friend's name and said she was living with her, which she wasn't. The person she talked with at the school told her it would be best for her to get her own apartment.

This year, to get Jose back in Lanier, Juana went apartment hunting but found prices too high. Finally, she found a unit that was just starting to be remodeled. She could get it for a discount, $425 a month, because it wasn't livable. She plunked down her $125 and took her deposit slip to the school. A deposit slip, she was told, wasn't enough either. Once again, she didn't understand. She had paid her money -- why couldn't Jose attend the school? If they had just let him in, she would have moved for sure.

Jose alternately echoes and contradicts his mother, with whom he clearly has a strained relationship. He says there were no gangs at Black Middle School, "just a lot of drugs." The gang conversation comes up because he almost went to Waltrip, where there are gangs, he says. As much as he wants to be at Lanier, he agrees with his mother that there is discrimination. "It's not a place for Mexicans." He says Lanier teachers would rather have white kids at the school instead of Hispanics or blacks. HISD's Browne denied there has ever been any discrimination against Jose by anyone at Lanier. The latest enrollment figures available show the school is 45 percent white, 32 percent Hispanic, 15 percent African-American and 8 percent Asian-American.

Officially, Jose is being homeschooled, which in this case means next to nothing is happening. From time to time Jose asks his mother, a high school dropout, to bring him a video from the library. He's trying to teach himself to read using videotapes on phonics. He just found out that putting the letters "tion" together makes the "shun" sound. It's like he just decoded a spy's communiqué. He says he cruises the Internet and learns about photosynthesis. He wants to keep up with various languages.

When he talks, Jose wavers between bouts of cocksure belligerence and heart-stopping naïveté.

The week before the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) tests were given this year, Juana went into a frenzy of activity trying to get her son back into school. She kept saying she needed to get him in to take the TAAS test.

Turns out, Jose had a plan. "I have a book upstairs. Every Saturday and Sunday I would work on it. It would teach me mathematics on TAAS. I thought then that when my mom brings me back to school I can pass the TAAS." He figured that passing the TAAS would get him promoted to the next grade. Somehow, he thought they would overlook his missing three months of school at the end of the year (as well as a month at the beginning of the year when he started school late after a trip to Mexico).

He didn't get back in, didn't get to take the test, and failed seventh grade. He'd failed sixth grade two years before. "I'm just going to spend the rest of my life just flunking and flunking again," he says despondently.

Asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Jose turns to a TV program he saw recently. "This man makes operations for free for these kids who have really bad hearts. He does heart surgery. That got me to asking, why not me? Why can't I be a doctor?" Or, he says, he might want to join the air force and become a fighter pilot.

Black Middle School wasn't a good fit, Jose says. Toward the end he was getting detention slips every day. "I was being really bad. I was being a pest, being lazy."

Eventually he decided, "Oh, forget it. I'll just go to another school." He wanted to start over with a clean slate somewhere else. "The problem is, I didn't get back in."

If he gets back in school, Jose insists, he will pass. His limited reading skills don't pose a problem, he says. He will just go into a "resource" group where they do "baby stuff." He says that the only thing he has to worry about is math. But then he reconsiders: He says science is hard and history is just a pain. So how did he pass before? "Sometimes you work in groups. This was good for me. I could ask, 'What does this word mean?' " Other times, he says, "I'd cheat. It was cheat or flunk."

His social studies teacher gave Jose extra time. He let him take books home, and spend more time on assignments, just to make sure he got them right. His no-nonsense reading resource teacher was strict, but she really taught him a lot, too.

Only one teacher was bad to him at Black, Jose says. She nagged him a lot, but if he knew then what he knows now he would have just toughed it out. He should have just toughed it out, he repeats.

His mother has recently learned about a local private school. She could work two jobs. It would cost her $200 a month to get Jose in there, but he vehemently says he'll have no part of it. "It would cost too much money, money we need for food and to pay our bills," he says, angrily ticking off his objections on his fingers. "I can go to public school. Everything's paid for there. And I bet the schools are just the same."

So where is he going next fall after this disaster of a school year? He swears he won't go back to Black. He's given up on Lanier, rejected too many times. He might go live with his uncle, he says, on the west side of town. Maybe the school will be better there. He won't go to a private school.

He resents all the time he sat out, blames his mother for not trying harder to get him back in school. If he gets back in, he'll do it differently this time. He'll sit down and just be there to learn.

His mother keeps going back to the same thing, though. He can't read. At the very least, he desperately needs someone to volunteer to tutor him this summer to give him a chance in the fall. She wants him in private school where she thinks the smaller classes could save him. She is no match, though, for her son. He's going to decide where he's going to go, and it will be up to her to make that happen.

For all these months, Juana Vega was unable to get her son back in an HISD school. For all these years, Jose has not learned to read at an HISD school, although he has been promoted. For all this time, HISD, despite the best efforts of some of its teachers, surely hasn't done its best by this boy.

There seems little to signify that something will change over the summer break. We have a lost boy, a mother ill-equipped to fight for him, and a school district more concerned with attendance zones than attendance. It seems an overwhelmingly sad and wasteful thing.


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