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Garinger High revives soccer program to motivate ESL students

With tutoring, program could be path to college for immigrant kids

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Jenry was working agriculture jobs in his native country of Honduras by the time he was 6. At 11, his mother kicked him out, Jenry says, because she couldn't bear to continue to raise him in poverty. Homeless, penniless but ambitious, he decided to head north.

By 14 he had run — literally — through El Salvador and Guatemala before illegally jumping a train into Mexico, where drug lords recruited him against his will to work as their lackey. By 15 he had escaped, again on train, and was temporarily living with nuns and selling newspapers on the Mexican side of the Texas-Mexico border. After swimming the treacherous Rio Grande and walking for days without food or shelter through the desert — torterous but not a deterant, as starvation and exhaustion had become normal for him over the years — Jenry was finally in the United States.

After several more life-threatening moments and chance encounters, Jenry, now 19, is an undocumented ESL sophomore at Garinger High School who struggles with his English and grades. But his academics improved last year, when he joined the east Charlotte high school's soccer team led by new head coach David Garrett.

Last summer, Garinger ESL teacher Alexandra Iorio teamed up with Garrett, who runs local nonprofit One7, to revive the school's soccer program as a way to motivate ESL students — many of whom brought their love of soccer to the U.S. — to perform better in school. Garrett became the head coach and Iorio tutors, as well as teaches, much of the team.

"All my kids love soccer, but no one was playing for the school," Iorio says. "David said we have players who have the amazing capability ... [and soccer] could serve as a vehicle to college, but their grades weren't great."

One7 is a nonprofit in east Charlotte that acts as a temporary, sometimes permanent, shelter for kids like Jenry: immigrant children whose parents either abandoned them once in the U.S. or never came with them in the first place. More than 20 kids live or stay at the shelter, which, before Garrett bought it, served as a small apartment complex. One7 also houses a few families, mostly political refugees brought to Charlotte by the U.S. government because of North Carolina's affordable cost of living.

Garrett has used soccer as a way to unify the diverse group at One7 — there were 20 countries represented the day I visited in April — since it began in November 2008. In the courtyard of the former apartment complex is a soccer field, barricaded by a concrete-cylinder wall spray painted with colorful art.

"Soccer is an international language," says Garrett, a lifelong fan and former player himself.

Before meeting Iorio through a mutual friend, Garrett knew Garinger well; some of its students stay at One7, including Jenry. But meeting Iorio gave Garrett an opportunity to actually be in the school, working with children to improve their grades, soccer skills and college potential.

Garrett says ESL students fall through the cracks of American public education, not graduating or dropping out early, because the system doesn't adequately serve their needs. Like Jenry, many students don't enter school on the same grade level as counterparts who've attended since childhood. And forget second language — many students don't speak English at all.

"I saw this need," Garrett says, "and decided to step up my efforts to help these kids through school."

He says the routine of practicing and playing — running laps, practicing drills, being courteous to your teammate — provides much-needed structure to kids who used to live alone in cars or made thousand-mile treks to America.

Along with teaching and tutoring the players, Iorio helps students look for opportunities to become citizens, putting them in touch with immigration lawyers or assisting them in researching different paths to citizenship. She also serves as a de facto counselor, helping students cope with their undocumented status. She says after a student in her classroom brought up his status last year and told his "story" — how he came to the U.S. — the "flood gates" opened.

"Most kids just wanted to have a place where they could talk about being undocumented and having this common experience," Iorio says.

Garinger's soccer team won conference last fall, and a publishing company awarded the team captain, an undocumented ESL student, a scholarship that will pay for his four years at UNC Chapel Hill. But Iorio and Garrett say they can only do so much to help the players make it to college. Undocumented students don't qualify for financial aid, so many can't afford higher education.

Jenry knows he won't have a career in soccer, nor does he want to pursue college, either. Jenry wants to join the U.S. military. He is active in Garinger's ROTC program and has been awarded several medals, including recognition for his running and map-reading skills. One contest he won that he's particularly proud of involved using a map to find various points on a field in under three hours. While most of his competition got lost, he found all the points — with time to spare — summoning life-saving skills he acquired not so long ago.

Iorio can think of a dozen students like Jenry who have the tools and ambition to achieve their goals but who are hindered by bureaucracy.

"There are some states that are making college possible and not ignoring an entire generation and population of really good, smart people who can contribute," Iorio says. "North Carolina needs to follow them."

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