As the fall semester begins, thousands of Bay Area high school students now have another reason to graduate, and thousands of young adults have a reason to return to school.
Proof of being in school or having graduated from high school could be a shield against deportation and the key to jobs for an estimated 1.76 million young, illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children if they qualify for the federal "deferred action for childhood arrivals" program announced in June.
Educators hope the lure of protection against deportation and renewable work permits will kindle the academic aspirations of young immigrants.
That hope seems a reality in East Contra Costa County, where one educator said she saw a spike in July enrollments for GED and English as a Second Language programs.
"It's just constant all day and evening," said Debbie Norgaard, an adult education coordinator for the Liberty school district.
"There's just a steady flow of new students wanting either ESL or GED classes. It's just real unusual. I'm sure it's because of this new (deferred action) program. We have had a couple of students who have requested verification letters from our GED teacher."
An estimated 20 percent of the young immigrants do not meet the education requirement -- they have no high school diploma, no GED and are not in school -- according to the Migration Policy Institute.
"Deferred action is going to be a motivation for everyone who didn't finish high school," said Luis Arroyo, an incoming UC Santa Cruz student applying for the relief. "It's going to motivate them to do something about it, go back to school, get their GED."
Many of his friends told the Oakland 18-year-old this year that "they wanted to give up on graduating" because even if they did well, being here illegally offered little hope for future success.
An Oakland educator said he thought the new opportunity would encourage students not to drop out.
"We tell our kids, 'You have to have your high school diploma,' " said Vidal Gonzalez, who mentors Latino high school students in Oakland. " 'Now it's up to you to buckle down and follow through because now you have an opportunity that you didn't have a few months ago.' "
After President Barack Obama announced the policy June 15, thousands of Bay Area teenagers spent the summer ensuring they had everything needed to qualify.
Arroyo and his friends, all of whom ended up graduating just days before the policy announcement, were among about 1,200 young immigrants and their family members who crowded an East Oakland gymnasium Aug. 23 to hear expert advice on how to apply.
Hundreds more have gathered at similar workshops in Menlo Park, Oakley, Redwood City and across urban and rural Northern California from Salinas to Cloverdale, but it wasn't until shortly before the Obama administration began taking applications Aug. 15 that it became clear the GED certificate would count for the education requirement.
Like the Liberty adult school, some other Bay Area campuses may also see increased interest in GED classes.
"A couple of folks have asked if we'll write a letter for them" proving that they are taking classes, said Burr Guthrie, principal of the Berkeley Adult School.
Dream Act important
Class began Wednesday at the school and included at least one student who enrolled because she wanted to apply for deferred action, but she declined to discuss her situation.
Armando Diaz, spokesman for the national GED (General Education Development) Testing Service, said his organization believes the Obama program will spur an increase in testing, but he won't be sure until next year. In 2011, 700,000 adults took the GED tests.
Other schools, such as the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District, expect less of an enrollment spike. Chancellor Rita Cepeda says most eligible students already have their high school diplomas and are enrolling in college classes, not GED courses.
The temporary federal reprieve is "a small step in the right direction" and one of several policies improving the prospects of students lacking legal status, she said.
More important, she said, is the California Dream Act passed last year. It gives illegal immigrant students access to need-based, state-funded scholarships in the fall and Cal Grants and other state financial aid next year.
Deferred action has "made it easier for folks to study and work in plain sunshine, and the availability of financial aid in 2013 may also increase the number of students," Cepeda said, "but I don't think our figures are going to double or triple."
At the San Mateo Adult School, "the increase is nothing we can't manage," said Larry Teshara, the school's director.
"I'm getting the ambitious ones, the cream of the crop," Teshara said. "There's a lot of hardworking people. They should be entitled to some hope, and this is a nice start."
Staff writer Katy Murphy contributed to this story. Contact Matt O'Brien at 510-293-2465 or Theresa Harrington at 925-945-4764.