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Unwelcome to America

How We Did the Story

Senior reporter Jo Napolitano called more than 600 schools in every state and D.C. attempting to register a 19-year-old new arrival from Venezuela.

By Jo Napolitano & Kathy Moore | June 17, 2024

During a time of anti-immigrant fervor in the U.S., The 74 set out to test whether schools are turning away older immigrant students — and to capture high-stakes enrollment conversations that otherwise take place beyond view.

As part of our investigation, senior reporter Jo Napolitano posed as the aunt of a newcomer student named “Hector Guerrero,” who recently arrived from Venezuela with limited English skills. Napolitano told school staffers her nephew’s education had been interrupted after ninth grade. 

Through those exchanges, The 74 was able to document how school districts react to such registration requests, revealing widespread refusals to enroll the older student or forceful efforts to steer him to alternative programs. The 74 would not have garnered the same responses by contacting individual schools or districts in every state and asking them about their policies.

Napolitano called a minimum of five high schools in every state plus Washington, D.C., totaling 255. She then added hundreds more spread throughout the country, based primarily on the number and percentage of Hispanic and immigrant residents living in each state. The calls were made between February 2023 and May 2024. 

Each school was presented with the same information about Hector: his age, his English proficiency, how far he had gotten in high school. Napolitano told district staffers her nephew was eager to restart his education so he could earn his diploma and go on to college. Using her own name, she said Hector was living with her and provided a home address within school district boundaries to establish his residency.

Some answers came quickly, but most required multiple follow-up calls spread over several days or weeks. The 74 recorded these conversations in 34 states and D.C., where the law allows someone to record their own conversation without the other party’s consent. These recordings number just over 1,000. In the 13 states where two-party consent is required, Napolitano transcribed these conversations. In a few instances after the initial phone call, subsequent communications occurred by e-mail or text at the school district’s request.

  • Accepted
  • Probably Yes
  • Refused
  • Probably No
  • No Answer

Napolitano reached out multiple times to school staffers who were fully quoted and named in our story; to those who were partially quoted and not named but their school was identified and to persons who were neither named nor quoted but whose school we identified in reporting how they responded to us. She explained the circumstances surrounding their original conversation and gave them an opportunity to respond. 

School staff were deemed to have refused Hector when they said outright they would not enroll him. Those who did not render a firm decision but strongly indicated the outcome were classified as “probably yes” or “probably no.” Schools that failed to respond after at least three calls were classified as “no answer.”

The 74 determined the maximum high school attendance age in all 50 states and D.C., by researching sometimes convoluted regulations. In 35 states and the District of Columbia, students have a right to attend high school until at least age 20. Napolitano then worked for months to confirm our findings with every state department of education and D.C. All but a handful were responsive. 

The 74’s code of ethics requires that reporters openly identify themselves. Engaging in undercover reporting or obtaining information by trickery or disguise, it states, is not permissible except in very rare circumstances. Such cases require the approval of a supervising editor and an explanation to the reader.

Napolitano and her editor, Kathy Moore, believed this story met the “very rare  circumstances” standard and sought and received approval to do an undercover investigation from The 74’s Editor-in-Chief Steve Snyder. 

In some respects, our story reflects Newsday’s 2019 award-winning investigative series, Long Island Divided, which equipped private citizens posing as first-time home buyers with training and hidden cameras to expose racial steering and unequal treatment in the residential real estate market. A significant number of the participants were actors. 

The 74 would like to express our appreciation to the Education Writers Association for awarding us a $7,500 grant to pursue this reporting project. Their support acknowledges — as we said in our proposal — that being turned away at the schoolhouse door cuts off a critical pathway toward earning a high school diploma and moving onto college or the workforce for this struggling group of students. 

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