Phoenix Latinos rising with high school robotics program

Inspirational teacher – chronicled in new documentary – helps poor Hispanic students bridge achievement gap, conquer MIT

Fredi Lajvardi giving an electrical engineering student pointers in the classroom.
Richard E Schultz / 50 Eggs Films

On a hot summer afternoon in Phoenix, the sprawling campus of Carl Hayden Community High School seemed forlorn and deserted. Trees withered in the triple-digit heat. Chewing gum melted on sidewalks.

But inside a dark, cramped workshop, a handful of students fine-tuned an underwater robot they constructed for an upcoming competition in San Diego. The robot, a watertight contraption of cylinders and tubes on wheels, sat on a table near a student-built computer nestled in what looked like a secondhand guitar case.

Faridodin “Fredi” Lajvardi, a short, bespectacled teacher with a graying dark beard, puzzled through a programming glitch with senior Sergio Corral, who was coding the computer to track the robot’s underwater moves. After tinkering with the code, Corral jubilantly announced he had fixed the glitch.

That scene has played out many times in the 25 years since Lajvardi, a 49-year-old immigrant from Iran who teaches marine science and robotics, joined the faculty of Carl Hayden, a notoriously underperforming school in an inner-city Latino neighborhood.

Often compared to fabled California teacher Jaime Escalante, who turned inner-city Latino kids into math whizzes, Lajvardi has overcome daunting personal and professional challenges to create a method of teaching that could serve as a model for bridging the nation’s Latino learning gap. Whites consistently outscore Latinos in standardized tests, and in Arizona, where Latinos make up one-third of the population, the problem is particularly troubling.

After the recent release of the documentary film “Underwater Dreams,” which chronicles how Lajvardi and now-retired colleague Allan Cameron coached undocumented immigrant students to a world robotics championship over MIT in 2004, Lajvardi and his students have visited the White House and given presentations at prestigious think tanks on how to improve Latino education.

José Moreno, a professor at California State University at Long Beach, calls the Hispanic achievement disparity the “Latino opportunity gap.” A former undocumented immigrant who specializes in Latino education and policy studies, he ticked off the factors that segregate Latino students in public schools today: race, money and language.

All those factors apply to Carl Hayden, where in 2013 only 51 percent of the 2,052 mostly Latino students passed Arizona’s standardized test in math and 69 percent passed the reading test. One-third did not graduate after four years.

The students who stumble into Lajvardi’s robotics program shatter the stereotypes. Lajvardi said many of the kids who stick it out on his robotics team end up attending college and graduating with science degrees. Even undocumented immigrant students, who are required by Arizona law to pay unaffordable out-of-state tuition to attend state universities and are prohibited from receiving any educational scholarship tied to public funds, find their lives improved by robotics. They either score prestigious private scholarships to finance their college educations or use their sharpened critical-thinking skills to create other careers for themselves.

Fredi Lajvardi at Carl Hayden Community High School.
Richard E Schultz / 50 Eggs Films

“Before I graduated, I told [Lajvardi] he’d be my mentor for the rest of his life,” said Lorenzo Santillan, a member of the 2004 dream team that pummeled MIT. When he joined the robotics team, he was “one of the bad ones” flunking classes and was “close to being expelled from school,” he said.

Santillan applied his engineering acumen to his passion, cooking, and became a professional chef. Today he owns a catering business — an inconceivable thought before he joined the robotics team. If he hadn’t signed up for robotics, he said, he’d probably be toiling in landscaping. With a day job as a chef and a side job as a caterer, he said, he’s earning about $50,000 a year, although that might go down now that he’s touring with the documentary. He’s anticipating more travel after the 2015 release of a feature film about their trouncing of MIT.

But Lajvardi’s success has exacted a toll. Off camera, he has faced so many personal and professional stresses, he has gotten close to burning out.

The father of two sons with autism, he has battled his own serious health problems, including cancer and Graves’ disease. His choice to become a teacher and not a doctor, he contends, has caused a painful longstanding rift with his immigrant parents, both doctors. He worries about his wife, Pam, who made his career possible by giving up her career as a Carl Hayden counselor to care for their sons. What’s more, in a time of anti-immigrant and anti-Arab animus (even though he is Persian, not Arab) in Arizona, it hasn’t helped that he was perceived as an Arab seeking money for undocumented Mexicans, and he has struggled each year to raise funds for the robotics team.

It doesn’t take a lot to run a high school robotics program. In the scheme of things, $30,000 or so won’t break the bank. But getting the funding has been a time-consuming and depressing task.

“In the broader [Phoenix] Latino community, quite frankly, a lot of folks don’t know about them,” said José Peñalosa, a Phoenix immigration lawyer and congressional candidate for Arizona’s 7th District. “The community has not adopted and supported them the way they should have. They should be financially helping kids, spotlighting them. I don’t see a lot about them on TV.”

“I think support is lacking in the community. I don’t know why it hasn’t caught fire,” he said.

‘The community has not adopted and supported them the way they should have. They should be financially helping kids, spotlighting them. I don’t see a lot about them on TV.’

José Peñalosa

Phoenix immigration lawyer

“I’m still here,” Lajvardi said as he sat in his marine-science classroom, where gurgling fish tanks inhabited by tilapia cast an eerie blue light in the semidarkness. A sign near the door reads, “What if your next project takes you to the edge of your comfort zone?” School pictures of outstanding graduates decorate the top of his teaching station. Almost all the graduates are immigrants, just like him.

He was born in Tehran, into an upper-class family. His parents immigrated to the U.S. when he was a small child. The family (Lajvardi has a brother, now a doctor) settled in Paradise Valley, the Beverly Hills of the Phoenix metro area. In his predominantly white elementary school, kids called Lajvardi “Viet” because to them, he was akin to a Vietnamese refugee. Kids bullied him about his first name, his last name, his height (he’s now 5 foot 6) and his foreignness.

In the post-9/11 environment, he experienced adult versions of the racist bullying he endured as a child. Once, a cop pulled him over in San Diego and, after checking his identification, asked him if he was teaching kids how to make bombs instead of robots.

His Latino students get it. From 2004 to 2010, Arizona passed a series of immigration laws that struck fear in the undocumented community. Many of those laws have been weakened or invalidated by the courts, but difficulties persist. Absent immigration reform, most undocumented students in Lajvardi’s robotics classes have been granted temporary relief from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program started by Barack Obama’s administration.

In Arizona, where most people drive to work, students who receive work papers and Social Security numbers as part of the program had been prohibited by Gov. Jan Brewer from getting driver’s licenses. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ban in early July, ending a two-year nightmare for some Carl Hayden kids, who drove to robotics events at great risk.

The Carl Hayden team still wins or places in regional and national competitions, although it hasn’t won a world championship since 2004.

“I feel that each student needs to be aware of why they need an education — the necessity and the power of it,” Lajvardi said. “I spend probably more time than most instructors on communicating the purpose behind education, and I make it as blunt as possible to drive the point and show how it directly affects their future forever … I try to connect their school experience to their sense of personal identity.”

A key battle, he said, has to do with parents. Some don’t understand that building and programming robots is more important in the long run than flipping burgers to help support the family. Sometimes, when robotics students get college scholarships, moms tell their kids they will destroy the family if they move away from home.

Staying close together is viewed as a survival tool, especially among families with undocumented immigrant members. What’s more, undocumented students know their deportation reprieve is only a temporary fix; an incoming president could ax the program with the flick of a pen.

Lajvardi suggests they figure out whether it’s best to be deported with or without science skills. The Carl Hayden students soldier on.

It’s a familiar feeling for Lajvardi, who recalled that as an immigrant child in Paradise Valley, he resolved every day to be smarter than his prejudiced tormentors. “I felt,” he said, “that I had to be better than everyone else. And I still feel that today.” 

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