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East Boston

The Ponce family

Jackelyn Ponce and Jose Angel Guevara

Globe Staff

Jackelyn Ponce and Jose Angel Guevara

Updated: Oct. 2, 2011 -- In a triple decker in East Boston, Jose Angel Guevara keeps asking his mother when she will take him to school.

 “I tell him they’re on vacation, but I won’t be able to tell him that much longer,’’ Jackelyn Ponce said in Spanish, keeping her voice low as the 3-year-old boy played in the background. “He knows the children are going back to school,”

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 Boston Public Schools did not have enough preschool seats for Jose Angel this fall, so he will stay home on the top floor of a tenement surrounded by restaurants, shops, and bars.

She applied for a seat last winter, trying to explain to the clerk who took her application that she was desperate to enroll him to develop his active mind. But the clerk spoke only English and she, an immigrant from El Salvador, only speaks Spanish. She was not sure the clerk understood.

 “I would have done anything for him to attend school this year,” she said.

 She and her husband live in East Boston because it is affordable. But most neighbors speak Spanish, so Jose Angel is learning fractured English from cartoons and play groups.

 At home, Ponce marvels at her son’s quick mind with a mixture of pride and regret.

 He loves to play the flute and the accordion. He flips through the pages of his books. One day he informed her that his bed was really a boat, which amazed her because he has never sailed in one.

 “He has so much imagination,” she said.

She wishes she could afford private preschool. As the months pass, she worries that he will fall behind classmates who are already learning English. She would like him to be in school, not at home playing with toy cars.

 “There’s nothing I can do, just wait,” she said.

Updated: March 28, 2011 -- Jackelyn Ponce opened the letter from Boston Public Schools after Sunday Mass, hoping it would say that her son could enroll in the Bradley Elementary School this fall.

But she could not read the letter. It was only in English, and she speaks Spanish. On Wednesday, a bilingual friend confirmed that Jose Angel Guevara, almost 3, is on a wait list for a limited number of spots in the city’s early education program.

Ponce was crushed. She wants him to learn English and other skills so he will not fall behind.

“All the hope I had was that he would go to school in September,” she said. “I want him to be in school, learning colors and numbers.”

She has decided to look into private schools, perhaps for January. She said the family cannot afford one by September.

“He’s so enthusiastic,” she said. “I don’t want him to lose that interest.”

March 13, 2011 -- When she registered her almost 3-year-old son for the school lottery, there was so much Jackelyn Ponce wanted to say.

She wanted his future teachers to know that Jose Angel thrived in playgroups, plays the flute, and has a quick and curious mind. She is anxious to place him in a school with high expectations. From her apartment in one of East Boston's endless rows of tenements, Ponce knows that an education is his only chance for a good life.

But Ponce isn't fluent in English and the clerk at the busy school-registration center didn't speak Spanish, so Ponce handed over her identification, selected three schools near their home, and left.

"I couldn't ask anything," Ponce, an immigrant from El Salvador in the Boston neighborhood with the highest percentage of immigrants in the city, said softly. "I was left with so many doubts."

A doting mother, Ponce said she noticed her son's aptitude for learning early and is constantly investigating ways to challenge him academically, prodding friends and strangers alike for information about music lessons, playgroups or preschools. She and her husband, a laborer, structure their lives around caring for him: She works nights in a restaurant while he works days.

"For me, education is the foundation of everything, of success, of all that you can have," she said. "I want him to take advantage of everything."

But choosing a school stymied her. She does not have Internet or a car. The school system in El Salvador, where she finished high school, is completely different. In Boston, Ponce visited the enrollment center, where the Spanish-speaking director is welcoming but the written information in the lobby consisted of a few bilingual packets about the enrollment process.

To make her choices, Ponce relied on other immigrants. They suggested schools with solid test scores that are nearby in case of an emergency. Nobody mentioned programs her son might aspire to, such as the advanced-work program for high-achieving students, the prestigious exam schools, or a school where he could study in both English and Spanish.

She chose East Boston schools, first the Bradley, a majority Latino school noted for high test scores, followed by the early education center and, she guesses, the Kennedy, although it is not clear from her paperwork.

She hopes he will get the best education that Boston can offer.

"It’s the only inheritance that I can give him," she said of his schooling. "It’s my greatest wish."

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