These neighborhood graduates are going far
The state of Texas has cut education spending drastically. The Dallas school district has more failing schools than are rated Exemplary by the Texas Education Agency. And sometimes it seems like all the youth of America is going the way of TV’s “Jersey Shore.” That is, they’re narcissistic, promiscuous and disrespectful of themselves and others.
But all of America’s youth are not trashy reality-TV character wannabes. Some of them are great kids, even in the face of adversity.
The following stories showcase a few delightful neighborhood students who have overcome the odds to become successful, college-bound high-school seniors. They prove there is hope after all.
Jannet Barrera says she isn’t growing into the adult her parents imagined.
She is the student-body president at Sunset High School. She volunteers at church and in local hospitals. She mentors underclassmen and racks up awards every school year. To top it off, she has a full academic scholarship to Texas A&M University.
In fact, her parents’ disapproval keeps the 18-year-old motivated.
“I wish my parents would come talk to my teachers or see my grades,” she says.
Barrera’s dad is from Mexico, and Barrera says he tries to push old-school values on her. He thinks it’s inappropriate for Barrera to take leadership roles at school, for example, because she is a v. Her parents don’t want her to go away to college.
“They think she’s trying to leave the family,” says Jaslyn Greene of Advise Texas, who helped Barrera with college applications.
“But no, she’s just trying to make life better for herself.”
The CEO of the nonprofit Education is Freedom offered Barrera a job on the spot after hearing her give a speech at a conference earlier this year. When we interviewed Barrera in March, she was hiding from her father the fact that she had accepted the job.
“He tells me, ‘You should just get married to a rich man, and he will take care of you,’ ” Barrera says.
But she wants to be a nurse. Her parents also unwittingly inspired that career goal. Barrera’s parents were admitted to hospitals several times when she was a kid, and she often was asked to translate for nurses who only spoke English.
“Sometimes we had really good nurses, and sometimes we had really rude nurses,” she says.
After college, she wants to work for Children’s Medical Center, where she currently volunteers.
“The cool part about Jannet is that she’s so humble,” says Theresa Sterling, who teaches criminal justice at Sunset.
“She’s gotten many awards on campus, and any time she is asked to be in the running for something, she cries and prays about it.”
From the ages of 8-18, Elizabeth Campos lived in foster homes throughout Texas. Some were group homes, some were private homes with foster parents. None of the experiences was horrific, Campos says, but she lived with virtual strangers in seven Texas towns over those 10 years, always just a little out of place.
Campos and her siblings entered the foster care system after her mom was deported to Mexico. She remarried and was never heard from again. Campos’s dad is serving a lengthy prison sentence for child abuse.
At first, Campos and her brother, who is two years younger, were together. But one day when she was about 9, a foster parent took her to get ice cream, and when they returned she learned her brother had been taken to live hundreds of miles away. It was devastating at the time.
“We were really close,” she says.
Happily, that brother now lives on a 20-acre ranch south of Dallas, and Campos, who has “aged out” of foster care, lives with relatives near Sunset High School. She also has two older sisters, including one who has special needs and lives in a state hospital. A younger sister had a closed adoption.
There are about 25,000 children in foster care in Texas, and most of them change schools at least half a dozen times before 12th grade. Foster kids are less likely to graduate from high school, and fewer than 3 percent of the approximately 800,000 foster kids nationwide are expected graduate from college with a four-year degree.
Campos intends to be one of them. She says her last foster mom, Anne Butch, encouraged her to pursue education.
“I never wanted to go to college,” Campos says. “But she told me, ‘Don’t be a victim; do something to help yourself.’ ”
Jaslyn Greene of Advise Texas helped Campos with college financial aid applications and says she has a lot of determination.
“She knows college is her way out,” Greene says. “She knows there’s something better out there, and she just has to go and seek it.”
After Campos graduates from Sunset this month, she plans to attend El Centro and then transfer to a four-year university to study architecture or graphic design.
“I want to be able to take care of my sisters and brother,” she says.
Kimberly Torres scrunches up the leg of her skinny jeans to reveal a gnarly pink scar on her right ankle.
For years, the 18-year-old was ashamed of this scar, and she has a habit of keeping it covered. Now it’s healed and fading, but the scar is a reminder of the worst day of her life.
Torres was 10 in 2004 and visiting family in Florida when, on their last day of vacation, she and her family were in a car accident. Torres’ mother was killed instantly. A few minutes later, her 4-year-old sister died, too. Torres’ aunt escaped the crash with bruises. Her grandmother, with whom Torres now lives, broke her hip.
Torres’s mangled ankle wasn’t healing properly after doctors in Florida treated it, and she had to have surgery on the day of the viewing for her sister and mother. Doctors let her attend the funeral the day after surgery but not the burial.
The leg took a long time to heal, she says. She was angry.
“For the first couple years, it was hard,” she says.
Now there are times when she feels like she has overcome the tragedy. She touches the scar, remembering how she once was so self-conscious about it.
“My dad said I should be grateful it’s been healing over time, and I survived,” she says.
Ana Ramirez of Education is Freedom helped Torres through the college application process and says the girl is always looking for ways to give back to the community.
Torres is in theater at Adamson High School and volunteers in the kitchen after service at her church, Blessed Sacrament. Her grandma works to support them both, and Torres is a good student. She is interested in Japanese and Korean language and culture, and she wants to study fashion. She’s been accepted to the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University, but she’s waiting on scholarship awards to see if she can pay for either school.
“If I don’t get scholarships, then I will go to El Centro for no more than two years,” she says. “Then I will transfer to Parsons or F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology).”
Monica Martinez has seen enough of single parenthood to know she doesn’t want to go there. Her parents divorced when she was 9, and her mom worked 12-hour shifts six days a week in a factory to provide for Monica and her three siblings.
Then her sister, who is six years older, became a teenage mom. Summertime for Monica meant staying home to care for her younger sister and nephew.
“I wasn’t allowed to do anything on the weekend because I had to take care of the kids,” she says.
Martinez is driven, and she naturally takes leadership roles, Ramirez says. She is an A student, and she says she’s always been competitive academically.
“I get mad at myself if I get a B,” she says.
The Adamson High School softball player has been accepted to the University of Texas and Texas A&M University. She wants to study sports business and become an agent. She hopes to be the first in her family to graduate from college.
“My mom lives paycheck to paycheck, and I don’t want to live like that,” she says. “She works a lot for not enough, and that’s what I don’t want to do.”