What does it take not to be left behind?

Vanessa Perez started Austin High School with 1,000 other students four years ago. This week she graduates with a senior class of 284 kids.

Great for her; bummer for the 716 who fell off the charts.

Vanessa didn't just make it through her inner-city school, either; she excelled. Besides graduating third in her class, she was junior and senior class president and won numerous honors in science and math while taking advanced-placement classes. She lettered in cross-country, track, soccer and basketball and was named MVP in cross-country and soccer.

Vanessa Perez discovered that science and math had 
more appeal than getting in trouble.
Margaret Downing
Vanessa Perez discovered that science and math had more appeal than getting in trouble.

She has been awarded scholarships in astounding amounts: up to $40,000 from Bill Gates, $12,000 from the Houston Endowment, $10,000 from the Linda Lorelle fund and more. She's already planning for her master's.

This is the time of year that schools across the United States trot out their best and brightest graduating seniors. And boy, these kids are good. They have high GPAs; they excel at all sorts of activities, and they're planning on a great life.

Vanessa is no different. The thoughtful, articulate 17-year-old worked hard and deserves all the accolades she gets.

What makes her story all the more compelling, of course, is all the adversity she had to overcome to get to where she is today -- not only family financial problems and language difficulties but her own less-than-perfect sidesteps into trouble in her middle-school years.

What lifts her story beyond compelling to admirable is that in an interview, she worries about the kids who didn't make it. And she doesn't think it's always the fault of the students.

"If you want to have a school that's not going to have dropouts, you've got to have good teachers," she says.

In fact, it's those good teachers who helped save her. And she's careful to name names and explain what they did.

But unfortunately, she says, not all kids get a chance to have those good teachers. They don't at Austin; they didn't at Jackson Middle School. They probably don't at schools throughout the country.

And that, as Robert Frost would say, has made all the difference.

Vanessa's parents have drive, intelligence and not much in the way of material goods. Living in El Salvador, Mom started work at 14 or 15, going to school at night, but eventually had to drop out in her junior year. The family had no money. Eventually she and her brothers made their way to the United States -- "to save their lives and to get something," as Vanessa puts it -- where Mom has worked as a baby-sitter or house cleaner.

Dad drives a concrete truck, the best job he's ever had. Previously he was unemployed, and prior to that he worked as a welder, and before that he was in the Salvadoran military, but he ran away when the government told him to kill people. Vanessa inherited a lot of his stubbornness.

Actually, Vanessa's ability to speak up for herself and get things done has a long history on both sides of her family. Her mother's father got on the wrong side of the Salvadoran military government before she was born. Family stories tell of him hiding out in the wilderness for three days to avoid capture.

Vanessa's parents came to the United States in the early 1980s, meeting in Houston. "My dad is real, real smart. He can figure out plumbing, electricity, anything. But he didn't get a chance." Last year he was unemployed for six months, during which time he decided to get a commercial driving license.

"My dad took months to get his license. He failed that driving test so many times, but he did it," Vanessa says.

Vanessa started school speaking only Spanish, was moved to regular English class in the third grade and to the honors class in fourth grade. She went to magnet school at Fondren Middle School, but by the seventh grade things started going badly wrong.

She got in fights -- only two as she likes to say, but they were big ones. She had a boyfriend and there was a girl who wanted to fight her because of that. "She was going to get her gang on me." Vanessa says the girl followed her for three months, threatening to fight until finally they did. The girl never laid a hand on her; Vanessa grabbed her ponytail with one hand and smacked her with the other.

Another fight occurred on the school bus. This time a different girl slapped Vanessa in the face.

By eighth grade, Vanessa's girlfriends had started having sex with their boyfriends and the group got into drugs, she says. "They started smoking weed and inhaling all these liquids." Vanessa declined, and the pressure was on. They started calling her Miss Drug Free, and it was not a compliment.

"I said, 'I have to leave this place.' I was angry at the school and myself. I was failing almost every class," Vanessa says. "I was unhappy. You know, I can't blame it on my friends. It was just my friends were driving me nuts."

School officials threatened her with alternative school. She was told if she was written up one more time, she'd be kicked out of the magnet school.

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