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Survivors

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

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.

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.

She wanted to be kicked out. Planned for it, even.

Late in the day, she skipped the class of a teacher she didn't like. "I hated the way he taught. He just threw us the book. He just didn't really help us. Why am I going to give him my time when he doesn't give us his time?"

But even when she admitted she'd been skipping, he wouldn't kick her out. So she slid a chair across the room at him. He wrote her up, and the next day she checked out of Fondren and the magnet program and was on her way to Jackson, her home school, and regular classes.

At Jackson, Vanessa continued to get in trouble, mostly for "insignificant things" such as wearing sneakers with a stripe on them that the school was afraid was a gang symbol. She had no one else to blame her troubles on; she was doing this all by herself.

Gradually, though, she figured out that she needed to stop. She agreed that the school needed to be strict to get rid of the kids causing trouble. "Gangs. They took all that out." What they were left with was a school filled with "the kids that were scared to be bad," she says with no little humor.

Besides her own realization that stupid mistakes were a no-percentage way to go, Vanessa credits math teacher Arthur Pettoway, now an assistant principal at Austin, as a huge factor in her turnaround. "He was just a good math teacher. He was, like, energetic," she says, explaining how he'd start each class saying: "All right, kids, here's what we're going to do today."

"He was someone who made me feel like I had potential."

In the eighth grade Vanessa discovered she already knew how to do the math in her new class (they'd covered it in seventh grade in the magnet program) and began tutoring other students for Pettoway. "That's when I was like, 'I got brains.' What the heck was I doing throwing them away?"

At the end of that year, Vanessa tied for most outstanding math student and was named the most-improved social studies student.

Then she got to Austin, back in advanced classes, and things opened up for her even more. She discovered that she really liked physics. She credits two teachers with influencing her: physics teacher Tim Johnson and calculus teacher Reza Khaden. "They used real-life examples. Gravity, force, anything put together is just physics and calculus, really."

And she discovered what will be her major in college: structural engineering. "I'll be out of the office traveling, going to build bridges and freeways."

She also credits coaches Elizabeth Durden and Michelle Johnson for her success. They set strict standards of dress and behavior. "You can't touch your boyfriend in school. You will not be late to class. Keep the dress code. Respect every teacher even if they are wrong," she says, ticking off the criteria.

Another big help has been SABE (Students Aspiring to a Better Education), a program offered through the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Houston. Selected for the program at the end of her freshman year, Vanessa has spent hours in summer sessions going over SAT testing, math prep and college-level writing.

A year ago, her former boyfriend from middle school called to see what Vanessa was up to. She happily recited some high points: "I'm junior class president. I'm in varsity sports. I won district in cross-country."

She asked him what he was doing.

"He said he'd dropped out and was working in a restaurant."


Linda Llorente is in her second year as principal of Austin. Before that, she was principal at Jackson for six years.

Her school's main function, she says, is to ensure a completion rate of four years for all its students. This is a high priority for all HISD schools, of course, especially since last year's scandal over Sharpstown High's falsified dropout rate.

"If you give me a couple of more years, we will not let anyone fall through the cracks," she declares.  

Helping her achieve this goal is a flexible HISD administration that allows the school to offer for-credit classes on Saturdays and after school. "We are here till five each day," she says. Last summer about 900 Austin kids were in school for 19 days going over algebra and reading.

The school continues to support its students, after they've left, Llorente says. One Texas A&M student comes by for tutoring with his high school math teacher.

Asked about what she does with bad teachers, Llorente says that any teacher in need of help is "put on a growth plan." Asked what she does with really good teachers, Llorente says she gets them "anything they want." She points to the $75,000 in graphing calculators she secured and the new microscopes for the science department, as well as $45,000 in novels she bought for the English department.

"We're all doing the best possible thing for each child," Llorente says. "We have all kinds of students here. We just don't want anybody to fall behind. We care about each and every one of our students."


Not all of Vanessa's dreams have come true. Her greatest passion was to go to state this year in cross-country.

"I didn't make it. I had a 13 flat in the two-mile at the regionals" -- not fast enough to make state from a 5A school. Still, she takes great pleasure that her team "beat every team in Houston, Westside, Bellaire -- you know, all these schools that we get put under."

Her older brother Dennis is a sophomore at the University of Houston majoring in chemical engineering. Her younger sister Andrea, 14, will enter Austin in the fall and also wants to be a chemical engineer.

Vanessa considers herself a role model for Andrea, who has pledged to do even better than her older sister in high school. Vanessa brings up the stereotype that Hispanic females get pregnant and drop out of school. Making sure that doesn't happen to her is part of her reasoning in staying close to home and picking UH for college, she says. "I don't want to go to UT and party, A&M and party. I don't want to put myself in the position to get distracted."

Family ties were important in her decision as well. Many of her cousins have babies. She didn't want to come back in four years to find them all grown up.

The other reason is the scholarship she is getting through UH. Because she's in SABE, she's automatically admitted to the Urban Experience program, which gives her $2,500 a year and free tutoring.

Of the middle schoolers she used to hang with, Vanessa is the only one to graduate. Two had babies and another is pregnant. One ended up dancing at Legs, which she said she didn't like, but it paid well. The dancer, who says she really wants to be an X-ray technician, tried several charter schools, but found that they focused on the smartest kids, the honors-classes kids who would bring them acclaim, Vanessa says. The average kids were just forgotten, she says.

That's true in regular public school as well, with few exceptions, according to Vanessa. Natalie Martinez, team leader and English teacher at Austin, is one of those exceptions, she says: a teacher who puts as much effort into helping her students in regular classes as those in advanced courses.

Her current boyfriend was in regular classes. "He said, 'Man, we were watching movies all the time.' " He graduated and is now a student at Houston Community College.

"A lot of girls drop out because of their boyfriends. They had a baby. They think they're going to get married and, 'Oh, he's going to take care of them.' A lot drop out because they're scared to be successful," Vanessa says. "Some say, 'I'm not going to college, so why finish high school? I'd rather go to work.'

"A lot of people don't know about scholarships and that there are people willing to pay their way," Vanessa says. And a lot of people lack self-esteem, she says.

She understands why schools focus on their most successful kids, "because they're the ones who are really going to boost your school up." The rest, she says, fall into the "whatever" category.

Listening to Vanessa so calmly handicapping the prospects of kids at a school she clearly loves -- the "regulars" versus the honors group -- says more about the way things work than any official policy statements.

Did Vanessa Perez prosper because she's so smart and determined, or because some dedicated teachers wouldn't let go? Obviously, yes to both.

And what does that say about the children left behind? The ones who weren't quite clever enough? The ones who didn't have enough self-starter to them? The ones who never got the best teachers, who never got that bit of extra help? The ones who didn't get that kind word at the most necessary moment?  

You know those kids. We all do. They're the ones who'll be cleaning up after us when we finish eating in a restaurant tonight. If Vanessa Perez won't forget them, then neither should we. Even in times of celebration.


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