It was 2 a.m. and his oldest son was up in his room studying. Jeremias Parada was nothing but proud.
This is what it would take to succeed in this country, he'd told his sons. Work hard, set goals and you could find your way to all sorts of rewards, he'd told them. The son, Abraham, didn't work after school; his parents didn't want him to. All his time should be devoted to his classwork.
Jeremias Parada is a bandy-legged little man who has an air of dignity and resolve about him. He immigrated to New York City from El Salvador to escape the devastating civil war there in the early '90s. His wife, Deysi Parada, came to the United States for the same reason. He works for the Alvin school district as an a/c technician, and she in the Dickinson schools as an ESL teaching aide.
Neither parent has a college diploma, although Jeremias got his GED here and Deysi had taken medical courses back in El Salvador. They were happy enough in New York City, but after 9/11 decided it was time to move again. And after some brief tries in other places, they made their way to Houston and settled in nearby Dickinson. Which, they say, they love.
Eighteen-year-old Abraham Parada towers over his father. He has a shy manner but talks with passion about wanting to be a cardiologist and to go on missions for the nondenominational church his parents have put together with services in their living room. An academic type, he has spent his whole school career doing what he was told to do, not only by his parents but by educators and administrators who encouraged him, told him that he was something special, that he could do anything. And he got a lot of recognition for doing just that.
His mother and younger brother, Samuel, 16, bring out trophies, ribbons, scrapbooks and certificates, a colorful documentation of Abraham's achievements, laid out on their dining-room table. Google his name and you'll see a newspaper photo of him in junior high when he became the first-ever student in all of Dickinson Independent School District to be named a state finalist in the "Do the Write Thing" competition, with more than 15,000 students competing.
You'll see him as a third grader getting a second place in an environmental art contest. At a junior high science fair getting a first place in Consumer Science, a high school student who went to state in the Texas History Fair competition.
During his freshman year at Dickinson High, he applied to a special dual credit program operated in cooperation with College of the Mainland. There are similar programs with community colleges throughout the Houston area; students have a chance to get a jump start on college, graduating from high school with not only a high school diploma but an associate's degree. It's seen especially as a way to steer lower-income kids to college and save them two years of tuition and other costs. Abraham was accepted into the program in his sophomore year and has been taking college-level classes along with his high school curriculum ever since.
By the end of the fall semester senior year, when these things are usually finally determined, Abraham had a 4.818 grade point average. His official transcript lists his class rank as No. 1. That's out of a high school graduating class of 534 students. He's on course to pick up both his associate's and his high school diploma (with a Distinguished Achievement designation) this spring (and in a bit of scheduling irony, will get his associate's degree first). "I have the highest GPA in the whole district," he says.
But he won't get to give a speech. He won't get his photo in the local papers. His name won't go up on any special plaque.
Dickinson school officials delivered the news in January. Abraham won't be the valedictorian.
Because in the Dickinson Independent School District, it doesn't matter if you have the highest grades at Dickinson High. In language added to the student handbook in recent years, the district specifically states that students who take dual college courses off campus cannot be the valedictorian or salutatorian. The official stance in Dickinson is that the 2014-15 student handbook makes it clear that if you opt for the dual course credit program off campus, you waive any chance to be named valedictorian or salutatorian in your class. Abraham, they say, should have read this, should have known this.
As one employee at a nearby district who'd heard about Abraham's situation put it: "There has got to be more behind it, I would think. I just know that dual-credit courses only help a student. "
Abraham and his parents have appealed the district's decision through all possible channels, and after they presented their case at a school board meeting in early March, Dickinson officials began to field uncomfortable questions from the public.
We called Dickinson High School Principal Dr. Billye Smith, who said she could not comment but added: "We've been through the process on this whole situation and it's not because he took dual credit; we have a lot of kids who take dual credit. He's at the Collegiate High School. It's a different program." So we asked: "But when he graduates, he's getting his high school diploma through your high school, isn't that correct?" "Correct," she said, and referred us to the district office.
Superintendent Vicki Mims did not return our phone call; her office referred us to the district's director of communications, Tammy Dowdy, who was standing by with a prepared statement.
"The Dickinson High School Academic Handbook states that to earn the distinction of valedictorian or salutatorian, one 'must be a full-time student at Dickinson High School during his/her entire senior year. Students graduating through the Collegiate High School program, DCC program or other alternative programs are not eligible for recognition as valedictorian or salutatorian.' This has been in the Dickinson High School Academic Handbook for many years, including the three years the student has been at the Collegiate High School. Other area school districts have this same policy.
"In the case this year, Abraham Parada will graduate with a college Associate's Degree completely funded by Dickinson ISD, since our district pays the entire cost of the Collegiate High School Program for the student. This is not the case in many other districts, which only contribute a portion to the annual cost."
The important phrase here, and one that Dowdy did not initially emphasize, is "three years." Because that's how long ago the district changed its handbook to specifically include a ban on students graduating from the Collegiate High School dual-credit program. Asked why the change was made, Dowdy said, "There was never a change. It's always been like this." When we mentioned we had a copy of the 2011-12 handbook, which did not include that specific exclusion, she insisted it was always understood that off-campus students would not be eligible for valedictorian status. Abraham says only that no one told him that during his freshman year when all those teachers and everyone else was standing by urging him to apply for the program or at any of the meetings with his high school counselors in the years since.
"They changed the rules," Abraham and his parents say. They don't understand how the school can say he's disqualified when he goes to school during regular hours and takes courses approved by the state of Texas and DISD just because he goes to a campus in Texas City along with 150 other students.
Dowdy also said it wasn't fair to use the grades Abraham earned in the collegiate program because the college uses a grading scale different from the district's and it wouldn't be comparing apples to apples. Which begs the question of why couldn't Dickinson then recalibrate the scores to its standards? And why is it urging students into this program if it doesn't think much of it?
Besides pride of place, Abraham and his family say being named valedictorian is important to them because of the special scholarships offered by Texas public universities to valedictorians of accredited high schools. The entire first year of their tuition is free.
In addition, at the University of Houston, where Abraham has been accepted, along with two other schools, valedictorians are eligible for a scholarship of up to $3,000 a year. Being a valedictorian means a full scholarship at the University of Texas at Dallas, Abraham says, where he has also been accepted.
When asked for the why of the rules change, a change she was now acknowledging, Dowdy said that "several other school districts around us have that same policy." A Houston Press survey of local districts including the Houston, Fort Bend and Katy ISDs didn't spot anything like that, so we asked Dowdy for the names of the other districts.
Dowdy identified Santa Fe ISD as one, and when asked for other names of the "several," she said she couldn't remember any others "off the top of my head, but I've heard of several others. It's not something we just decided, 'Oh, let's do this.'"
We called Santa Fe, and an employee there who clearly wanted no part of the Dickinson mess said no, that district doesn't have a policy like Dickinson's that excludes off-campus dual-credit students from top honors.
Ciro Reyes, director of the Upward Bound pre-college program at College of the Mainland, a federal grant program designed to help steer low-income first-generation students toward college, has Abraham in his program and has nothing but good to say about him.
"He's a go-getter. He's a very quiet student. He's one of the most structured students I've ever worked with. He's one of the ones who's known his game plan, known what he wants to achieve from an early age. He helps other students out a lot."
Reyes said Abraham talked about the need to maintain his No. 1 ranking and was devastated when he found out he wasn't going to be valedictorian.
Frank Huerta is with the Student Support Services program at College of the Mainland, and has worked with Abraham on his pre-calculus class. "He's the example of students that teachers always look for. He's very thorough and asking why all the time. He's very diligent in his work, and actually sometimes we have to ask him to take a break."
Huerta predicted that Abraham would do well in college. "He's everything college students should be, helping himself to a better life and furthering his education. And whatever he sets his mind to, he will reach that goal."
Reminded that wasn't the case in Abraham's quest to be valedictorian, Huerta said: "You want the kids to better themselves, but when you meet that goal you put some kind of obstacle in front of them, and that's not what institutions should do."
There's no sense in appealing to the Texas Education Agency, by the way. In a policy that shows off its survival school smarts rather than any leadership, the TEA says, "The Texas Education Agency has absolutely no say in the matter of how districts determine class rankings."
So individual districts are left to develop their own customized policies, which seems rife for abuse, particularly in smaller, rarely scrutinized districts like Dickinson.
At the end of his freshman year, Abraham knew he was in first place. The valedictorian spot was his to lose. He just had to maintain. Samuel says friends of the student who will now be the valedictorian surrounded him once, trying to grill him about his brother's exact grade point.
Abraham's parents are still holding out hope that someone in authority at Dickinson will reconsider. As his mother puts it, they know it's a long shot, but they never want to think back in years to come that if they'd just tried one more thing, they might have changed the outcome.
"They can still change it. There's still three months," she says. And if not? "At least the community will know."
In February they met with Carla Voelkyl, deputy superintendent for educational services, and again on March 24 with her and Superintendent Mims. The message the Paradas received: Be happy for what you've got: two years free collegiate-level education and the highest grade point average. Isn't that enough? Abraham says he told them, no it's not.
In the spirit of compromise, the Paradas even asked if he could be named co-valedictorian. No, they were told. He can't be a co-valedictorian; he's not a valedictorian. (For a time, the chance that Abraham could say the prayer at commencement was in the works, but that got shut down as well.) An attorney representing the school district was in attendance, and Abraham says he told them that while Abraham might be smart, he couldn't understand the handbook. And that if Abraham had taken all his courses at Dickinson High, he wouldn't have made the grades to be valedictorian there, either.
"The way he talked to us, the way he expressed himself, it was humiliating," Jeremias says.
Deysi remembers the open house she attended before her oldest started his freshman year. Abraham showed her the wall of valedictorians and salutatorians. "'One day I will be there,' he told me," she says.
Abraham says he went the dual-course credit route instead of taking Advanced Placement classes because he could pass an AP course and still not score high enough on the AP test (most colleges want to see a 3 out of 5) to get college credit. So he went for what he thought was the sure thing. Now, of course, he knows there are no sure things.
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"I took the courses I was supposed to take. I studied as hard as I could. I managed my time and I went for tutoring and to see professors during their office hours," he says. "I'm a first-generation high school student. My parents are from El Salvador, which has a very different educational system. They taught me if you have a goal, you'll do whatever it takes to get there."
Abraham still has every chance of having a good life. He's been accepted by Baylor, UH and UTD. Between his grades and his financial status -- he's on reduced-price lunches at school -- he stands a good chance of getting both merit- and need-based financial help. He'll set and make new goals.
Another kid will get to make the commencement speech, accept the honor, qualify for the special in-state valedictorian free--tuition-for-a-year.
Barring a miracle, it won't be Abraham Parada. And no one should feel good about that.