Guadalupe Morales knows what people think when they hear the words “Richmond High School.” They think of poverty, crime, low-test scores and of a horrific gang rape that still blemishes the school’s image one year later.
But despite what people think, and despite disconcerting statistics about the number of Latinas who graduate high school and college into professional careers, Morales is determined to make a life for herself after Richmond High School.
Don’t feel sorry for her, she insists: This fall she is going to college. The 17-year-old senior will attend Brown University, an Ivy League school, on a full scholarship.
As she makes her way down the hallway of RHS, Morales is the subject of stares and questions. “Hey Guadalupe, what are the cameras doing here?” And “Hey, Guadalupe are you going to be on TV?”
In a brown-colored sweatshirt lettered with the words BROWN UNIVERSITY in bold, she doesn’t stop to answer. She smiles brightly but averts her gaze.
Morales will graduate June 19 at 9 a.m. It’s a date she’s been working toward for a long time. RHS is the last school in the West Contra Costa district to graduate because of its academic performance, Morales says casually on the way to her locker.
In fact, the school’s graduation rate is only 77.1 percent—four percentage points higher than the district average—according to the California Department of Education. The dropout rate in the district is 22 percent and RHS is almost double that averaging 46 to 47 percent.
Morales plans to study neuroscience; she wants to become a doctor. “The whole aspect of being a doctor is helping other people,” she said. “I like that. I feel like it’s natural to me. It’s also a way to prove something to myself. If I can make it as a doctor then I know all my hard work that got me to this point was worth it.”
Her academic achievements are a source of pride for counselors and educators across the school. As one faculty member put it: “She is a teacher’s dream.”
Morales doesn’t quite see it that way. She acknowledges working hard, but said she can’t imagine working any other way. “My mom has always had a high expectation of me and seeing her work all those jobs taught me never to give up and to stay persistent,” she said.
In her essays that she wrote for Brown, Morales was asked to pick something that defines her and she chose the traditional Mexican dish tamales. Her parents are both from Mexico. They immigrated to the United States 22 years ago.
For Morales the tamale is a metaphor for her life — on the outside it may seem like a typical Mexican dish, but inside there’s always something unique. She recalled a period in her childhood when she perfected the art of making tamales, helping her mother make them to sell.
Her family faced some tough circumstances, but they did not break her and she is stronger because of it, she said. Her family moved often, ten times so far, she said. And once, they were evicted, she said, smile fading.
“It’s hard to keep a house because my mom has worked so many jobs. Sometimes you get a lower-paying job and can’t make the rent,” she said. “For a couple a days I felt pitiful, but I got the realization fast not to feel sorry for myself because you can overcome obstacles and do something about it.”
It’s easy to think, “Oh I live in the ghetto, I go to a crappy place like Richmond High,” she said, “but even though it’s like that I will work hard and even though I have impediments to my success I can overcome and do better than if I was going to a richer school.”
There have been times, she admits, that she’s wanted to be somewhere else, at a school where every resource is at a student’s disposal. “I’ve thought about it at times, but I like being at Richmond High,” she said. “The people that are there genuinely care for you. The teachers that are there are really there because they want and you get a sense early on who the teachers are that care about you and how well you do.”
Jean Pierre De Oliveira is one of five counselors at Richmond High School. Each has an average caseload of 400 to 500 students, and De Oliveira says they work at their jobs because they love helping students.
Still, he said, the outside socials ills seep through the walls of the school, and sometimes that makes the job more difficult. “We serve a demanding and needy community,” he said. “A lot of our kids come from homes of violence homes on welfare tough environment. … Sometimes kids come to me and they have eight problems and you have to decide which one to help them with before you can help them academically.
Eighty percent of the RHS high school population is listed as socioeconomically disadvantaged on official school accountability reports.
De Oliveira said teachers know that a student’s life circumstances affect academic performance and it makes his job easier and more joyous when one of his students, like Morales, succeeds despite life’s challenges.
“With Guadelupe getting into Brown, this just makes my day,” he said.
Plopping down on the floor between three closed classrooms doors to take a pre-approved break in between classes, Morales relaxes. Now away from the curious glances, she is at ease. She bursts into a smile, fussing with her long dark brown hair.
Morales’ first experience with studying at Brown actually happened last summer, when she participated in the Ivy League Connection Program, a privately funded scholarship organization that works closely with the West Contra Costa Unified District to sponsor a group of students to visit and study at Ivy Leagues for the summer.
The qualifications to apply are demanding: a GPA of 3.7 or above, a PSAT score of 140 or above and an SAT score of 1700 or above. The program requires an essay in addition to the academic requirements. Eighteen Richmond High Students met the qualifications to apply out of approximately 400, and seven finalists were chosen from the entire district. Of these, three Richmond High students were chosen to participate in a Brown program called 2010 Women in Leadership. With 11 AP classes under her belt and a 4.27 GPA, Guadalupe Morales was one of them.
Still, Morales didn’t know she’d been accepted to the full college program until mid-December. She recalls opening her acceptance letter in the middle of her afternoon multimedia class. “I was completely surprised and amazed,” she said. “I couldn’t really comprehend at first. It didn’t connect. But then I was really happy.”
In her blog she started keeping over the summer about her experience at Brown, Morales wrote: “I’m still amazed at what wonderful news I received just last Monday. Four years ago, I never thought that I would be attending one of the most prestigious universities in the world, much less, qualify for one. I suppose it’s the Richmond High mentality, the one where the dream school for everyone is U.C. Berkeley, and the only one. There’s nothing wrong with that—Berkeley is a great school. However, in these past couple of months, I’ve learned that there are more opportunities beyond what is here in California.”
She made the decision to attend right away.
Krista Jann, Richmond High’s college and career coordinator who has worked at the school for more than a decade, is equally happy. Jann said Morales has mastered a concept faculty needs to teach students—the ability to compartmentalize. They urge them to not forget their problems, but focus on getting an education despite them, she said.
As for Morales, “she has what it takes” to succeed, Jann said.
Jann is the RHS liaison for the Ivy League Connection Program, and she points out that even though 18 students qualified, few applied. Morales said motivation is lacking for some students. “There are supportive people here to help you but it’s really up to you to make a difference,” she said.
“You have to deal with your peers who are going down different paths and it motivates you to be an example to younger students to show them they don’t do the same thing,” she said.
Morales said that her parents are happy about her success, “but mostly I could tell they were scared that I would go so far.” Brown University is located in Providence, Rhode Island.
A few minutes before the bell rings Morales heads off to class.
“This is like the American dream,” she said. “I feel amazed. Even though I’ve come out of Richmond, all of us at Richmond can come through difficult circumstances and be successful.”