George Lucas Educational Foundation
Technology Integration

College Dreams: For These Houston Students, Their Big Day Has Finally Arrived

April 29, 2010

When we visited YES Prep North Central in Houston last spring, students in the junior class were already talking about their Senior Signing Day. On that day, amidst much fanfare, they would become the first in their families to enroll in college.It was a dream they pursued fiercely -- the reason for all their late nights and long weekends spent studying instead of relaxing. It meant so much to them that their excitement infected all of us visitors from Edutopia, and their dreams became our dreams for them, too.

That day is finally here.

Tomorrow, the 43 seniors will walk across the stage in Rice University's basketball arena and, before thousands of family members and fellow students, each will reveal the name of the college she's chosen. They'll be the first graduating class from North Central, a grades 6-12 charter school serving mainly low-income, immigrant families. Many of them entered North Central as sixth graders in the school's first year, when classes took place in the only facility available: a windowless warehouse. In front of everyone, they'll sign their matriculation letters.

Just how significant is their achievement? Here's a hint: the keynote speaker is U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

(See photos from the Senior Signing ceremony.)

We spent a lot of time in Houston with Mayra Valle, a warm, bubbly drama student who talked about how much family time she had sacrificed for her studies. But she wasn't complaining. Why? She told us about witnessing her first Senior Signing Day, when seniors from another YES Prep campus, Southeast, pronounced their college choices. "I was like, 'That could be me.' No one in my family has ever gone to college or graduated high school. If I could do that, I could accomplish something for me and my family. I want to be on that stage."

I, for one, am dying to know where Mayra is going to college. But I'll have to wait 'til tomorrow.

I checked in today with Craig Brandenburg, the North Central multimedia teacher (and member of the George Lucas Educational Foundation's National Advisory Council) who puts so much of his heart into his students that it's a wonder he has any of it left to pump blood. He has taught ten of the seniors since fifth grade, when he worked at a Houston elementary school.

"This has been one of those weeks where if you get us talking, tears start coming," he said.

I asked Craig if any of the seniors' stories particularly stood out to him. Turns out you couldn't walk two steps past the class of 2010's processional tomorrow without tripping over an inspiring achievement.

Mayra has won a Gates Millennium Scholarship: a full ride to any college she chooses.

Elizabeth Martinez was in a bilingual class in the fifth grade that Craig worked with. Overcoming a language barrier, she became "one of our hardest-working students" at North Central, Craig said. Now she's been accepted to more colleges than anyone other senior: 14.

As if I wasn't already needing to reach for a tissue, Craig added this. One student, Tony Lopez, was clipped by a train while walking last November and had have his leg amputated. When Craig and others from North Central visited Tony at the hospital, "His first thought was, 'I really want to be able to walk.' And he meant that in two ways: he wanted to be able to walk again, and he wanted to be able to walk across that stage." He got his prosthetic leg two days ago -- in the nick of time.

Craig said that while making preparations for the event this week, "I keep thinking, 'Oh my gosh, it's happening.' I don't think it's going to be possible to go through it without crying." He added, with a chuckle: "And of course I'll be in the front."

In the audience behind him will be all 3,000-plus students from all seven YES Prep campuses in Houston. And I hope that, like Mayra and Tony did, they'll be thinking, "I want to be on that stage."

-- Grace Rubenstein, is a senior producer at Edutopia. She was our lead writer for Schools That Work: YES Prep and we've stocked her office with a full box of tissues.

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