Acutely aware and frequently reminded that they are minority students, these Palatine High School kids are far too busy to realize what a select minority of suburban teens they truly are. Not many suburban high school students must struggle to carve out time for four hours of daily homework from advanced college-prep courses in a schedule that also includes soccer practice, family obligations, after-school clubs and two jobs.
"I work six out of seven days," Rita says matter-of-factly. She puts in 14 hours a week as a cashier at a dry cleaner and wakes up early (what might be considered late at night for some kids) for her before-school shifts at a local doughnut shop for an additional 26 hours a week. Ask how a teenager works 40 hours a week to help her family, plays a sport that takes time and energy, remains active in clubs and still cranks out the demanding homework she needs to get into college, Rita just shrugs.
Rita's story isn't much different from tales of other minority students in the Project Excel program, which began five years ago to encourage students from groups that aren't usually on the path to college to give accelerated and honors classes a try, explains Susan Quinlan, a veteran counselor who coordinates and teaches students in the Project Excel program at Palatine High School.
"You can imagine how much I enjoy working with these kids," Quinlan, who is married to Daily Herald Sports Editor Tom Quinlan, e-mails during her spring break. "They are truly committed to learning, getting an education and supporting each other no matter how many obstacles they face."
The teens, whose last names are withheld at the school's request, have parents who came here from Mexico, El Salvador, Pakistan, Ecuador, China or other places far from the suburbs. Many don't speak English, some never finished high school and almost all have no clue how to traverse the complicated path to send a kid to college. In addition to showing potential on tests and in the classroom, children who qualify for the program are poorer than most suburban kids. Nothing is handed to these kids.
"I've been in soccer since I was 7 years old, and my mother has never seen one of my games," says Luis, who depended on an older brother for parenting while his single mother worked three jobs to support her family. "I can't remember in sixth grade ever seeing my mom."
Those sacrifices by parents leave an impression.
"That's what motivates us. If I work this hard now, if I ever have a family, I can provide for them," Liz says.
"I really wasn't into school. I felt that being Hispanic and living where I live, I'd be made fun of for getting good grades," admits Luis, who now takes honors classes and is planning for college.
"The stereotypes, they affect us," Rita says, imitating people who expect her to meet their stereotypes. "'Why aren't you pregnant?' I get that a lot."
When Liz gets off the school bus lugging her backpack, peers carrying a single folder pressure her to take an easier path.
"I'm Mexican, so the people around here are, 'Why are you in AP classes? Why put so much stress on yourself?'" Liz says.
"We all settled for average, but Project Excellence pushes us," says Khansa, who plays basketball even if people assume her Pakistani roots would push her into badminton.
Rising above expectations while adhering to other cultural demands can be tricky.
"Saying no to a visit (with relatives) is not a possibility in my house," Arleen says with a laugh, explaining how that just means she stays up later doing homework.
Sitting in class with Asa Gordon, a teacher who has Excel students in his history and multicultural perspectives classes, Sydney, Carly, Enrique, Erica, Rebecca, Marco, Tiffany and the rest talk about how they've grown to depend on and support each other.
"I know I could trust all these people with everything," Arleen says.
"We're really lucky," Carly says.
"We really appreciate it," Sydney adds.
"I would never in my life think that I'd have a study group. That's too nerdy," says Liz. "But me, Khansa and Arleen have a study group."
Rebecca recalls the emotional moment when teachers made her realize she didn't have to be comfortable with low expectations.
"I was surprised," Rebecca says, tearing up at the memory of being asked to join the group. "They told me I was super smart."