Today's graduation ceremony at Palatine High School could have been viewed as the finish line for minority students challenging the stereotype of low expectations. Instead, the seniors in the high school's Project Excel group look at today's pomp and circumstance as simply a first step toward their college careers.
"When I first moved here, I was two or three years behind. I never had read a chapter book," remembers Rebecca Alanis, 17, whose family relocated from Chicago to Palatine when she was in fourth grade. "Without it (Project Excel), I would have stayed in average classes."
And her chance at something more would have been missed.
"She was really never average. She just never had the opportunity," says Susan Quinlan, the longtime counselor who has taught Excel students and coordinated the program since it began in 2006 with the goal of encouraging promising minority students to try the accelerated and advanced placement classes designed for college-bound students.
It wasn't that college was beyond the reach of these students. "They just didn't think about it," Quinlan says. "All we did was open the door and they walked through."
Rebecca leaves Palatine High School with a diploma and a $50,000 scholarship to study architecture at Kent State University. Backed by a total of at least $180,000 in scholarships, all 32 seniors in the Excel program will be continuing their education at schools such as the University of Illinois, the University of Missouri, Illinois State University, Bradley University, Northern Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University and Harper Community College, Quinlan says. An anonymous donor with the Inverness Garden Club is picking up the entire tab for one student's education at Harper, she says.
In the first year of the Excel program, only four of the 20 students went on to four-year colleges. Two years ago, a pair of Excel students made the National Honor Society. This year, 14 received that honor. A whopping 80 percent of Excel juniors take AP classes.
"We also had three Golden Apple Scholars," notes Asa Gordon, a veteran teacher in the Excel program. The statewide Golden Apple program selected 135 students across Illinois to earn college scholarships and the extra training needed to become teachers in disadvantaged schools. Tiffany Guerrero, Elsie Guerrero and Marco Arreola won the honor this year, joining Liz Arreola, an Excel student who graduated in 2012.
As part of the Excel program, Rebecca attended summer school classes with other Excel kids. But getting up to speed academically and socially wasn't easy.
"At first I wanted to switch out. My first semester in my English class I cried a lot," admits Rebecca, who says she didn't feel as if she belonged. "I got a lot of dirty looks."
In the world of teenage girls, Rebecca says her family's Mexican heritage made her feel different because she was new to advanced classes, not Caucasian and didn't get dressed up like some of her stylish classmates. "I like superhero T-shirts and sports T-shirts and I wear sweatpants all the time," she says.
Rebecca says she felt pressure to slack off, "be silly" and become more popular. But her Excel peers helped keep her on the academic track.
"What I was able to tap into by accident was the power of the kids helping each other," says Quinlan, noting the program links kids together in "cohort" classes. "The power of the peer is significantly greater than anything we as staff do. We really like to take advantage of that."
The program will welcome 40 incoming freshmen next year, bringing the total to 108 students.
"It's grown organically," says Gordon, who has joined with fellow teacher Anita Lee in an Excel program that continues to grow. As a former admissions recruiter for colleges, Gordon teaches a leadership class that informs kids about writing essays for college and how to wade through the voluminous application process.
Many of the parents of Excel students are immigrants unfamiliar with U.S. colleges and high schools. Some of those parents don't speak English. Excel includes kids whose parents are African-American, American Indian, or immigrants from Mexico, South or Central America, China, India, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Ireland and elsewhere.
Rebecca's mother, Edna Soares, works as a contract administrator for a fitness equipment company. Her father, Luis Alanis, is a property manager who lives in Berwyn. They knew very early on that Rebecca had talent as an artist. "Crayola made a fortune off me," her dad quips. But both parents credit the Excel program with preparing her for college.
The program pushes kids to soak up the entire high school experience. Rebecca was one of the students on the principal's advisory board all through high school. She played tennis and badminton and was in arts club.
"Kids started investing in high school and that sort of multiplied," says Quinlan, who says Excel students make an impact throughout the school. "They get empowered."
Excel kids have organized salsa and hip hop dance groups, and, in honor of Quinlan's retirement this year, threw her a surprise party. She will be replaced by counselor Alonso Ramirez, who has been working with Quinlan and Excel this year.
When Rebecca moved to Palatine, "I was the second Hispanic in my grade," she says. Now the high school is about 40 percent Hispanic.
"One girl was ranting about how schools give too much to minorities, and I'm like, 'Dude, you're talking to the wrong person,' " Rebecca says, explaining how some minority students overcome many obstacles just to get to the point where college and scholarships are possibilities. Rebecca says she felt pressure to reward the support of teachers and her parents by getting into college.
"I'm really bad with criticism, so I applied to 18 schools," admits Rebecca, who figured that would increase her odds of being accepted into college. "I got into all of them."
Her most difficult decision was choosing between the University of Illinois and Kent State. Fellow Excel student Erica Factos just finished her freshman year at Kent State, so Rebecca will know someone on campus. She says Excel is like a family.
Crediting Excel for getting their daughter into college and earning a hefty scholarship, Rebecca's parents say their daughter is a role model for sisters Isabel, 16 (who already in is the Excel program), and Jasede, 11, and brothers Ian, 6, and 5-year-old Isaac. Rebecca has expanded horizons.
"I hope I am a role model," Rebecca says. "She (Isabel) says she was proud of me and that she didn't realize how hard I worked. I want to go to a good school and become an architect. She wants to go to a school in England and do all these crazy things."
Rebecca says she has grown a lot since the beginning of high school, when she broke into tears simply from being told that she was smart.
"There's always going to be someone better and smarter than me," Rebecca says. "But as long as I do this for me, and succeed in what I want to succeed in, that's all that matters."