Two students, one dream: Graduation not a sure thing at schools like East Aurora

  • Teacher Al Rosen, left, helps Angel Gutierrez, center, and classmates on a robotics project in an electronics class. Far left is Larry Garcia; bottom right is Gerardo Carmona; top right is Jesus Rodriguez. All are from Aurora.

    Teacher Al Rosen, left, helps Angel Gutierrez, center, and classmates on a robotics project in an electronics class. Far left is Larry Garcia; bottom right is Gerardo Carmona; top right is Jesus Rodriguez. All are from Aurora. Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Angel Gutierrez, left, and Larry Garcia, right, work on a robotics project in an electronics class at East Aurora High School.

    Angel Gutierrez, left, and Larry Garcia, right, work on a robotics project in an electronics class at East Aurora High School. Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Angel Gutierrez works on a robotics project in an electronics class at East Aurora High School. He's always been interested in the way things work -- taking things apart and putting them back together since he was a child.

    Angel Gutierrez works on a robotics project in an electronics class at East Aurora High School. He's always been interested in the way things work -- taking things apart and putting them back together since he was a child. Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • East Aurora High School senior Cynthia Ramos, 18, wants to come back and teach bilingual classes at the school after graduating.

    East Aurora High School senior Cynthia Ramos, 18, wants to come back and teach bilingual classes at the school after graduating. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Cynthia Ramos, a senior at East Aurora High School, finished ninth in her class and will be the first in her family to go to college.

    Cynthia Ramos, a senior at East Aurora High School, finished ninth in her class and will be the first in her family to go to college. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • East HS numbers

    Graphic: East HS numbers (click image to open)

 
 
Updated 5/23/2016 9:31 AM

Hundreds of seniors file into the auditorium at East Aurora High School. They gaze at the stage filled with objects from high school's biggest prize -- caps, gowns and empty picture frames stamped "Class of 2016."

It's only December, but it's time to plan for the big day. Each student takes a form off the top of a stack, passing the rest to the next person. They measure their hat size, and carefully print their names to ensure the correct spelling on the diploma.

 

It's an exciting morning. But the reality is that many students in the auditorium today won't be here on Graduation Day. More than a few have already left.

Last year, 64 percent of seniors at East Aurora High School graduated. That's an improvement over the 60 percent who graduated in 2012, but far short of the state average of 86 percent. Most suburban high schools graduate more than 90 percent.

Still, many East Aurora students -- two in particular -- are working from morning until night to achieve their dreams, no matter the circumstances against them in one of the highest poverty districts in the area.

• • •

East Aurora High School senior Angel Gutierrez, 18, juggles family responsibilities, school and a 30-hour workweek. But his focus is on graduating.
East Aurora High School senior Angel Gutierrez, 18, juggles family responsibilities, school and a 30-hour workweek. But his focus is on graduating. - Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer
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Angel Gutierrez's alarm went off at 4 a.m. Long before the sun rose he was out the door, driving his mother to the Aurora train station so she could get to her job in Chicago.

Back home again he wakes up his three younger siblings, ages 10, 11 and 13. He makes sure they are clean and dressed warmly for school, gives them some breakfast and checks they haven't forgotten any homework before piling them into the car and shuttling them to their schools.

Only after all this is done can Angel, now 18, start his day as a senior at East Aurora High School.

Math never made sense to Angel, not as much as electronics or carpentry, anything that involved working with his hands. He failed geometry a few times, and a few other classes.

By his own admission, he didn't take high school seriously the first few years, so now, only a few months before graduation, he is still technically a junior.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Instead of taking electives he enjoys, Angel has doubled down on the basic courses. He spends his extra periods taking more than two years of math at once, some of it online. All he wants is to graduate.

"It's my top priority in life right now," he says.

East Aurora offers night classes, but after the last bell, Angel has other responsibilities. He makes the rounds again to pick up each sibling, deposits them at home and fixes them something to eat. Then, it's time to go to work. Angel works at the Aurora Party City store 30 hours a week, where on breaks he does homework or listens to online lectures.

It's not until he lays down for bed that the stress of the day catches up with him, but then it's time to go to sleep. It will start over in a few hours.

• • •

Cynthia Ramos, a senior at East Aurora High School, talks to fellow student Bryan Cruz, left, during their 10:30 a.m. lunch period.
Cynthia Ramos, a senior at East Aurora High School, talks to fellow student Bryan Cruz, left, during their 10:30 a.m. lunch period. - Daniel White | Staff Photographer

Cynthia Ramos is sitting with a small group of students, taking notes and eating breakfast. The milk, apple and granola bar is a free breakfast East Aurora makes available to every student because of its high poverty status.

One of the many clubs she is in is PeaceJam, an international foundation that turns young people into leaders, helped by the inspiration of Nobel Peace Laureates. Today, Cynthia and the others are brainstorming ways to raise money so members can attend the regional convention at Western Michigan University in March. Maybe they'll hold a trivia night or a bake sale. It's the only way they can afford the trip.

When the bell rings Cynthia, 18, pulls on her heavy black backpack, decorated with white and yellow flowers and pins that commemorate trips around the country with the East Aurora band. She plays the trumpet and is part of the color guard.

She tucks her dark hair behind one ear and merges out of the classroom and into the crowd of 4,000 students hustling to first period classes. She has a long day of Advanced Placement classes ahead and no time to slow down.

Graduation was never in question for Cynthia. Now, she's is in a tight race to finish near the top of her class. She will be the first in her family to go off to college. She knows what people think about East Aurora, but her dream is to come back in a few years as a teacher, just like the ones who helped her learn English as a young bilingual student.

• • •

During third period Rhetoric, Angel sits in the middle of the classroom. Wearing an East Aurora sweatshirt and taking notes, Angel is paying attention. Some of his classmates sit with headphones on; others have their heads on their desks.

There are 30 students in the class, which is held in a makeshift room divided by a folding wall. One girl wears a T-shirt that reads "Long Live Bones," with the birth and death dates of a friend who died at 16.

The class breaks up into groups for a project, and Angel takes the lead. His team has to come up with a product and a persuasive way to promote it. When they don't complete it on time, he volunteers to finish it during his dinner break on Saturday, when he'll be working from 2 to 10 p.m.

"I didn't like school," Angel says after class. "I threw away my first three years of high school thinking it didn't matter."

When he came to register for senior year and the school told him he was technically a junior, Angel said it was a tough moment.

"I felt like I was nothing," he says.

He went home and closed himself in his room to think about his future.

"I looked at all of my report cards from first grade until junior year and just thought, 'I can do better,'" he said. "I finally decided to turn myself around and finish up strong."

East Aurora High School senior Angel Gutierrez, 18, takes an online geometry class to let him work at his own speed.
East Aurora High School senior Angel Gutierrez, 18, takes an online geometry class to let him work at his own speed. - Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Catching up has been hard. His counselors noticed he was taking Geometry for the third time and pulled him out of the class. Now he's enrolled in a program called eAchieve, where he can take the class online, move at his own pace and re-watch lessons when he needs. There are fewer distractions than being in a crowded classroom or at home with his three younger siblings.

At East Aurora, it's routine for students to balance responsibilities of a parent with those of a student. Angel doesn't think his life is harder than the teens around him, though it looks very different from the lives of most students at suburban high schools.

"To me this is just a normal schedule," Angel said. "Some of my friends have to work three jobs to get by, so I don't have it too bad."

• • •

Cynthia slides into her seat in AP Literature. She pulls her homework out of purple color-coded folders.

Everyone in the class calls their female teacher "Miss." It's a term of endearment, like "Senora" in Spanish, and a nod to the culture of the school, which is 86 percent Hispanic.

One student forgot to do his homework. He asks the teacher why she didn't text them a reminder around midnight. She says that she was already asleep by then. He tell her that's when he gets home from work and starts his homework.

On one wall, students have pinned up their goals for the year.

"Pass my classes, get a job, help my parents, be a senior."

"Make my parents be more proud of me."

"Pass my junior year. Get good grades."

"Make more money, do better."

The teacher's goal for them is in the middle: "I want all my students to do their best."

Right now the class is reading "Beloved," by Toni Morrison.

"It's just so beautifully written," Cynthia says. This is her favorite class of the day and her hand is constantly in the air to share her analysis and lead group discussion.

When the bell rings again it's time to rush to AP French. Even with speed walking, the last bell has already rung when Cynthia gets to her seat. It's a class full of students who are already fluent in Spanish and English, but have chosen to learn French as well.

This time her homework comes out of a green folder. In an undertone she helps a classmate who didn't finish her homework, before raising her hand to participate. In this class, all the students are addressed by French names. Cynthia's is "Brigit."

The class is writing letters to their French pen pals, who live in a town full of immigrants. "It's the East Aurora of France," the teacher says.

Cynthia's parents came from Mexico when they were teenagers. Her father oversees maintenance in a factory, her mother stays home with Cynthia and her two siblings. She starts by setting the bar high.

"My mother says, 'I'm not going to expect anything from you that I know you can't give me. But if you show me you can get straight As I'm going to expect that from you,'" Cynthia said. "Maybe if I hadn't had that, I wouldn't have done as well."

Cynthia enjoys a challenge. That's why her list of activities is so long: National Honor Society, Scholastic Bowl, French Honor Society, and a group for future teachers called Educators Rising.

Like most East Aurora families, Cynthia's speaks Spanish at home. She was in bilingual classes until making the jump to regular education in fourth grade.

"It was scary," she remembers, but she sees the value of being bilingual and bicultural.

"I want to encourage students to keep their sense of culture and keep their native language."

Cynthia Ramos plays in the trumpet section in the East Aurora Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Brian Liska.
Cynthia Ramos plays in the trumpet section in the East Aurora Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Brian Liska. - Daniel White | Staff Photographer
'It opens your eyes'

Angel and Cynthia are familiar with the stereotypes about East Aurora.

"People get the wrong idea about us," Angel says. He's heard of substitute teachers who won't take assignments here because they believe the school is dangerous. "People think what they want, but it doesn't mean it's the truth."

With her various activities, Cynthia has seen the world outside East Aurora. It gives her perspective.

"When I visit other schools I feel inferior because it's like, 'Wow, they have all these facilities and resources.' But, here I feel privileged," she says. "So many of my friends have so many more challenges in their lives and it could be so much worse."

Just before high school Cynthia's parents got nervous about what they had heard about East Aurora and considered sending her somewhere else.

"But then I started school and they realized it is not about the school you're in, but the mindset and the goals you have. They saw I could be successful here," Cynthia said.

Looking back, Cynthia says she would still pick East Aurora.

"East Aurora has shown me the reality of what life is like. Maybe students from other schools don't realize what a lot of people have to go through." she says. "It opens your eyes. Nobody here has had anything handed to them."

• • •

It's a week before graduation and Cynthia's plans are set. She took six Advanced Placement exams and felt relief as she turned in the last one.

She will finish ninth in her class. Cynthia was accepted to the University of Illinois in Urbana, but instead chose North Central College in Naperville so she can stay closer to home. She was named an Illinois Golden Apple Scholar, which means her college will be paid for, and afterward she will teach in a poor urban or rural school district for several years. District 131 is still her dream employer.

"This district has shaped my sense of place. It has changed the way I think and made me who I am," she says. "Now I'm at the end and so grateful to feel all the hard work is paying off."

Angel will not graduate on Friday. He and at least 200 other students who started at East Aurora as freshmen four years ago didn't make it.

"It was just too much to balance," he says.

Angel is still working hard. He will be back at East Aurora for summer school in a few weeks and, if all goes well, will graduate at the end of July. He hopes to start classes at Waubonsee Community College a few weeks after that, the first step toward an engineering career.

It would have been easier to walk away, but Angel knows he needs that diploma.

"I'm still going to get there," he vows. "It will just take a little longer."

• Tuesday: Poverty is a big barrier to success, but East Aurora and other challenged schools have found some innovations that improve the odds.

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