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The Allentown Morning Call

First Clemente Grads Exceed School Goals: Latino Senior Class Overcomes Hurdles At Home To Succeed

By Romy Varghese Of The Morning Call

June 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Allentown Morning Call. All rights reserved. 

Charlene Sanchez was 12 when her brother shot and killed an Allentown merchant during a robbery.

Gisselle Perez barely knew English when she arrived in Allentown two years ago with parents desperate for better jobs to pay off their credit cards.

Pauline Wiggins has been raised by her sister since their mother died of brain cancer when she was 11.

Charlene, Gisselle and Pauline are among the seven members of the first senior class at Roberto Clemente Charter School in Allentown.

Today, all seven will graduate, all with plans to further their education, despite the poverty, language barriers or troubled home lives that could have easily derailed them.

Their ambitions have surprised administrators at Clemente, a tiny charter school that opened three years ago with its own troubles.

While it's too early to call the school a success, the achievements of its first senior class seem to support what founders have been saying for years -- that putting at-risk students in a nurturing environment boosts their chances for the future.

"Our goal was to get them graduated," said Principal David Vazquez. "We did that and we've gone further."

Modest goal

The goal may seem humble, but over the years community leaders in Allentown have watched the future of many Latino students slip away. Latinos make up 61 percent of all dropouts even though they represent 47 percent of all students. Most of Clemente's 140 students are Latino.

In 1998, the Hispanic American Organization, one of the city's oldest Latino activist groups, saw opportunity to help at-risk students in a new state law that allowed the creation of public charter schools. Part of the drive to reform education, charter schools provide an alternative to public school. While they operate independently, charter schools receive funding from school districts. Host districts must approve all charter applications.

It was not an easy road for HAO officials, who drew criticism from several members of the Allentown School Board and a Hispanic community group that charged the new school would segregate Latinos.

After one failed bid, Clemente garnered enough votes from the school board to become the city's first charter school in 1999, a year before Allentown's low state test scores landed it on a list of districts eyed for state takeover. Recently, Clemente, named for the first Latino to be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame, won approval to expand enrollment to 220 students in Grades 6 to 12.

Clemente got off to a rough start when it opened in September 2000 in the HAO building at Fourth and Union streets. The principal quit after the first day, teachers left, students yelled in the halls. Scores on state exams were poor, with 95 percent of eighth-graders scoring in the bottom two categories in math.

Vazquez, a former Northampton Community College administrator, came on board as principal in October 2000. He immediately set out to dispel the poor self-esteem that he feels hobbles students who attend Clemente.

"Deep down, they wanted to do good, but they had this fear," Vazquez said.

Not all of the students who came to Clemente during its first year stuck it out. Seven of the 12 original members of the Class of 2003 left, one moving and the others going back to public school.

But Daphne Garcia, Emelina Marte, Jayson Pacheco, Emmanuel Pichardo and Charlene Sanchez stayed. Gisselle Perez and Pauline Wiggins joined them as juniors.

Troubled backgrounds

All seven seniors entered Clemente with their own set of problems.

Emmanuel Pichardo, 17, was 2 when his parents broke up. He moved from Puerto Rico to a tough Manhattan neighborhood where he fought with bullies in the streets. As the oldest child, he has become a father figure to his five brothers, in the past baby-sitting while his mother worked. His mother, Esperanza Mirabal, who does not speak English, relies heavily on him.

"Sometimes, she leaves decisions for me," said Emmanuel, who is enlisting in the Navy. A quiet boy who lights up among classmates, Emmanuel recommended the family move to Allentown.

Daphne Garcia, 17, moved to Allentown from Puerto Rico 10 years ago so her sister, Stephanie, who suffered from a neurological disorder that left her unable to walk and talk, could get better medical care.

Until her death in August, Stephanie's illness affected everyone. Their father, Roberto Garcia, had little time to devote to duties as a Pentecostal pastor and his full-time job. Their mother, Sonia Garcia, who also works full-time, admits she put Stephanie before Daphne and her brother.

"Maybe I was 35 percent [attentive] to them," she said.

Knowing Clemente would give Daphne more attention, Sonia Garcia was happy when Daphne was admitted from the wait list. She and others liked its small size and uniforms of navy blazers and ties.

Tarsheena Wiggins, Pauline's sister and guardian, thought Pauline would have a better chance at Clemente. A 31-year-old mother of three who's working on her general equivalency diploma, she wanted something more for her sister whom she's raised since their mother died of brain cancer when Pauline was 11.

Wiggins thought a change would be good for them, so the sisters moved from New York City to Bethlehem before settling in Allentown two years ago.

Pauline enrolled in Allen High School, but started cutting class. "That was my way of freedom," said Pauline, who plans to study photography at Northampton Community College.

Wiggins partly blamed Pauline's record on what she called the lack of focus at Allen.

Some Clemente students also believed that Allen, with 3,200 students, was too big and full of youths eager to start trouble.

"I didn't like the environment over there," said Jayson Pacheco, the class valedictorian. "I didn't feel like I fit in."

Individual attention

Knowing the backgrounds of its students, the Clemente staff knew it had to do things differently from regular public schools.

When the school opened, Vazquez picked up some students in his minivan if they didn't show up in the morning, sometimes waking them up in their rooms. Even now, whenever students get in trouble, Vazquez and guidance counselor Maria Cruz go to students' homes to talk to parents, leaving notes requesting meetings if they are not there.

Vazquez enforces strict discipline, issuing demerits for infractions such as not wearing a tie.

"I wouldn't let them breathe," said Vazquez, whose rumpled shirts and loud ties belie his hard-line approach. "I would always be on top of them."

Vazquez and his staff also resort to subterfuge. This year, Vazquez sent away for college brochures in students' names. The idea that colleges were interested in them gave confidence to students who would have never considered college.

The staff usually knows what's going on at home. When Daphne's sister died, her mother called Cruz, the guidance counselor, even though school was not in session.

In the first two months of the school year, Cruz met every student once a week, if only to talk about their weekends, she said.

Students didn't always like the unrelenting attention. "I thought I was incarcerated," said Pauline.

But they came to appreciate the fact that Clemente's staff didn't want to give up on them no matter how much resistance they gave.

"At Allen, they would kick you out [of school]," said senior Charlene Sanchez, who has been suspended three times in the past year for talking back and fighting. "Here they deal with it."

The small class size and teacher ratio help Clemente keep on top of its students. The largest class this year is the eighth grade, with 22 students. There are 11 full-time and four part-time teachers.

The small class size and the challenge of teaching at-risk students draw teachers to the school, Vazquez said.

With only seven seniors, the teachers have been able to adapt their approaches to motivate each student. In social studies, teacher Ed Webb knows that getting good grades drives Emelina, and that giving Pauline a problem that can be worked out visually fosters her interest in class. Teachers also ask students to do extra work if they need more help or did poorly in an exam. At the encouragement of the teachers, the students feel free to call out with questions.

Personal motivation

The staff's constant attention could only go so far in keeping students focused. The self-motivation of students was also key.

Gisselle Perez, 19, moved from Puerto Rico to Allentown two years ago knowing only Spanish. During her first year in Clemente, she threw herself into schoolwork. "I wanted to learn English so badly that I would read everything," she said. She now wants to study veterinary medicine at either Northampton Community College or Lehigh Carbon Community College.

In class, she sometimes asked Emelina a question in Spanish -- a good choice, since several teachers call Emelina one of the hardest-working students they know.

Emelina, now 17, had a history of cutting classes and low grades. But once she entered Clemente, her attitude changed. "I want to be someone in the future," said Emelina, who plans to study nursing at Lehigh Carbon Community College.

Now the student council president will be the first girl in her family to graduate high school and go to college.

Her achievement -- complete with a 3.5 grade point average -- is striking considering she heads her own household. She left home on Christmas Eve two years ago and moved in with her boyfriend, 24, who is now her husband.

Emelina, Jayson and Daphne all skipped ninth grade, in part by spending two summers taking freshman electives. Their promise prompted Vazquez to move them ahead a month into their freshman year. Jayson and Daphne will attend Kutztown University in the fall, where both will be in pre-engineering programs.

"If you don't have school, you don't go nowhere," said Daphne, the salutatorian. "People don't live on luck."

It's impossible to know how well the seven seniors would have done at regular public schools. But most students believe Clemente has made a difference.

If she remained at Allen, Pauline said she "would probably have kids" by now. Jayson, the son of college graduates who's always been a good student, said he rarely talked to his teachers before going to Clemente.

Even a casual look at Charlene's record indicates that she could have disappeared easily among anonymous faces at a large school. She's proud of graduating and her plans to attend cosmetology school. For an English class assignment to draw a crest, Charlene's motto was "I finally made it."

The future

Clemente is not ready to call itself an unqualified success.

Although the school is pressing on with a $2.7 million expansion, it has not silenced critics such as James LeVan of the Allentown School Board. He deems the predominantly Latino makeup of Clemente detrimental to students because it does not reflect the real world.

He expects the charter school to be doing better in test scores than regular public schools, and he hasn't seen that yet, he said. Meanwhile, the Allentown School District's scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment have risen so much that the district has won praise from the Bush administration.

But charter school advocates warn against using scores as a barometer of achievement. Charter schools are successful when they fulfill their mission statements to the parents' satisfaction, said Mary Kayne Heinze, spokeswoman for the Center for Education Reform.

Vazquez doesn't measure success by scores either, but by changes in attitude. "Seeing a kid who doesn't get straight As, who has improved his attitude, that's what I consider a success," he said.

Even after the seniors graduate, Clemente staffers hope their relationships continue. Several teachers said they are telling the seniors to call them and come in for a talk or advice whenever they want. Vazquez said he will call and e-mail the graduates to see how they are doing. All the seniors agreed to donate their uniforms and volunteer at the school, he said.

How the seniors do six months, a year and five years from now would further validate the school's approach.

For now, Vazquez said the Clemente experience helped the students develop ambitions to take them to the next learning environment.

"In the beginning, when I ask what they were going to do for their future, they would have no clue," Vazquez said. "Now they know. They know what they're getting into and what the future holds for them."

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