High school seniors conquer hardships to succeed
They were kids who once seemed destined to slip into the cracks and become trapped in the cycle of poverty, drugs and family strife they’d been born into.
Instead, each chose a different path — for their siblings and for themselves — through hard work, academic success and service to others. Michael Brooks of Clovis East High School, Miriam Hernandez of Roosevelt and Kristopher Estrada of Central will join thousands of Valley seniors celebrating graduation over the coming weeks.
But for these three seniors — and many of their peers — the celebration also marks a victory in traversing years of hardship, and the start of a future more promising than they ever could have predicted.
Michael Brooks: When Michael entered Clovis East High his sophomore year, he had already seen a lifetime of violence and desperation. His mother was an alcoholic and suffered from bipolar disorder; they bounced around a lot and were homeless for a stretch. Michael said he stayed with a friend from school while his mother lived in a tent under a bridge in Washington state.
After living in six states and about twice as many cities, he moved from Texas to Fresno with his father and stepmother, whom he lives with now.
Clovis East health teacher Derrick Davis saw something special in Michael: “I just knew that there was a kid out there who was thirsty for learning and wanted to do the best he could. As a teacher, you can’t help but be drawn to that. It was contagious.”
Michael graduates today, and in September he starts at the University of California at Los Angeles. He’ll enter pre-med; he wants to be a trauma physician.
The 18-year-old said he likes the pace of emergency rooms: “I’m an adrenaline junkie, but I have sense.”
Common sense probably helped Michael survive the chaos of his early family life. At his aunt’s urging, Michael’s father returned from serving in Iraq to take Michael from his mother’s house, where booze, drugs and police were constant presences.
“All hell would break loose,” Michael said.
At one point, Michael was living in a four-bedroom house in Chicago with 10 people and didn’t have a bed to sleep on. He changed schools frequently, leaving behind friends.
“I was indifferent about things and angry all the time,” he said.
But since starting at Clovis East, Michael has flourished. He said he joined the Black Student Union, Red Cross Club and track team. He was accepted into the California Scholarship Federation and National Honor Society — organizations for high-performing students — and earned top spots in the Fresno County science fair and Academic Decathlon. He will graduate with a 3.8 grade-point average and expects to be the first in his family to finish college.
“That’s the thing with Michael — you can’t stop him,” Davis said.
Michael wasn’t always certain he’d go to college, but a few events put him on course for higher education — his success in AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, a college-readiness program for students from families with little or no college experience; and two summers at Stanford University participating in youth science and medical training programs.
He also realized education was the only way to ensure he’d live a life different than his parents’: “I decided I needed to go,” he said. “I wanted things to be different.”
A $20,000 Dell scholarship will help pay Michael’s tuition. He also won a scholarship from Clovis Unified for students who have overcome hardship that’s worth about $2,000.
After he’s made some money working in emergency rooms, Michael said he wants to work overseas with Doctors Without Borders, and in community clinics in the San Joaquin Valley or Los Angeles.
“I want to give back and help other kids like myself,” he said. “I might have lived in bad circumstances, it’s possible to get out of it, and still do better.”
Miriam Hernandez: Miriam’s graduation from Roosevelt High School will cap what she calls one of the hardest and craziest years of her life. Her father walked out on the family about a year ago, leaving her to help care for her seven younger siblings. Her mother doesn’t work; the family survives on public assistance.
Her priority, she said, was making sure she and her siblings continued to do well in school.
Despite burgeoning responsibilities at home, 18-year-old Miriam has remained a steadfast advocate for Fresno youth and a leader in the effort to reduce Fresno Unified’s dropout rate. She wants to improve education for her peers and her younger siblings.
“I realized that someone needed to speak up for the students,” she said, “to make sure students are being heard, and make sure school is a place where students want to go.”
Miriam is a member of SUCCESS, a coalition of students and youth leaders working to create restorative-justice programs in Fresno Unified schools. For the past few years, she’s worked to improve the health and educational opportunities for youth, particularly minority and low-income students, as a member of Building Healthy Communities and Californians for Justice. She’s also one of the few students selected for Fresno Unified’s Graduation Task Force, which has drafted recommendations to improve the district’s graduation rate.
At times, Miriam has struggled in school, earning a 2.0 grade-point average: “I’m not a 4.0 student, but I try my hardest.”
But after a few stumbles, she found her stride — in taxes, of all places. She joined Roosevelt’s IRS Academy, helped with community tax workshops and took business finance classes. And dance classes at Roosevelt School of the Arts, the school’s magnet program, gave Miriam a creative outlet to deal with challenges at home, said Folklorico dance teacher Mark Alatorre.
“She’s optimistic a lot, she puts on a face like, ‘Okay, I’m here and I’m ready to learn,’ ” Alatorre said.
Miriam graduates June 13 and soon after starts classes at Fresno City College. She wants to transfer to a four-year university to study nutrition or physical therapy. Above all, though, she wants to start a youth organization to continue her advocacy work.
Kristopher Estrada: Four years ago, Phil Rusconi was asked to mentor a floundering high school freshman whose grades suggested he might flunk out — if he didn’t drop out first.
Rusconi, a trustee for more than 20 years on the Central Unified school board, was up to the task.
“My goal was always to save one person,” he said. “And I found him. But he saved himself, actually.”
What Rusconi didn’t expect, though, was the way Kristopher would help Rusconi turn around his own life. On June 6, Kristopher will graduate from Central High School’s east campus. And a healthier, fitter Rusconi will hand Kristopher his diploma.
Kristopher, 19, is a member of the first graduating class of Central Unified’s Project 720, a mentoring program to help struggling students at risk of dropping out. About 20 students from the program will get their diplomas.
Four years ago, Kristopher and Rusconi laid out a plan for Kristopher to bolster his grades — he needed a 2.0 grade-point average to play soccer. They’ve met weekly over the past few years to talk about strategies to improve Kristopher’s study habits, and so Kristopher could do “a lot of venting,” he said.
During his freshman and sophomore years, Kristopher’s home life was in turmoil. His sister and close confidant left home, and shortly after that, his parents got divorced. It was a struggle, Kristopher said, but Rusconi helped him through it.
“My freshman year, I was doubting myself,” he said. “But I knew I had to finish.”
Kristopher’s grades improved, and he joined the soccer team. So did Rusconi’s grandson; the two families watched games together.
Inspired by Kristopher’s hard work in the classroom and on the soccer field, Rusconi, who has congestive heart failure, made up his mind to get healthy. The 77-year-old dropped weight and watched his diabetes disappear.
Kristopher plans to spend the summer training and studying to join the Air Force. After serving his country, he hopes to use the GI Bill to be the first in his family to complete college.
By Heather Somerville