El Portal triumph

Gilroy
– Gina Carrillo left El Portal Leadership Academy during its
first year in 2001.

I didn’t like the atmosphere we had at the moment,

she said referring to some problems the school was facing in its
initial year of operation.
Gilroy – Gina Carrillo left El Portal Leadership Academy during its first year in 2001.

“I didn’t like the atmosphere we had at the moment,” she said referring to some problems the school was facing in its initial year of operation.

Carrillo transferred to Gilroy High School where she slacked off and failed, she said.

“Then I realized how important it was for me to go on to college for myself and for my family,” she said.

So Carrillo re–enrolled at El Portal, taking summer courses to catch up.

She will graduate at Bonfante Gardens June 26 as one of the 52 members of its first graduating class of seniors.

“I went to GHS and transferred back,” Carrillo said. “You’re not just a number here.”

El Portal opened chartered by the Mexican American Community Services Agency, Inc., which strategically places programs in high–risk communities where students are likely to fail or drop out. The students who attend usually have a history of underperforming, will be first generation college students or would like to attend college in the future.

Though 95 percent of its students are Latino, El Portal is open to individuals of all backgrounds.

The school’s mission is to help students excel academically and have successful experiences with forms of higher education.

“We really try to instill in them the aspiration of higher education,” said Principal Noemi Garcia Reyes.

El Portal’s first year of operation was marred with a turnover of several teachers and principals, and a midyear presentation to the Gilroy Unified School Board that did not meet some parents’ expectations.

The school did not accept a second class for the 2002–03 school year in order to get its fledgling program off the ground and was in danger or losing its charter.

The threat to close El Portal caused a fractured freshman class to unite, senior Bethany Newton explained.

“We marched down the street to the district office where some students gave speeches and cried, ‘Don’t take our school,'” she said.

Students also wrote letters to the school board and in June 2002, GUSD approved the revised charter petition.

During the 2003–04 school year, courses at El Portal were approved by the California State University and University of California standards.

Currently, the school has nine teachers, up from four its first year. Class sizes are kept small – a ratio of no more than 22:1, to provide close environment of instruction. It also helps develop a close relationship between teachers and students.

“There’s no reason these kids can’t do what I’ve done,” said Marimonte Rodriguez, a teacher who has been there from the start.

She has been a full–time teacher at El Portal the past two years and volunteered for two years prior to that. Rodriguez is a former GHS graduate who later attended Gavilan College and San Jose State University. It was at SJSU that she noticed a lack of Latinos at the university level.

Rodriguez decided to work at El Portal to reverse that trend. She came from a similar background as many of the students and felt it was important to show them what the face of success looks like, she said.

“I wanted to let people know there are people who look like them, whose family life is like theirs, being successful,” Rodriguez said. “Their hopes and dreams are not very different from my own.”

El Portal adheres to values such as: All life is worthy of respect, brilliance is inherent in everyone and passion and dedication are essential to greatness.

“Unfortunately, not everyone in education believes that every student has the ability to succeed,” Reyes said. “You have to believe that every student has the potential to succeed.”

More than 90 percent of the graduating senior class applied to some form of higher education, from four-year universities to community college and technical schools, she said. Forty applied to UC or CSU schools.

By early May, 23 students had been accepted to four-year universities including: San Jose State, Sacramento State, Cal State Bakersfield, Cal State Monterey Bay and National Hispanic University.

Counselors and teachers at El Portal took students on several college trips and provided a strong support system by helping fill out financial aid applications and reviewing college essays.

“The teachers make us feel like people do care,” said senior Diane Hernandez. “Some of us, we don’t have support at home … if it’s not one teacher, it’s another (that provides it.)”

Hernandez was accepted to a number of schools, but decided to attend Sacramento State where she intends on studying criminal justice. She will be the first in her family to attend college.

“I came here because I didn’t want to go to GHS. I can’t learn in a big environment,” said Gabriela Mendoza.

Some students said they would have been home–schooled if El Portal hadn’t been an option.

Senior Vedani Esudero chose El Portal for different reasons.

“Originally I thought, it’s going to be a new school – I can do whatever I want,” she said. “But it was strict.”

The curriculum stresses core academics such as language arts, math, science and social science so students can complete UC/CSU requirements. Students develop a personalized learning plan and are required to attend summer school if they receive below a C in any of their core academic classes.

“You get more attention (at El Portal),” Joanna Ojedo said. “Everyone recognizes you.”

When she was pregnant this year, the 18-year-old senior felt supported by the El Portal administration.

“They let me stay here with my big stomach,” she said. “They made me not give up.”

Her daughter is now four months old. Ojedo will graduate on time and intends on attending college in the fall.

Many seniors described feeling unsupported by members of the community.

“They underestimate us,” Hernandez said. “They don’t know what we’re capable of.”

Initially, when El Portal opened there were problems with gang affiliations on the campus.

“When they came in as ninth-graders, some of them came in affiliated with gangs or came in not caring about graduating from high school or not having plans after high school,” Reyes said. “But here, it’s not about color.”

The school requires students to wear uniforms and teaches them to leave their differences at the door. If there is a rumor floating around the school, students are called into the office to discuss the problem.

Reyes stepped in as the interim principal in 2002 and never left.

She has enjoyed watching the students mature into leaders and regain a trust in education.

“They’re always going to be a really special class,” Reyes said. “Several (Dispatch) columnists said that they were never going to graduate from high school. (The students) read those … They were really taken aback. They were affected, but they didn’t let it stop them. I just wish more people from Gilroy would come in and see.”

Erik Naranjo is one student who has welcomed the challenge.

With a 3.60 GPA, he will be heading to San Jose State in the fall to study radiology.

“I appreciate things more,” he said of his success.

Ojedo was in agreement.

“We’re proving them wrong by graduating,” she said.

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