Proud first grads

Proud first grads

El Portal bids farewell to 53 in its first graduating class
Gilroy – Fifty–three seniors from El Portal Leadership Academy Charter High School’s first graduating class proved ‘it can be done,’ Sunday at Bonfante Gardens’ Lakeside Amphitheater.

“Si se puede,” the unofficial theme for the Class of 2005 showed that the obstacles on the road to graduation can be overcome.

Their freshman year riddled with a high turnover of principals and teachers, followed by the threatened loss of their charter, the seniors endured the bumps and twists along the four–year journey and reached the end: Finally congregating backstage in an excited mass of white and black robes as the Class of 2005 received their diplomas.

“I am so happy,” senior Erik Naranjo said grinning and flashing his Class of 2005 ring. “I’m happy and proud.” Naranjo danced across the stage to prove it.

More than 600 tickets were pre–issued to relatives and friends of the graduates. Jubilant relatives carried bouquets of flowers and balloons and hoisted signs reading “Congratulations Class of 2005.”

The ceremony lasted two hours and was a procession of student and staff speakers. No one was forgotten.

“Today we make history,” said principal Noemi Garcia Reyes. “We’re here. We made it. Such a historic moment.”

In 2000, El Portal existed only in a vision. There were no books, no teachers, no students. There was no money, Reyes explained. Members of the Mexican American Community Services Agency campaigned in Gilroy to stir up interest in creating an alternative high school for Latino students.

While MACSA charters El Portal, individuals of any ethnicity may attend. The school is designed to help underachieving and at-risk students succeed in high school and go on to forms of higher education. It adheres to California state standards and almost half of the school’s graduating seniors are going on to four–year colleges next fall.

A photograph displayed by the stage showed students gathered on the street, impassioned looks on their faces. Signatures surround the one picture taken of the seniors as freshman.

It was snapped the day they marched to the Gilroy Unified School District office to persuade district officials to save their school.

Reyes thanked GUSD board members Jaime Rosso, Jim Rogers and former board member Bob Kraemer for voting to keep the El Portal charter open.

“That one single decision is what you have sitting here today,” she said.

Because the Class of 2005 is the first graduating class of El Portal, they will comprise the school’s alumni association. They are the faces future classes will look to for answers. The burden of responsibility has been placed on their shoulders.

“El Portal students – all eyes are on you,” said Maria Elena De La Garza, MACSA’s South County Regional Director. “We need you to succeed.”

More than 90 percent of the seniors applied to a University of California, California State University, four year private school, Gavilan College or technical institute.

Senior class president Vanessa Rios and student body president Bethany Newton delivered the farewell address together.

“I have always had faith in this school,” Newton said. “I know it’s because it had faith in us first.”

In 2001, El Portal lost eight teachers and three principals. Both the GUSD and community members were losing faith in the charter. Marred with gang activity and some parents disapproval, the school was on the verge of closing.

But the Class of 2005 united.

“We the students, came together,” Rios said. “We put aside our differences and fought for the school we all believed in.”

Many seniors are the first in their family to graduate high school, many more are the first to attend college.

Students have family backgrounds similar to that of keynote speaker Superior Court Judge Teresa Guerrero–Daley.

“In my courtroom people stand when I walk into the room. They wait to be seated until I have done so,” she told students.

But it wasn’t always like that.

Guerrero-Daley was a single working mother and high school drop out. She worked in the fields, and later as a cashier. No one works those jobs because they choose to, she said. So Guerrero–Daley went back to school.

“Choice is what education will give you,” she said. “To persevere is a virtue. Whatever obstacles you face – don’t lose faith in yourself or in your education.”

Ted Curran, the seniors’ English teacher, just found out that the students had a bet on him the first day of class that he wouldn’t last five days.

That was two years ago.

In the beginning, he sensed how they were feeling: “Maybe they don’t want us. Maybe they don’t love us. Maybe they don’t care …” he said. The students had experienced more than enough teachers who had all come and gone before him.

“There are a lot of people out there in the world who want you,” he told them. “The world is yours and it’s it up to you to make the right decisions.”

Felipe Beltran’s mother videotaped the entire graduation service.

“I’m so happy and proud of him,” she said with tears in her eyes as he walked back onstage – diploma in hand. “I heard good things about this school.”

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