Class Acts

Part 3 in a series
Census Tract 7:
A Special Report

The chain link fence that surrounds Alisal High has only one opening. To get to the school, drivers have to pass through a checkpoint guarded by several orange-vested campus supervisors. A black and white patrol car is posted conspicuously. A full-time "school resource officer" is on the campus to intercede with violence and truancy. There have been times when teachers have had to break up knife fights between students during class. Alisal, like other schools in Census Tract 7 in Salinas, has a bad reputation. It's the tough school, with the poor test scores, in the bad neighborhood.

But in Alisal, some kids overcome that reputation every day.

Walking through the school can be a cheerful experience. Intricate class projects hang from the walls of brand-new portable classrooms. A brightly colored mural, painted by students with the help of CSU Monterey Bay seniors, decorates the breezeway. The mural depicts local heroes Cesar Chavez and boxer Jose Celaya, as well as role models such as doctors and teachers.

Students with genuine smiles volunteer their lunch hours to work as aides, escorting visitors around the campus or performing office work. A posterboard outside principal Candace McCarthy's office features pictures of students who will be the first members of their families to attend college.

Still, certain aspects of the school's reputation ring true. In talking with school administrators, faculty, and students, it's clear that Alisal struggles in many ways. Of its 2,100 students, 97 percent of whom are Latino, 71 percent are not primarily English speakers. Almost a third of the student body come from families of migrant farmers who travel with the seasons to find fieldwork; these kids have been dropping in and out of school their whole lives. Some kids are entering their first classroom at the age of 14.

Those still learning English are put into special ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, which are broken into three sections based on language proficiency. When students graduate from their ESL classes, they move into what's termed "sheltered" instruction, where information is fed at a slower pace.

Test scores are lower at Alisal than California standards require. Some students take five years to graduate. Many drop out in the middle of high school to move back to Mexico, have babies, or go to work full-time to help support their families.

Nevertheless, 400 students manage to graduate each year, and about 75 percent of them go on to college.

Many of the students work after school, at places like Target or McDonald's to bring in extra income for their families. They are expected to come home after school, clean the apartment, cook dinner, and help their siblings with their homework, because their parents are working double-shifts and are hardly at home.

Others live with siblings or other relatives while their parents work in other parts of California, or in Mexico, Arizona or the Philippines. Many of these students say that family expectations influenced them to believe they would not finish high school.

But while the obstacles to education are clear, it does not always mean that these students are unable to progress. They may live in crowded apartments in crime-ridden neighborhoods, but they are working hard, with their teachers and Alisal administrators, trying to succeed.

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Isabel Alcalá learned English just five years ago, in sixth grade, but speaks with a confidence and clarity impressive for any high school junior. Her mom works at Hartnell College by day and attends classes at night.

"My mom says she'd better finish college before I do," Alcalá laughs.

Alcalá's dad, no longer with her mom, works in Arizona three to four months a year. She says that arranging to see him is difficult.

Alcalá says that language barriers keep ambitious students like herself from doing well on standardized testing.

"They give the SATs and everything here in English," she says. "Most of us are immigrants here. If we gave you a test in Spanish, how would you do? We don't have bad test scores because we're dumb."

Alcalá's aunt (a Stanford graduate) and uncle (a UC Davis grad) both teach at Alisal. She says they set an example of success for her.

"My aunt said we have to make our raza look good," she says. "She told me, 'You're not just here to be a laborer. You are so equal to them. You're Mexican, but you still have a brain.'"

But Alcalá says traditional Mexican values can often dissuade teenagers from staying in school—that the home environment contributes to a lack of motivation.

"In Mexico at age 15, you'd be married. Your family says, 'What are you talking about high school for? You're getting old. Start having your children.' That type of mentality from friends and family brings you down."

Jean Caliso, a Filipino-American, grew up learning two different dialects of Tagalog. She was raised partly by her older brothers and sisters while her parents worked in Alaskan fishing villages. She learned English and Spanish in elementary school.

"Most of our parents work all day, we don't even see them," Caliso says. "They have double-shifts and we take care of the little ones. It can be hard to manage everything."

Gabriel Guiterrez was born and raised in Mexico City, and graduated from Alisal last year. Since graduating, he works at the Salinas Municipal Pool teaching swim lessons, and is in the process of applying to Hartnell College. Throughout high school, he balanced studying with taking care of his household while his parents, now separated, traveled in search of work.

"My parents would travel to Huron, about three or four hours from here, to work in fields, picking strawberries and lettuce," Guiterrez says, "and sometimes my mom goes down to Los Angeles to work in a clothing manufacturing company.

"When my parents leave, I take care of my sister. I do the cooking, pay the bills, make sure she does her homework."

It's a fact of life that many Alisal High School students share. While the students admit it can be tiring to shoulder so much responsibility, all of them say that it's part of family life. None of them seem to resent being in their situation.

"In Mexico, you help your mom," says Juan Preciado. "My sister does the dishes and cleans the house; I help wash vegetables, and do whatever she needs. It's not that our parents are telling us what to do, it's that we feel like doing it."

Krystal Buenrostro, a sophomore, wears a chain across her baggy pants, and a SpongeBob Squarepants sticker decorates her CD player. Her science teacher describes her as "very intelligent." But Buenrostro says she misses a lot of school.

"I don't think I'm responsible," she says. "I ditch school and I don't apply myself as much as I should."

This is not because Buenrostro is slacking at the beach.

"I do the basics, the cooking, and I clean every other night," she says. "My mom does the shopping. I do pizza, lasagna, and Sloppy Joe's when I'm lazy. Sometimes I do mind cooking, and my mom gets Jack-in-the-Box takeout."

Buenrostro complains about the standards that are recently being enforced at the school by the administration—each student's progress is now closely monitored by a team of teachers—and in the same breath, she says they are necessary.

"Even though we may hate it, it's also teaching us responsibility about life," she says. "Who is going to do it for us?"

Alcalá, also living with a single mom, echoes the sentiment expressed by many of her classmates: Helping out in the family is a necessity.

"When my dad left, my mom became the dad, working, and since I'm the oldest of four, I did the mother role," she says. "I cook and clean and make sure the homework gets done. It's not the nicest job, but I accepted it. How can I be feeling resentful when my mom is working and going to school and coming home at 9:30 at night? I wasn't going to expect her to cook and clean and take care of my brothers."

Manuel Andrade, a junior, says he's worked as much as possible throughout high school to help his family. He believes that compared to peers at other high schools, Alisal teens take on a lot more responsibility.

"We don't have anything handed to us, we have to do it for ourselves," he says passionately. "I worked at Denny's and Macy's 20 hours a week and in student clubs and now I work at my dad's auto shop."

But although these teens are well aware of the disparity between their lives and those of their counterparts elsewhere, they display a striking lack of bitterness. While they hope for a better life, there's an acceptance of their obligations that seems at odds with the self-absorption one expects from brooding teenagers. On the flip side, this acceptance of the status-quo can lead to a lack of motivation in school.

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Rachel Torres—a proud graduate of Alisal High Class of '73—works as a liaison between parents, students, and the school. In Torres'' office, rows and rows of colorful plastic figures line the shelves—there to distract the infants and toddlers who accompany their parents on visits to Torres.

She says that on top of the normal teenage apathy that these students struggle to overcome, there's the challenge of having parents who have no experience with the American educational track—parents who in fact may actively discourage their children from education. Without the parental support, Torres believes, the students are much less likely to finish school.

"A lot of parents have no clue how the educational system works here," Torres explains. "They call and ask the school to be more strict with their kids who are getting in trouble—they want us to have them punished with physical hard labor, for instance. We have to explain that we don't have the right to punish their kids in the ways they are asking for."

Torres says she brings in guest speakers to address topics that the parents are interested in—such as how to find housing, or apply for food stamps—in order to lure the parents to be involved with the school. While she finds most parents take the bait, it's still difficult for them to make the time for school involvement on a regular basis.

"It's hard because they are expected to be in an assembly line or on a crew and it's not like they are allowed to take an early lunch to come meet at the school," Torres says. "I target the season when they aren't working and also do night and Saturday sessions with the parents."

Torres, who explains she grew up with a mother from Mexico who struggled with American culture, is adamant in asking parents to assimilate.

"It is very important that they do not forget their culture and heritage, but at the same time, they need to remember that what their kids are living is the American way," she says. "It's important that they understand the culture here for the success of the students." Sometimes, Torres says, kids ask her to intervene when their parents don't want them to go to prom, or a dad doesn't want his daughter to play soccer.

Candace McCarthy says a surprising number of Alisal graduates go on to be teachers—almost a dozen of whom, like Torres, now teach at the school.

Jane Albano is another Alisal alum teacher who sees hope for the students beyond the low test scores.

"I've been watching Alisal change and grow and struggle and survive since day one," Albano says. "We struggle with the community image that we are academically inferior. But for a lot of kids, school is a safe haven for them, this is a place where they can feel—I get sentimental—they feel that this is their place."

"We recently had the school prom, and the photographer said he has never worked with a group of students who are so respectful, without any attitude at all," McCarthy says. "They appreciate things, and they are really characterized by respect. They are courteous and don't look down at people."

Which seems surprising, given that some of these kids face real violence almost daily.

"There's gangs," Preciado says. "I don't mess with them, they don't mess with me. Sure, there's drugs. But you don't have to deal with that stuff."

Jean Caliso believes the violent reputation of the school is exaggerated.

"I'm a cheerleader, and when I talk to kids from other schools, they go, 'Oh, you're from Alisal? You're going to get stabbed,'" Caliso says. "It hurts me to hear them talk that way."

In fact, there is an evident sweetness that many Alisal students exude—surprising given the harsh realties of poverty, drugs, and violence they see on a regular basis.

"I think that they are ordinary teenagers who have the same dreams that all teenagers have," McCarthy says. "They want to be successful professionally, they want to have families and support them and be respected members of the community. I don't know if they are more responsible than other students, but I just think they are more appreciative of life."

Part three in a series. To see parts one and two, go to

Articles reprinted courtesy of Monterey County Weekly
© 2004 Milestone Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

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