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For 253 Top Latino Students, Next Stop Is College--and Beyond

Times Staff Writer

Facing her first day of school in the United States three years ago, Clarissa Martinez de Castro wished for a broken leg so she wouldn’t have to go. Newly arrived from Mexico, she spoke little English and felt like a stranger.

“I was really scared,” she said.

But she did not break a leg. Instead, she entered Garfield High School in East Los Angeles as planned, improved her English and got straight A’s the first year. She is graduating in the top 2% of her class this month and in the fall will enter Occidental College, a private liberal arts college in Eagle Rock, which has awarded her a full scholarship.

“My parents encouraged me to get good grades,” she said. “I do it for myself and I do it for them.”

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Clarissa was one of 253 “exceptional scholars” honored at a ceremony in Los Angeles Saturday by the Youth Opportunities Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed 20 years ago to encourage Latino students to attend college.

At a time when studies show that 45% of Latino high school students drop out before reaching the 10th grade, the success of the 253 top students deserves special attention, said Fernando Oaxaca, foundation chairman.

“Too often we hear that Hispanic kids have tremendous problems with poverty, dropouts, drugs,” he said. “Our kids have the ability to be winners, but nobody ever hears about them. This event is to stimulate the kids to know other kids like them.”

The foundation award is not a scholarship, although the foundation will offer scholarships to some of the students later this year, executive director Felix Castro said.

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According to Oaxaca, the youngsters rank in the top 3% of their classes and were chosen from 184 high schools throughout the state. He said that their average score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test is 1,105, 200 points higher than the national average. Nine are student body presidents, 46 are ranked first in their class, seven are valedictorians and one is a National Merit Scholar.

Forty-five were born in other countries, including Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador and Costa Rica, Oaxaca said, and more than half will be attending the University of California in the fall. Others have been accepted to Ivy League schools and such top-ranked West Coast institutions as Stanford.

Twelve honorees--the largest number from any single school--came from Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, which recently attracted attention by winning one of the largest cash awards given to high schools that improved their scores in a state basic skills test.

Many of the students credited hard work and the support from their parents for their success. But for some, the odds against success were high.

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Like Clarissa, Juan Almaguer, 17, also came from Mexico three years ago and had limited knowledge of English. He was enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes for 1 1/2 years at Garfield and studied his other subjects for five hours a day after school. His diligence paid off: He has been accepted at Princeton, where he plans to study electrical engineering.

“I want to work for NASA or JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory)” and develop projects in space communications, he said.

Vilma Martinez, chairman of the University of California Board of Regents, presented the young scholars with certificates recognizing their achievement. She reminded them of a time when “excellence was not enough” to get ahead.

“There was a time in this country when excellence was not enough to get you the opportunities and positions you deserve,” she said. “That is why we worked so hard to get what are called affirmative-action programs.

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“I’m very proud of you. I know how hard it is to get here.”


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