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The Best and The Brightest / Valley Valedictorians : GRANADA HILLS HIGH SCHOOL : Youth Proves You Can Be Both Smart, Cool

Times Correspondent

Ernesto Carlos could be a walking poster for the it’s-cool-to-be-smart movement.

With trendy baggy jeans, spiked hair and exuding self-confidence, the Granada Hills High School valedictorian is shaking up the stereotype of a scholar.

“People come up to me and say, ‘you don’t look like a valedictorian,’ ” the 18-year-old said with a grin. “I’m proud of that. I’m trying to provide an example. Just because you are interested in school doesn’t mean you have to be an introvert.”

Just as his taste in music ranges from rap and hip-hop to Broadway musicals, Ernesto said, his friends include rowdy party-goers and studious college-bound scholars.

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“You can do both,” said Ernesto, who likes to go to parties and dance clubs on weekends to unwind from the pressures of school. “It’s been so polarized. People who are considered cool are the ones not into school.”

Sometimes he tries to persuade his friends to complete an assignment rather than attend a party. But he believes his example is the best way to persuade them that being cool doesn’t preclude doing well in school.

“Whether my talks or my example has influenced them, I don’t know,” Ernesto said. “But I have earned their respect.”

Excelling in rigorous advanced placement courses, he has earned the respect of his teachers too.

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“He’s more than just a top student; he’s the nicest person you could ever meet,” said William Lee, his honors chemistry teacher. “If you were to have a child, God might bless you and you’d have a child like Ernesto.”

The oldest son of a postal clerk and a middle school teacher, Ernesto was born in Culver City and grew up in a two-story home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Granada Hills. His parents, who moved to Los Angeles from the Philippines before he and his younger sister were born, always talked to their children about the importance of education. Ernesto could read when he was just 3.

“It got lodged in my personality that I had to be the best,” he said. “It was almost an expectation. My entire family set me up, saying, ‘he’s the smart one.’ ”

An extended family of more than 50 aunts, uncles and cousins living in Los Angeles provided additional incentive to excel.

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“One aunt said to me, ‘I want to tell my kids to be like you,’ ” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure. They look upon you to make a name for the family.”

In his bedroom, where an unmade bed, piles of books, a cluttered dresser and a computer terminal take up most of the narrow space, Ernesto stopped talking to answer the phone for the third time in an hour.

“Yeah, I don’t know, bro,’ ” Ernesto said into the receiver to a friend from school. “I’ve got a big chemistry test to study for tonight.”

In the fall, Ernesto will head to UCLA aided by a combination of loans and scholarships. He plans to study computer science and engineering, but two years of volunteer work at Northridge Hospital Medical Center have persuaded him to consider medicine as well.

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In the meantime, he is hanging out with friends and working on his speech for the graduation ceremony.

“I don’t want to sound too much like an educational film,” he said. “But everyone seems so downhearted about education these days. There are a lot of kids working hard and I want to show that it’s going to get better.”


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