After so much negative publicity involving several local schools, it was refreshing to hear good news coming out of Arvin High School.
In case you missed it, Arvin was extended a special invitation to participate in the national We the People competition set for April in Washington, D.C.
"This is really a very big deal," said Jim Young, chancellor emeritus of the Kern Community College District and an assistant coach for the Arvin team.
We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution is a local, state and national competition that measures students' knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. Working as teams, they present and debate legal arguments before panels of experts in law and academia.
This year Arvin placed second in the state competition, just behind state champion Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton. That means Arvin beat a host of other academically top schools throughout the state to finish second.
Statistically speaking, Arvin doesn't belong in the same league as some of these other schools.
Consider the following cold hard facts from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey between 2007 and 2011: Arvin's median family income was $29,740; for Pleasanton it was $118,713. Just 32.4 percent of Arvin's population age 25 and older had a high school diploma, compared with 94.9 percent in Pleasanton.
The share of Arvin's population age 25 or older with a bachelor's degree is 4.9 percent; compare that with 55.5 percent in Pleasanton. Keep in mind that a good number of Arvin students come from homes where English is not the predominant language.
Despite all this, Arvin has shined through the years. How does a team of 26 students from one of the poorest areas of Kern County manage to do it?
"We get a lot of comments like that. It shows we are hard workers," said 18-year-old Jessica Esquivel, a senior on Arvin High's We The People team. She plans to become a doctor. "We need to out-work those other teams because those students come from homes whose parents are lawyers, doctors or other professionals."
Esquivel credits that hard work ethic from her farmworker parents. She and other students also appreciate the coaching staff at Arvin High for keeping them on track.
"Hard work beats anything else. That's what I tell the students," said Coach Robert Ruckman. The government and economics teacher said he was "ecstatic like a kid" when told about the special invitation to the national competition.
Young noted that a few prognosticators did not have high expectations for the Arvin team. Beside the glaring disparities in the socio-economic realities between places like Arvin and Pleasanton, academic scores from Arvin are generally low. But Young said this is also a story of high and low expectations, predictability of student success according to commonly accepted educational theory -- and how a group of hardworking seniors debunked such beliefs.
A number of undocumented students have contributed to the team's success over the years. It may very well turn out that in the future these same undocumented students will use the expertise they gained from We The People to contribute to society.
Some Arvin seniors have already been accepted to major colleges. Jose Zuniga, president of Arvin High's Constitution Team, is headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His older sister Evelyn is already a student at MIT and expects to graduate this year. Evelyn was an active member of the Arvin team in 2007.
Now the challenge is finding money to get the Arvin students to Washington. The group estimates it will need to raise about $70,000 by mid- to late April to send the team and six adult chaperones to compete in the national finals.
"This is a new but very welcome challenge," coach Ruckman said.
Donations can be mailed to: Arvin High School, 900 Varsity Road, Arvin, CA 93203. Checks should be made out to "We The People Team." Go Bears!
-- Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian"s. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.