I've got to give credit when it is rightfully deserved. So I'd like to share the story of two mentors at Mira Monte High School who are passionate in their respective fields in education in large part because they believe in their students. And partly because they can identify with and see their own reflection in these students from when they were that age.
Mira Monte is a fairly new school in southeast Bakersfield, having opened just four years ago. To say it serves predominantly low-income students would be an understatement. That in itself can present formidable challenges to academic success, but Jesse Toledo and Jose Garza have made it a mission that neither poverty nor anything else deter student achievement at their school.
Toledo is a cross-country coach, school community counselor and fill-in adult male figure for students who come from single-parent homes. He targets freshmen to get involved in a school activity almost immediately as they enter Mira Monte with some straightforward talk.
"I tell them, 'You're going to do something,' and they usually frown but their parents do bring them to whatever activity they choose to get involved in," said Toledo.
One hundred six students now participate in the Mira Monte Lions cross-country team, but there have been bumps along the way. Like some not being able to afford a $45 pair of running shoes or lunch when the team goes away for a meet, since most students qualify for a free or reduced-priced lunch at the cafeteria.
That's where Toledo kicks in with whatever fundraising activities he can do. Fellow teachers also help out in providing snacks such as bananas and honey, which Toledo uses to carb-up his team. Students who mess around pay a price.
"It was hard," said sophomore Maria Baragan.
The 15 year old got kicked off the team for not showing up to practice. But she made amends and came back to contribute to a 20-0 record this year with the girls frosh-soph team. The JV team also had a stellar record of 19-1.
While pleased with the team's record this year, Toledo believes students are pupils first and athletes second. Grade checks are done weekly, with the last one resulting in 102 of his students getting all A's and B's while just four scored a C.
Like Toledo, Jose Garza comes from humble beginnings in east Bakersfield. A graduate of Foothill High, Garza had bigger dreams and pursued his career by continuing his education and graduating from UC Berkley and then getting a master's degree in education from Harvard University.
Garza had pretty much written his own ticket to work anywhere he chose. He chose to come back to his roots and is now a counselor at Mira Monte, where he shares his knowledge by working with students and is living proof that they, too, can make it into an Ivy League school.
"They were told that they can't make it," said Garza. "That's what I was told, too, that I couldn't make it," he said.
Or maybe it's because Kern County as a whole has a miserable college-going rate. According to the most recent California Department of Education data available, just 32.1 percent of our high school graduates went to college in the 2008-2009 school year. The state average was 74.4 percent!
But rather than doubt and dwell on the negative, Garza sees it as an opportunity to help underrepresented students achieve their dreams of making it to college. And not just any school.
As Californian reporter Jorge Barrientos wrote late last year, Garza brought The Ivy League Project to Kern County for the first time. The program helps economically disadvantaged students get into the nation's top schools.
All students have at least a 4.0 GPA. While other schools may have one or two students, Mira Monte has nine students in the Ivy League Project. Students have been busy raising $2,200 each needed for a trip to Washington during spring break where they will meet with college admission officers and get a taste of what the future holds for them at an Ivy League school. It's an opportunity for them to reaffirm that kids from humble beginnings in one of California's poorest areas can make it into a top university.
"I feel honored to go," said junior Emanuel Vargas. "Nobody believed in us until Mr. Garza."
But just like his colleague Toledo, Garza finds himself scrambling to help students secure funding for this trip, coming up March 30. Emanuel Vargas is still short $1,000 and looking for a sponsor, as are other students. The deadline for raising the money is March 23.
Every contribution helps. A fundraising spaghetti dinner will be held 5 to 7 p.m. March 16 at Mira Monte High, 1800 S. Fairfax Road. Tickets cost just $10. For more information, call 366-1800.
-- 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 email@example.com.