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Guatemalan 'Oliver Twist' thrives academically in Virginia

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010

Onelio Mencho-Aguilar entered high school in Northern Virginia at 14 with a sixth-grade education and a grown man's burdens.

He had survived homelessness, hunger and depression in a torturous journey from the Guatemalan highlands, sneaking across the border in Arizona, roaming the streets of Los Angeles and landing in the Washington suburbs. There, he reunited with his father, whom he had not heard from in a decade -- only to be abandoned by him two years later, left to survive on his own.

Many students who face smaller troubles drop out of school.

But Mencho-Aguilar graduated in June from T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria with a 3.6 grade-point average and a faculty award for his fortitude and "strong desire to achieve." Now he is a full-time student with a $3,000 scholarship at Northern Virginia Community College.

"I compare him to Oliver Twist. He has been through some incredible obstacles," said Patricia Gordon, an English teacher for nonnative speakers at T.C. Williams. "He is the kind of student every teacher wishes they had a room full of."

Many teenagers struggle to feel motivated at school. For those who trail academically or don't speak fluent English, the challenges can be overwhelming. And for immigrants who are focused on survival, school seems like a luxury. Many are reluctant to ask for help.

Mencho-Aguilar, who came to the United States alone, was especially vulnerable. But rather than checking out, he knitted together a surrogate family of teachers, social workers and counselors.

"Maybe it was because I felt safe there," said Mencho-Aguilar, a lanky 18-year-old with a soft voice. School offered things he did not have "in real life," he said, including meals he did not have to pay for and adults he could count on. "I felt school was my home."

For many students at T.C. Williams, ties to the classroom are far more fragile: One in three Hispanic students and one in four African Americans do not graduate within four years. Those statistics fit the profile of many schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students.

T.C. Williams, with more than 2,900 students on two campuses, is one of Virginia's largest high schools. But this year, with help from a federal turnaround grant, administrators are working to make it seem more intimate: reducing caseloads for guidance counselors, hiring more English and math teachers, and creating personalized academic plans for each student.

Experts say that even one personal connection -- to a teacher, a counselor, a janitor -- can help a student stay in school. Such ties proved to be crucial for Mencho-Aguilar.

The teenager's father left his family in a rural village outside the city of Quetzaltenango when the boy was 4. His mother struggled to raise four young children by working in corn and potato fields and weaving huipiles, traditional Mayan dresses, to sell.


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