Lost and found

Poor, brown, and inner-city. These Adamson High School kids weren't supposed to make it. They did anyway.

Sonia

Even when her bags were already packed in her friend Anthony's car in the driveway, her parents continued to beg her not to make this terrible mistake. But she was stubborn and determined. Her mother cried, but she refused to change her mind. Finally her mother stepped forward, exhausted and in defeat, and slowly made the sign of the cross over her in a last bendicion.

No matter how her parents pleaded or cried, Sonia Cabrales was going to the University of Texas in Austin.

I survived Adamson High School: from left, Armando Monsivais, Sonia Cabrales, and Manuel Herrera
Mark Graham
I survived Adamson High School: from left, Armando Monsivais, Sonia Cabrales, and Manuel Herrera
I survived Adamson High School: Sonia Cabrales
Mark Graham
I survived Adamson High School: Sonia Cabrales

The previous spring, Cabrales' class of 1994 at W.H. Adamson High School in North Oak Cliff had produced 165 graduates -- all that was left of more than 600 freshmen with whom she had started.

The school district tends to be blasé on the surface and very defensive when pressed for details about the dropout rate at Adamson and some of its other high schools. The only reaction Superintendent Waldemar Rojas and his spokesman Tomas Roman had when I told them I was doing a story on Adamson was to try unsuccessfully to keep me out of the school.

I'm sure they see Adamson as a major public relations liability. It's a poor school in one of the least assimilated immigrant areas of the city. It teeters along in one of the oldest buildings in the district, built in 1915, with one electrical outlet per classroom and an ancient boarded-up wood shop where the computer lab is supposed to be.

Adamson's senior-year test scores tend to be miserable: The portion of the senior class who passed the end-of-course test in Algebra I last year, for example, was 2.9 percent, up from 1.8 percent the previous year.

On the other hand, the school was spotlessly clean the day I slipped in, unannounced and unidentified. The corridors were orderly. I saw a few classrooms where students seemed truly rapt and even enthralled by what their teachers were telling them. The principal of the school was everywhere, tending to the most minute details of the school's daily life like the dedicated captain of an aging but proud ship.

One of the few local elected officials who has taken Adamson to heart is state Rep. Domingo Garcia, Democrat of Oak Cliff, who speaks with anger about the contrast between promise and reality at Adamson.

"There are code words that we hear from teachers and administrators," Garcia says. "They talk about children who come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds and children with severe social problems.

"What they really mean is that these kids are too poor, too dumb, and too dark to learn."

This story is an account of a handful of kids from this down-at-the-heels old school in a poor, often tough part of town who have made it anyway, who finished high school and went on to college.

The question is why? Why did Sonia Cabrales get herself down to Austin and enroll in classes at one of the most rigorous state universities in the nation, when all the odds were against her?

Cabrales and I met and sat at a little table in the underground level of the plaza at the Bank of America building downtown. A fountain gurgled nearby, and men and women in suits walked by briskly with briefcases. She told me that her father had pleaded with her not to go to Austin and her mother had cried because, for them, seeing their daughter go off by herself to an American university in another city was like seeing her fly to the moon.

No official count was kept of those from Adamson who went on to college in 1994, but of the 165 who graduated with her, Sonia Cabrales probably was one of fewer than half a dozen. That estimate comes from faculty members who would speak to me only off the record because they fear reprisals from the superintendent's office if they talk to reporters.

The school was 84 percent Hispanic when Cabrales left. It's more than 90 percent Hispanic now. Two-thirds of the students were "economically disadvantaged" then. Two-thirds are poor now.

The families who send children to Adamson are mainly immigrants from Mexico, most of them from a region in central Mexico beginning in the State of Guanajuato, just above Mexico City, and stretching north to Zacatecas, 300 miles south of Brownsville. It's a world in which children leave elementary school to work in the fields, a place where some people starve.

Since the early days of the Bracero program, a federal initiative designed to bring legal temporary labor up from Mexico after World War II, people have been coming from that part of Mexico to North Oak Cliff -- long enough to have transformed whole neighborhoods into little pockets of central Mexico. An Adamson teacher who had a not-for-attribution lunch with me said, "You'd think traveling to Mexico to visit their relatives, these kids have seen two different worlds, but they haven't. It's the same world there as in North Oak Cliff."

Cabrales' family history is probably typical of most of the students at Adamson.

"My parents are originally from Durango," she said. "They live there now. They came to the United States 25 years ago. I'm 24 years old. They had seven kids total, all raised here. Four of us are Adamson graduates. I'm the only one who actually went to a university.

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