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First graduating class at Alliance’s Smidt Tech High boasts 4 Gates Millennium Scholars

Craig Clough | June 8, 2016

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Classmates Stephanie Martinez, left, Yessica Zayas and Kevin Romero won Gates Millennium scholarships.

A Los Angeles public high school graduating its first senior class this week has an extra reason to celebrate: four seniors have scored the same prestigious scholarship.

One thousand students this year were selected to participate in the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, a $1.6 billion initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that awards full-ride college scholarships for minority students all the way through graduate school.

The winners came from 45 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories. Four are from Alliance Susan & Eric Smidt Technology High School, an independent charter school in the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools network. Alliance operates 27 schools within LA Unified, many of them top performers. The four students are part of the first graduating class of the school, which opened in 2012.

The winners are Andrea Mapica, who will attend Brown University; Stephanie Martinez, who will attend UCLA; Kevin Romero, who will attend Johns Hopkins University, and Yessica Zayas, who will attend Mt. Saint Mary’s. They and 123 classmates will receive their diplomas on Saturday.

Both Romero and Zayas attended Wallis Annenberg High School in South Los Angeles before switching to Smidt Tech. Both said the former principal at Annenberg, Lori Rhodes, who had left to be the first principal at Smidt Tech, convinced them to give the new school a try.

“The principal at Wallis, she saw potential in me I guess and reached out to me and said, ‘I am going to leave and start a new school and I really think you would benefit from it.’ She was the main reason I started considering it,” said Romero, who left Annenberg in April of his freshman year.

(Rhodes is no longer at Alliance and is principal of Healdsburg High School in Northern California. She was named in a complaint filed by UTLA with the California Public Employee Relations Board as having unlawfully made a coercive statement to a teacher by implying that the teacher’s views on unionization could impact her official evaluation. A judge last week agreed with the complaint.)

Zayas also said Rhodes urged her to give the school a try. But first she and Romero said they needed to convince their parents it was the right choice.

“They were against me going to a new school, because it was so new. In their eyes there was nothing wrong with my previous school, and I was really attached to it,” Romero said. “It was a K-12 school, and I had been there since kindergarten. All my brothers went there too.”

Zayas said her parents had similar concerns but finally agreed to let her transfer, which she did at the start of her sophomore year. The distance was another concern, because getting from South LA to Lincoln Heights every day was no easy task. Her dad drove her the first week, but it became clear that it wasn’t going to be possible to continue doing that.

“It was so much money and took 30 minutes. They told me, ‘You are going to take the bus,’ but then they didn’t want me to take the bus because, ‘You will get home late and it gets dark early.’ They were worried,” Zayas said. “And they were thinking, ‘Shoot, we made a mistake. We aren’t going to get to go to school events or anything.”

Zayas ended up riding the bus every day, an hour each way. Romero did too. But that wasn’t the only difficult part of the transition.

“It was definitely a bumpy road. Once I got there I started realizing how new it was and it didn’t really hit me until we were asking for certain things and we didn’t have those things,” Romero said. “But over time I started realizing that it is great to be a part of something new.”

Zayas also had a tough transition.

“When I first moved, like Kevin the shock was hard because I had gone to [Annenberg] school since middle school. All my friends were there and I felt comfortable,” she said. “Moving here, it was new. There was technology and we all got computers. And I felt like I regretted the choice, not academically, but more of like, I missed my friends. But then I thought, it is offering me better stuff, it is offering me better AP’s.”

Martinez came to Smidt Tech by a different route, and almost by accident. She grew up in Lincoln Heights and attended PUC Excel Charter Academy, but wasn’t sure where she wanted to go to high school. Her mother had vetoed Lincoln High School, the large, traditional district high school in the neighborhood.

“My mom was like, ‘You are not going to Lincoln High School, that’s a for sure no. I don’t want you to get shot there.’ That was her stereotype for Lincoln,” Martinez said.

But although her mother wanted an alternative choice, the family knew little about how to enroll in charter and magnet schools.

“Me and my mom didn’t know you actually had to apply to high school. I thought I could just send in my transcripts and they would accept me,” she said.

After missing the deadline to get into the magnet of her choice, Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet, Martinez ended up enrolling at Smidt Tech as a last-minute decision, although she initially didn’t want to go to the school because it was brand new.

But now?

“I think Smidt Tech has been one of the best choices I could have made, although it was on accident. At Lincoln I don’t think I would have gotten the attention that I personally need sometimes,” she said.

Romero also said he does not regret the choice of switching schools.

“At my old school if you were trying really hard and trying to get good grades, people would be like, ‘Oh, he’s just kind of a nerd.’ You know, in this sort of environment people really actually do want you to succeed,” he said.

Zayas also said she does not regret the decision to switch to Smidt Tech, but there is one thing about it she will not miss.

“It’s been three years, and I am so glad I don’t have to take the bus anymore! It wears you out, to be on the bus for an hour,” she said.

Zayas’ parents, who initially didn’t want her to switch to Smidt Tech, are now relieved of the burden of paying for her college. They run a home photography business and both have taken second jobs to prepare to pay for her college and to pay for her brother, who is attending Pepperdine, Zayas said.

“I remember when I first opened the envelope after receiving the scholarship, I told my mom, ‘You don’t have to do that job anymore.’ And the look on her face, she was crying,” Zayas said.

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