She's No. 1

A valedictorian steals our hearts.

Published June 29, 2006 11:19PM (EDT)

Tear-jerker alert: Don't miss this Los Angeles Times profile of Luz Elena Gutierrez, 18, the valedictorian of Fremont High School, in one of south Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods. The senior, who has a 4.5 grade-point average and lobbied the school board for more demanding classes, will attend UC-Berkeley next year on a full scholarship, despite having attended a public high school dubbed a "dropout factory" by one national study.

Tonight, Gutierrez will give her 60-second valedictory address, in both English and Spanish, before 500 of her classmates. One hundred of the seniors who will be crossing the stage with her won't actually be graduating. One-fifth of her class will be receiving a certificate of completion instead of a diploma, because the students couldn't pass the state exit exam or didn't have the grades to graduate. And an additional 1,500 of the students who started with her as freshmen have left the area or dropped out.

"People have low expectations when you come from Fremont," says Gutierrez. "'Inner-city school. Low-income kid. Immigrant family.' They don't expect us to succeed. But look at me, where I am now. So anything is possible." More than 90 percent of the students at Fremont High School are Latino, and a full third are new immigrants, still learning English. All of the top-10-ranked seniors at Fremont are girls. Gutierrez offered some insights from her own experience into why low-income boys are falling behind: "At a school like this, guys get pressured to do a lot of things  gangs, drugs. Boys make fun of you if you do your work. Girls don't have that kind of pressure," she says.

Gutierrez's parents both emigrated from Mexico, and met working at a hospital laundry 27 years ago; they both still work there on opposite shifts so one parent can always be home. Neither her mom nor her dad went past elementary school or learned to speak English, yet in addition to Luz Elena's achievements, their two older children graduated from UCLA and Cal State-Long Beach.

Mom and Dad armed their kids with computers, library cards and vivid reminders of what not having an education means. "Every night I can remember, my father would come in from work so tired, and he'd come into my bedroom, where I was bent over my desk doing homework and say the same thing: "Hija, tu si puedes hacer alguien en la vida. Estudia porque yo se que tu si puedes. Ve me a mi; tu no quieres sufrir como yo." "Daughter of mine, you can be someone in life. Study hard because I know that you can do it. Look at me; you don't want to suffer like me," Gutierrez says.

The valedictorian will be able to deliver her own message to her classmates tonight: "I know what people think about Fremont," she says. "And the only way that can change is if we continue our education, then come back and help the community."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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