Standout students: Sometimes the toughest lessons are learned outside the classroom

Lissette Robles: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Lissette Robles: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

High school and our experiences there often leave lifelong memories. Or scars. Imagine navigating those formative and frequently frustrating years while bearing an extraordinary burden — illness, disability, poverty, homelessness, parental abandonment or death, for example. The graduating seniors featured herein have endured a lifetime’s worth of adversity in their 18 years. In spite of, or possibly partly because of these challenges, they have managed to shine.

Meet tomorrow’s leaders.


 

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JerDadrian Henderson

Both of his parents live in a homeless shelter …

Jerdadrian Henderson: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Jerdadrian Henderson: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

JerDadrian Henderson, Jay to his friends, is calm, polite and articulate. He opens doors for people and responds to his elders with, “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir,” and he’s been described as “especially mature” compared to other kids his age. In a word, he’s a gentleman.

The Hillcrest senior’s impressive demeanor reveals nothing about his childhood, which was full of emotional and psychological instability.

When he was little, JerDadrian woke up in the night to his mother opening and slamming doors, and screaming at things that weren’t there. That was her first schizophrenic episode that he remembers.

“I was scared,” he says. “My mom wasn’t always like that.”

Add to that his father’s bipolar disorder, and JerDadrian spent a lot of time in his room, trying to tune out his parents’ arguments, which sometimes turned violent.

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This type of conflict followed him to elementary school, from which his parents were banned. Other students laughed and joked.

“It’s just a rough environment,” he says. “It’s hard for me to make friends. Some of my friends didn’t turn out to be my friends.”

Today, JerDadrian’s parents live in a homeless shelter, and he now stays in a one-bedroom apartment with his 28-year-old brother, who has had to become a surrogate parent.

“He’s my father figure. He’s the only thing that I have to keep me going.”

JerDadrian spends about two hours commuting to Hillcrest each day by bus. Aside from working part-time at Studio Movie Grill on Royal Lane, he channels all of his energy into school. He has to work harder than his peers to catch up after three years of inadequate homeschooling.

“That’s where I’ve struggled,” he says. “Ever since then, I’ve had to build myself back up.”

“There is a direct correlation between potential success and your ability to keep your nose in the books. The education is your avenue out. You can break the cycle.”
He attended the Dallas ISD alternative school, Barbara M. Manns Education Center, before arriving at Hillcrest his sophomore year. He has kept his struggles mostly to himself.

“I know some people don’t like to hear about other people’s problems. It’s like you’re making excuses. There are not too many people who are going to care. It’s hard.”

He found a mentor in George Robinson, a retired special agent and criminal investigator for the U.S. Department of Treasury, who now works as an educational aide/security monitor at Hillcrest.

“I’m the eyes and the ears for the principal,” Robinson says. He immediately noticed JerDadrian’s positive presence. “He stands out almost like a sore thumb because he’s such a gentleman. That’s not what most young men 16 to 18 are like.”

Robinson leads a mentoring group called Aburoni, geared toward at-risk African American boys, teaching them everything from how to respect women to how to develop a firm handshake.

The biggest lesson he has imparted to JerDadrian is the value of education regardless of circumstances.

“There is a direct correlation between potential success and your ability to keep your nose in the books. The education is your avenue out. You can break the cycle.”

JerDadrian is working to do just that, with hopes to attend Texas Southern University, but not just for his own sake. He wants to make his parents proud.

“I don’t blame them for my situation,” he says. “I learn from it. I wish I could help my parents. I know that going to school is the only way I can help them.”

 


 

Evelyn Romero

Applying for college scholarships, she felt the full weight of her disadvantage …

Evelyn Romero: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Evelyn Romero: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

At 7 years old, Evelyn Romero and her family packed everything they could carry and left their hometown of Berlín, El Salvador, for what she thought was a vacation to neighboring Guatemala. They arrived but kept heading north. Evelyn remembers crossing rivers and deserts and always feeling thirsty, but she wasn’t scared.

“My mom didn’t really tell me what was happening,” Evelyn says — that the course of her entire life was changing forever.

Instead of quitting school and marrying by age 12, she’s graduating from Hillcrest High School with a full college scholarship and ranks No. 1 in her class.

“I’d probably have kids by now,” she says of life back in El Salvador. “Girls were never really encouraged to get an education.”

Her father secured a work visa before bringing the family into the United States illegally in 2001. After the journey across the border, Evelyn — a once chatty and outgoing kid — found herself beginning second grade in Farmers Branch ISD unable to relate to anyone around her. She learned English with the help of ESL classes and afternoon cartoons such as “Dragon Tales” and “Arthur.” Today, it is hard to tell English is not her native language, but she says the transition did change her.

“I never knew how to express myself,” she says. “I never pronounced things right. I became a quiet person.”

The confidence she lacked socially she made up for academically. She moved to Dallas ISD in fourth grade en route to Hillcrest, and her grades soared. She kept quiet about her story and tried to blend in.

“I thought I was just like everybody else.”

She set her sights on college as early as eighth grade, and that’s when she felt the full impact of her disadvantage. She was excited to learn about opportunities such as the Gates Millennium Scholars program until she read that only U.S. citizens are eligible. She found this to be the case again and again as she planned her future.

The top students at Hillcrest often go on to attend ivy league schools, but Evelyn’s immigration status prevented her from joining that elite group.

“That hit her really hard,” says Trey Bush, Evelyn’s chemistry teacher in 10th and 11th grades, with whom she has remained close. “I think she was embarrassed. She was thinking, ‘I’m supposed to be going to these schools, too.’ ”

Even as she was outperforming most of her peers, she accepted her fate.

“I didn’t expect to go to college,” she says.

“She’s kind of an old soul. She knows why she came here, and she’s taken advantage of it.”
Still, Evelyn kept her grades up throughout high school, taking AP courses. Bush often found her waiting at his classroom door for tutoring early in the morning. She became active in the Hillcrest Biomedical Research Group and The Hillcrest Hurricane newspaper. Her journey came full circle when she volunteered at the Vickery Meadow Learning Center, teaching English to children in the refugee community.

Things began to change when Evelyn learned of QuestBridge, a scholarship program that matches high-achieving, low-income students with one of 35 partner universities, and it accepts immigrants. The rigorous process takes into account GPA, test scores and class rank. Applicants must write an essay about obstacles they have overcome and obtain recommendation letters — which is when her teachers first became aware of her background.

Thousands of students vie for this scholarship every year. Evelyn went for it, but “I didn’t get my hopes up,” she says.

Her determination paid off. She became one of just 501 students across the country to receive a full scholarship. QuestBridge matched her with Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and she wears the navy and gold T-shirt with pride.

She excels in math and science but doesn’t know exactly what kind of career she’ll pursue, and she doesn’t need to decide right away.

“I told her, don’t rush into anything. Go with your heart,” Bush says. “I really think she’ll do something in the medical field. She’s a very caring person.”

Her desire for an education has always taken priority.

“She’s kind of an old soul. She knows why she came here, and she’s taken advantage of it.”


 

Lissette Robles

She is couch surfing her way through high school …

Lissette Robles: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Lissette Robles: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

The first thing people might notice about Lissette Robles is her cheerful disposition. She wears glasses, a braided side ponytail and a contagious smile.

“I’m always smiling,” she says. “A smile can make all the difference.”

It keeps her from focusing on the fact that, unlike most of her peers, she does not go home to the same house every day. When we spoke, she was staying with a family friend.

“I keep some clothes there. I like helping out with their kids.”

These stints last for about two weeks at a time, or “until I feel like I’m outstaying my welcome,” she says. “You’re not as comfortable as you are with family.”

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Lissette is essentially couch surfing her way through high school at W.T. White while maintaining a B average. She hopes to complete her basic courses at Brookhaven College before heading to the University of South Florida to pursue a career related to her favorite subjects, math and science.

“Math is easy to understand,” she says. “It would get me a good job.”

“I’m always smiling,” she says. “A smile can make all the difference.”
Lissette’s father is a truck driver and traveling most of the time. Her mother is a housekeeper who lives with Lissette’s brother and his family. Lissette is the product of an affair; her parents have never been a couple. She remembers, at age 5, meeting her dad’s wife. “When she saw me the first time, she was mad,” Lissette recalls.

They aren’t close, but her stepmom does provide one of her many temporary residences.

Lissette doesn’t say much about what it feels like to be an illegitimate child without a home, only that “it’s hard.” She speaks fondly of her dad and other friends and family members but knows she is basically on her own.

At school she is shy, and in group settings she often feels left out.

“You can be around a lot of people and still feel lonely,” she says.

She was brave enough to combat her shyness by enrolling in theater, something way outside her comfort zone.

“That helped me come out of my shell a little bit.”

W.T. White theater teacher Lisa Cotie has had Lissette in her class for two years.

“She’s very quiet, she’s very reserved, but she’s really positive,” Cotie says. “She wants to do well. They all encourage each other. That’s been a huge help for her. It’s kind of like a little family.”

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Lissette also feels at home in W.T. White’s Yu-Gi-Oh Club.

Yu-Gi-Oh is a Japanese trading card game that can get pretty intense, she says. The club comprises students like her who don’t quite fit in. They meet on Fridays after school and hold tournaments on the weekends.

“There are a lot of awkward people there,” she says. “It’s where we go to get away from all our problems.”

Lissette doesn’t seem to dwell on her problems much because, as Cotie points out, “This is normal life for her.”

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“I don’t know many other people who can make it through the situation she’s making it through. Some students have a victim attitude. She does not. She doesn’t begrudge others for having an easier path. She knows somewhere deep inside her that’s she’s going to be OK.”

Lissette wants a good career and, someday, a family of her own — but after she gets her master’s degree, she says. And, she is ready for the challenges ahead.

“Easy would be boring,” she says, “but I don’t want it to be so hard for my kids.”


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