Bay Area high school graduates conquer challenges

Makda Beyene searches for her mother in the crowd at 
San Francisco's Mission High School commencement. 
Beyene arrived in the United States less than four years
ago from Eritrea but has become proficient in English.
By: Jill Tucker

Thousands of Bay Area teenagers will collect their high school diplomas this spring, a rite of passage that will mark them forever as members of the Class of 2012.

Yet each followed their own path to graduation day.
Some found their way through sports. Others dedicated themselves to pursuing academic perfection. Some, new to the country, faced an uphill battle to learn English and high school academics at the same time. Still others were detoured by poverty or personal setbacks.

Elisha 'Lili' Davis: Berkeley High athlete calls basketball a 'lifesaver' that provides path for life, studies

Basketball was an unlikely choice for Elisha "Lili" Davis. She was never very tall and even now, at age 18, has topped out at 5 feet, 3 inches.

But "no" was not an option for Davis.

The Richmond native actually loved to play football. Pop Warner coaches wanted her to play quarterback.
"My dad said 'no,' " she said. "He put a basketball in my hands."

It was "an investment," he told her, although she didn't even know what that meant. The investment paid off several times over.

Davis led Berkeley High School's girls basketball team to the state finals, twice. While the team lost both times, it had already beaten the odds by even being there because it lacked the height of other teams.
In the fall, Davis is heading to Arizona State University on a full-ride scholarship to play point guard on the women's basketball team.

Basketball was her "lifesaver," she said, inspiring her to keep her studies and personal life on track through high school, even as friends got pregnant, dropped out or lost focus at school or on the court because of boys.
"Without basketball, I wouldn't be the person I am today," Davis said.

Who is that person?

She's a student with a 3.7 grade point average, although she's shooting for a 4.5 average this semester and will probably achieve "just" a 4.2.

The pint-size point guard is the captain of her varsity basketball team, the kind of player who says things like, "It's not about the height. You can't be scared."

She is a high school senior who hugs teachers, custodians, coaches, school security guards and administrators, every one of whom will go out of their way for her.

She is a daughter who describes her family as one without much money but "rich" in love and support.
And yet she's still the typical teenager just days from her high school graduation.

"I just feel like I finally made it," Davis said smiling. "But now I'm just starting life."

Julie Gonzalez: After skipping class, moving around, commuter finds motivation at S.F.'s Downtown High

Julie Gonzalez could have dropped out.

She skipped class so much at San Francisco's Burton High School that she knew she'd never finish with her class.

If she wanted to graduate, she knew she'd have to transfer to a continuation school for at-risk, struggling students.

"I have thought I wasn't the brightest person," she said.

She moved around most of her childhood, commuting from Hayward, Richmond, Vallejo and other Bay Area cities to get to school in San Francisco, where her mother worked.

Rather than giving up, Gonzalez chose to attend Downtown High.

There, teachers and Principal Mark Alvarado would not accept failure.

They called Gonzalez in the morning, ordering her to get up, hurry up and get to school on time, even though that required taking a ferry and a bus to get there from her mother's Vallejo home.

Gonzalez finished her graduation requirements six months late, but stayed in school to finish a stationary engineering program she had started earlier in the year.

And she got a job at McDonald's to help support herself and her family.

On May 24, at age 19, she graduated from Downtown, "one of the few" in her family to get a diploma.

She now is studying for an electrician's test to enter a five-year apprenticeship program.

In the meantime, she considers Downtown "the best school I ever went to."

"They cared," she said. "I know they all cared."

Max Mak: San Bruno valedictorian with perfect grades finds his focus in filmmaking after hands-on class

Max Mak was always an exceptional student, a guaranteed college-bound kid who could have picked any path he wanted.

With a 4.7 grade point average and the valedictorian of his class at Capuchino High School in San Bruno, the 18-year-old could take his pick of colleges and careers.

Engineer. Doctor. Teacher. Lawyer. Businessman. Politician. Scientist.

Yet Mak didn't find his personal calling in calculus, chemistry or any of the six Advanced Placement courses he's taking this year. He found his way in a career-tech class on making movies.

The hands-on courses, once called vocational education, help kids learn a skill that could lead to a job.
Those carpentry and auto shop classes have evolved in recent decades, to offering students insight into careers in health, hospitality or other industries, including filmmaking.

"I want to be a film director," Mak said. "This class sparked that interest."

Mak participated in the school's International Baccalaureate program in film, a two-year course.

The course includes everything from screenwriting, producing, directing, editing, lighting and the use of about $16,000 in equipment to take out on location to shoot movies.

Mak will take that real-life experience to UCLA to study filmmaking.

Days before giving the valedictorian's commencement speech at graduation, he reflected on his four years of high school, his perfect grades, his dreams and his choices.

"I feel like school is there to help guide you," he said, "to open up doors, to show you what you love to do."

Makda Beyene: Eritrean, an avid reader, thrives in S.F. Mission High's mainstream courses

When Makda Beyene arrived in the United States less than four years ago from Eritrea, the only English she knew she picked up from television shows.

That was more than her mother and three siblings, which meant she was the family translator, filling out her mother's job applications and calling homeless shelters looking for somewhere to sleep.

When she enrolled at Mission High School in San Francisco, she refused to take classes for English learners, choosing instead to take her courses in mainstream classes.

At first, she struggled.

Concerned teachers asked about her fatigue and inability to focus and then pointed her in the direction of services to help her family find stable housing and financial support.

Then, she thrived. She read voraciously to learn English and posted perfect grades.

Counselors encouraged her to think about college. Take the SAT, they told her.

She didn't know what that was. But she knew she wanted a college education, even if it seemed financially out of reach.

Apply for scholarships, teachers told her.

When Beyene graduated from Mission High on May 23, she had eight college acceptance letters and one of 1,000 prestigious Gates Millennium scholarships, to pay all her university costs and provide academic support and guidance.

She had another $40,000 in college awards, some of which she is giving back because she won't need the money.

And her English is flawless, including typical teenage intonations.

She credits her teachers, counselors and mentors for her success.

"Mission (High) has played an instrumental part in making my family's dreams come true," Beyene said.

This fall, she will attend Pitzer College, a private liberal arts university in Claremont (Los Angeles County).

She plans to double major in molecular biology and writing, and dreams of becoming a doctor.