Ricardo Marentes-Hernandez is one of those high school students who was slipping through the cracks.
As a Beyer High School freshman, he was going through the motions. Marentes-Hernandez wasn't in a gang and didn't act up, but he was drifting. Without a change, he was in danger of becoming another dropout in Stanislaus County, where one in five high school students don't graduate. The rate is one in four for Latinos.
"I didn't really have any problems at school. I had problems at home," Marentes-Hernandez said. "Last year, my mom was deported, I had no transportation. My attendance wasn't too good. I was getting labeled as a bad kid."
But Marentes-Hernandez wanted to be a role model for his younger siblings. That pushed him to focus on his education. He also joined Beyer's Hispanic Youth Leadership Council his sophomore year and found a mentor in the club's adviser, teacher Linda Hernandez-Rosenthal.
Their relationship shows how important personal connections are for many students. Marentes-Hernandez said his advisor's gentle pushing and encouraging him to try made the difference.
Now a senior, Marentes- Hernandez, 17, is co-president of the council and is on pace to graduate from high school. He wants to enroll in Modesto Junior College's firefighting program.
"It takes courage for a young man in high school to stand up and be a man, to stand up and believe he has a future," Hernandez-Rosen-thal said.
Graduating is 'the beginning'
Joining the leadership council helped connect Marentes-Hernandez with other teens overcoming similar circumstances. The club's mission of developing leadership skills has resonated with its members.
"There is a vision, there is a hope. I tell them there's more to our lives than just graduating high school. That's not the end, it's just the beginning," Hernandez-Rosenthal said. The club meets weekly, and many members will be the first in their families to attend college, she said.
Marentes-Hernandez's involvement in the leadership council proved fruitful.
But his family's struggles still weigh heavily. He has trouble talking about his mom's deportation, tears welling up in his eyes when he describes how he and his siblings weren't given a chance to hug her good-bye.
Oldest brother went to work
Before she was sent back to her home state of Michoacán in Mexico, Marentes-Hernandez's mom worked two jobs to make ends meet. The family has six children — ranging in age from 13 to 27, all U.S. citizens. Their dad has never really been in the picture, Marentes-Hernandez said.
To help his single mother, Marentes-Hernandez's oldest brother, José, dropped out of high school at age 15 so he could work and bring in a paycheck.
"Just to keep a roof over our heads for my mom, it was hard. Basically, my brother sacrificed his education for us, like a father," said Marentes-Hernandez. He and his two younger siblings now live with his oldest sister, Maritza.
"The club was something for me to get away from my situation, be here with friends and have fun," he said quietly, slowly, deliberately. "Through the club, I found out about college opportunities. It brought a lot of things to my attention, helped me set goals in my life."
Marentes-Hernandez urges other struggling teens to push through hardships, because the light at the end of the tunnel is bright and rewarding. His teacher noted that having a goal is also key.
"You have to have drive. You can not go through life without direction," Hernandez-Rosenthal said. "Everybody has a story — it doesn't matter where you come from."