Sister Act

These girls go to the head of the class.

Although the sisters' friends might consider Leoncio and Maria overprotective, Esperanza and Estephania don't.

"They're my role models," Esperanza says. "My parents came from poor families, but you can never say they're poor now. You can never tell that my dad slept on the ground. Everything he does, he does to get better."

"When they're around us, they set a good example and make us responsible," Estephania adds. "They always try to make us happy."

With such strong parental support, the sisters soon boosted their grades at Cole Middle School to A's and B's. Last year Esperanza earned a Hope scholarship and a special citation from Padres Unidos. Estephania was a Hope finalist.

But those honors came at a price. At Cole, as at most schools, students are more interested in dating, dancing and fashion than homework. Esperanza, who says she's "more interested in books right now than boys," was often called a "nerd" and harassed for raising her hand in class.

"It's hard," she says. "I don't understand it. They don't want to participate, but when I do, they all look at me and say, 'She talks too much.'"

Estephania understands. Although they're a year apart in age and classes, she and Esperanza can be as close as twins.

"We're always together," Esperanza says. "If I have something and she has something, we share it. We're close, but we're different, too. She likes science. But me? No. And sometimes I get mad at her and I'll say I'm not going to talk to her for a week, but then I'll ask her for a pencil, or for help with something, and then we'll be talking again. We give each other a hard time. But it's cool."

When YouthBiz recruiters came to Cole last year in search of applicants, one sister applied and the other joined her, just like always. YouthBiz, located at East 35th Avenue and Franklin Street, helps some 250 teens each year with jobs, business skills classes and leadership training. After school and on Saturdays, teens tend a community garden, learn computer programming, complete GEDs, help neighbors weatherize their homes and operate a T-shirt production company that's earned more than $400,000 in nine years.

YouthBiz also tries to provide teens with support, direction and opportunities at critical points in their lives, says founder Brian Barhaugh. And given the pressures in today's world, timing is everything.

For Esperanza and Estaphania, YouthBiz arrived at the perfect moment. At their first training session, the sisters were shy and tentative. But after collaborating with other teens, practicing public speaking and mastering the "business handshake" that requires teens to make eye contact and introduce themselves to strangers, they began to thrive.

"I've always been a follower," Esperanza says. "But now I want people to follow me."

Through YouthBiz, Esperanza and Estephania have earned enough money to help pay the household bills. They've learned accounting principles that they use at their dad's tire shop. They've made friends, including Pate, whom they call a "big brother" and "another father." And they've found the confidence to reach out into the neighborhood.

Last summer, Esperanza attended a community summit sponsored by the Cole Alliance to discuss, among other things, the dismal reading scores at Cole Middle School, which are the city's worst. Afterwards, Esperanza approached Barhaugh. "That's not right," she said. "That's my school. I know we can do better."

And she had a plan: What if students from Cole Middle School tutored students from Mitchell Elementary? That way students would have a head start.

"Great. Why don't you write a grant proposal?" Barhaugh told her.

"I can't," Esperanza said. "I don't know how."

"I'll help you."

So a few days later, Barhaugh, Esperanza, Estephania and Maria, who sat nearby for moral support, hammered out a proposal and faxed it to the Denver Foundation, which had just launched a community grant program with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

A few months later, Esperanza got a reply.

"When she opened her letter, she was jumping up and down," recalls Pate. "She was all excited because I had applied for a grant, too, but she was picked over me."

Freda Malone, a Cole resident who helped select the grant recipients, explains why. "It came from the youth," she says. "It was their idea. And there's nothing better than seeing youth helping other youth. They're the ones who know what they need."

With a $5,000 grant in place, Esperanza and Estephania met with Bijal Choksi, a management consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers and a YouthBiz program manager. Together they contacted principals, selected candidates, interviewed tutors, developed a curriculum and posted fliers. Last fall, Project Literacy debuted in the library at Mitchell Elementary School.

Now, every Monday and Tuesday from 2:30 to 5 p.m., as many as sixteen fourth- and fifth-graders meet with tutors from Cole to expand their vocabularies, sharpen their grammar, build their retention, practice their pronunciation and improve their public speaking.

The results have been remarkable. During the first ten weeks, Project Literacy students improved their reading levels by an average of 8.2 months. "We were stunned," says Choksi, the project's director. "I could qualitatively tell you they had improved, but I was surprised to see some of their reading assessments go up by almost a year."

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