North High’s Model Student

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Aron Palma. I am a proud North High senior. I would first of all like to thank you for your time and consideration in reading this letter. The reason I am writing to you is to hopefully inspire and motivate you to impact a student's life.

He hates writing these things, his "pity letters." But graduation is two and a half months away, on May 27, and to make it special, the 248 students in the Class of 2007 need money. It's up to him, Aron Palma, North High student body president, to get it.

Aron sits alone in North High's counseling center, staring at the blinking cursor on the computer screen, thinking about how to inspire the charity of local business owners. The rest of the building is silent and dark; everyone else has left for the night. "That's the way it is for me," the nineteen-year-old shrugs. "I'm always in school."

Students of North High School are known for overcoming obstacles that most people only fear of.

There, he's started to write it: North's sob story. The story of a school filled with poverty-stricken and struggling students, a story that involves plunging graduation rates and abysmal test scores. It's a story that he feels is hopelessly one-sided but has grabbed headlines for years, placing North at the top of the to-do list for a school district desperately hell-bent on improvement. The word came down this year: North High would not be shut down, as many had feared, but would be completely redesigned. All of the teachers had to reapply for their jobs, and only half were asked back. Next fall there would be a completely new academic program, a new way of doing things, a new population of teachers — a new North that Aron doesn't understand.

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"I really don't know why they are doing this," he says, biting his lip. "I really don't know what they want to do with North High School next year." Most of his teachers — and they're good teachers; just look at what they did for him — are leaving, either because they were fired or don't want to come back. There are so many rumors floating around that he wonders if the redesign is really about politics, public relations and personal agendas, not about the students at all. But deep down, he can't shake the feeling that it's somehow his fault. When he recently talked to the freshmen and sophomores about their upcoming Colorado Student Assessment Program tests, he felt the need to apologize for his own class, as if its poor CSAP performance two years ago was responsible for the upheaval.

"I just want to show that North High School is hurt," he says. He tried to do that when he spoke out at a Denver Public Schools hearing in January. "Have you ever had a teacher cry with you for your sorrows, pay for your SAT tests, or how about sneak some food in your backpack, knowing you would need it later? I have," he testified before the board, choking back tears. "North will not be the same if the teachers that have created the tradition and culture are gone." He got a standing ovation, a handshake from the superintendent and a quote in the newspaper. But nothing seemed to change.

I myself have had a tough past, however I do not let my socio-economic and ethnic background affect my education or even consider it as an excuse to not to be successful.

That's all Aron will write about himself. "I don't want this to be just about me," he says, yawning. "I have overcome some things, but I don't care much for pity." He covered his sob story in his scholarship and college admission essays: about his absent father and abusive stepfather, moving from one bad neighborhood to another, having to help raise his baby sister, Ruthie, while his single mom worked her second job. He's thinking about going to the Colorado School of Mines or the University of Denver, but he's really hoping that he'll be accepted by the University of California, Santa Barbara. Because with everything that's been happening at North High School, "part of me wants to stay around here, but part of me wants to go out and explore, just relax a little, get away from everything."

I believe that if students see a simple sign of hope or relief they can achieve beyond their imaginations.

Here's where Aron's pitch comes in: He's hoping to raise $3,000 in the next two months. The money will help pay for the prom, senior activities and, most important, Aron's proposed senior class gift: a massive, wall-spanning mural in the school's central atrium, to be completed before graduation. It will be the Class of 2007's contribution toward North's future — whatever that future might be. "This mural is going to be really important," he says. "It's really important for me and others that we leave what North High School means for us, because next year, who knows what this place is going to be?"

An ugly, early-April ice storm lashes against North High's new windows, installed last summer as part of the 1912 Beaux Arts building's ongoing renovation. Inside, storming down the tile-floored, purple-locker-lined hallways, Aron doesn't look much sunnier. "The last two weeks haven't been going well," he says. "All my plans are falling apart."

He pops into a school counselor's office to report the bad news: "You heard about the mural?" Aron had lined up well-known muralist Leo Tanguma for the senior gift. Tanguma had created a mural at North twenty years earlier, but former principal Joe Sandoval didn't like it and had it removed. Aron had convinced Tanguma to try again. "It's kind of cool, you know, because he has like a wound that's been with him for years now," Aron says, "and it's going to finally be healed." But that healing will cost $11,000, and when the artist learned earlier this week that the school couldn't pay the full amount up front, he'd sent Aron a letter.

"Estimado Aron," Tanguma had written, "I admire and respect all your efforts but I cannot proceed with the slip-shot method I have seen here in spite of your best efforts. I think North High School lets down its students as they are letting you down now.... As long as teachers and principals do not take the students seriously, or care for their aspirations, North High School will deserve the negative reputation it has around the state."

Aron's sick of hearing about North's negative reputation. "We're tired of being portrayed as uncivilized," he says. Yes, he knows the school's dismal statistics: In 2006, only fourteen sophomores scored "Proficient" or "Advanced" on their math CSAPs, and only eighteen did the same in science. Over the past five years, North has hemorrhaged nearly a quarter of its students, and the school's classrooms are more than 40 percent empty. Such discouraging figures are in the newspapers all the time. When reporters poke around the school, they always write about kids skipping class and smoking pot, as if drug use and delinquency were unique to this school. Denver superintendent Michael Bennet has called the academic performance at North High "intolerable," referring to the classes that Aron has worked so hard at the past four years.

Why not talk about the good stuff, Aron wonders, like how last year's seniors won nearly $3 million in scholarships, and how the number of kids inducted into the National Honor Society doubled this year? What about the students who worked with teacher Jim Moravec to build a functioning wind turbine and a full-scale World War I airplane? Or senior Juan Herrera, who won Best in Show at a DPS art exhibit? Even when the papers mention something good about North, it feels like a slap in the face. "To meet the 10 award-winning students from North High School," one recent article began, "don't go to the park across the street from North, they won't be there smoking pot." It's as if all of Aron's successes, all the successes of his fellow students, are somehow less worthy because they were achieved at North.

"We have lots and lots of Arons. They have tough times, they have reasons to be doing badly, but they are struggling and getting by and succeeding. And certainly they are not the larger percentage of kids here. But by persistently criticizing the school for the kids who don't make it, we've driven the enthusiasm out of many of those who do," says teacher Christina Headrick. "The more we would focus on the positive at the school and kids like Aron Palma, we would have a reputation that would bring students back."

So that's what Aron does: He focuses on the positive as he roves the school's halls, moving from one obligation to the next. Last year, he and another student founded an ethics club to run canned-food drives and start fixing up the school's dilapidated greenhouse. He helps organize all the school pep rallies, not just because he's student president, but because he wants to. It felt good when he won a $2,500 statewide Discover Card Tribute Award Scholarship last year; it felt even better when he helped Eric Ndikumana prepare for the same award this year, leading to the junior winning the $25,000 national version of the prize.

"He is just the glue that holds everything together, man," says sophomore Chris Ubias. So Aron's not going to give up on the senior class gift now.

He hurries down several flights of stairs to a student council meeting in a basement classroom. "I was thinking about a different idea," he tells the group. "A family tree. North is a family, a big-time family. We can show people we are a family here and we stand together." The other student council members catch on, adding their suggestions for the new mural. Aron beams. "When's the start date?" he asks, assigning one student to draw a mockup. "I want a start date!"

It's a step forward for North. But Aron has hit a roadblock of his own. Although he just won a major scholarship from the Daniels Fund, he won't be able to use it in California. He's heard from UCSB; he didn't get in. His plan to go to South Africa this summer fell through, too. With all of his work getting the Class of 2007 ready for the end of the year, he didn't have time to apply for the grant money he needed for his own trip. It looks like he's going to be sticking around Colorado for a while — but maybe that's how it's supposed to be. "At first, I was like, I just want to leave," he says. "But that whole dream about me going to California, that was me being self-centered. When I see how the students are reacting, when I see the teachers so upset about what's going on with the redesign and what is happening to them, I just want to stay here.

"I think I am destined to stay."

If you come from the gutter you are stuck in the gutter. There's no way out of a gutter. The son of an outcast becomes an outcast. You are destined for the gutter.

Aron learned this lesson very young; the men in his life taught him well. He doesn't have many memories of his father, since the man left him and his mother when Aron was a toddler still living in Chihuahua, Mexico. He has more lasting memories of his stepfather, the man his mother met after they'd immigrated to the United States; Aron will always have a scar on his forehead to remind him of the time the man came at him with a brick. After crisscrossing the country, moving from one tough neighborhood to the next, his family landed in northwest Denver when Aron was thirteen. By then, he was living up to the low expectations these men had set for him, acting like the son of an outcast. He was rarely in school and involved in activities he doesn't like to talk about today. "I was on top of a wall," he wrote in a scholarship essay, "on the verge between life and death." The latter choice seemed so much easier, so much closer. All he had to do was take the final step into the gutter.

Instead, Aron stood up to his stepfather, telling him he had to go. When the man refused, fourteen-year-old Aron used his fists to drive the point home. Then he started taking his classes seriously. He spent freshman year at West High School, but he didn't like the atmosphere there or the dreary bus ride down West Colfax Avenue, so he transferred to North as a sophomore. His grades continued to improve, he started taking college-level courses, and he found a way to pay for a community service trip to Costa Rica. He made National Honor Society last year, and last fall was chosen by the student council to be student body president. When he learned about Tim Marquez, a DPS alum who made a fortune in the oil business and launched the Denver Scholarship Foundation, he called up Marquez's office and asked for some face time. The onetime potential dropout sat down with the millionaire businessman and soon had a check for $750 for the Class of 2007. "He said he wanted to help other students, which is pretty remarkable for a student of his age," Marquez says. "He seemed very serious, very confident of himself. He seemed like he knew where he wanted to go."

Aron doesn't want to be treated like a victim. "I don't like pity," he says. "Like my grandfather always told me, it's all about pride." He doesn't dwell on his success, either. "I don't know why I turned out the way I turned out," he admits. For the most part, neither does anyone else. There are endless studies on how abuse, violence, high poverty and low expectations can all lead to dysfunctional kids. But why Aron didn't end up there when so much seemed to be going against him — that's mostly untouched scholarly territory.

"In general, we have been more concerned about how poverty and adversity limit the sense of success for children who grow up in those conditions," says Delbert Elliott, a sociology professor and director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "There has been relatively little research on children who live in adverse conditions and succeed." That's why Elliott led an eight-year study of hundreds of youths in Denver and Chicago, to determine which kids were achieving a realistic level of success, and why. The results were surprising: In high-poverty and disadvantaged neighborhoods — the "bad" neighborhoods — 52 percent of children were developmentally successful. In "good" neighborhoods, the success rate was only 11 points higher — a significant difference, but hardly a death sentence for the kids on the wrong side of the tracks.

The other surprise was why so many kids were flourishing. Even if most of the cards were stacked against them, as long as they had one positive element in their lives — whether it was their family, their school, their neighborhood or their peer group — they were likely to turn out okay. "If any of these social contexts were favorable, the kids had a huge jump in their chances of being successful," says Elliott.

Aron has always been very strong, muy fuerte, says his mother, Maria Luisa Chavez. Sitting at the kitchen table in their two-bedroom apartment off Federal Boulevard, she and Aron flip through a photo album and talk about their happy memories. About Aron's American-born grandfather, who helped both Maria and Aron attain U.S. citizenship. "Aroncito, tú nos vas a ayudar, a todos," he'd say, telling his grandson that his destiny was to help his family, help everyone. But first, Maria always reminds her son, his number-one goal is to get an education.

Even if it's at North High. "The students who want to learn there," Maria says, "they have to take it upon themselves."

Every weekday morning, the alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m., sharp. In the same clothes he wore to bed, Aron drives his mom to her first job, at Coors Field. Then he returns home for a ten-minute nap, followed by a shower, breakfast and helping Ruthie get ready for her day at Valdez Elementary. After he drops her off at school, he'll try to do a few errands before North's first bell rings at 7.

In the afternoon, there's always something: math club, ethics club, meeting with his mentors at the Minds Matter academic development program, working at Sears. If Aron has a rare moment of free time, he hangs out at North, shooting hoops in the gym, talking with teachers. Ruthie has to be picked up at 3:45 p.m., when Maria is at her second job. Then dinner, homework and bedtime by 11 p.m.

Somewhere in between, there's school.

Today is Tuesday, so Aron's tutoring at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval, an elementary school in northwest Denver. Ruthie is with him: "I had to bring her along because I couldn't find a babysitter," he explains.

Aron sits in a classroom flanked by two young boys — one Hispanic, one Anglo. The student to his left reads his work aloud: "Mi casa es distinto..." "Distinto or distinta?" asks Aron, then turns to the blond-haired boy on his right. "Did you finish your Spanish?" he asks. "Yeah," the student replies. With Aron's encouragement, he now tackles multiplication of decimals.

During a break, Aron watches Ruthie and the rest of the children run screaming through Academia Sandoval's playground. He tutors here, as well as mentors at Girls Inc., so that local kids can have the positive male role model he never had. Plus, he adds, "this is a great school, and that's why I want to be part of it. To me, this is the future."

Aron understands why a school like North is considered failing by standard measures. Last year, in his American literature class, he learned about the long, complicated strangulation of inner-city academics. He learned about the white flight from cities after World War II, when affluent Anglo families left the minorities and the poor — and their neighborhood schools — behind to settle into decay. He studied court-ordered desegregation, such as the mandatory Denver crosstown busing that began in the 1970s, an effort that was only partially successful since the Poundstone Amendment limited its reach into the resource-rich suburbs. And then, in the 1990s, there was another white flight of sorts as busing ended in Denver and new school choices arose. Now parents didn't have to move away or put their kids in private institutions; they could send their children to any school in town — charter schools, magnet programs. They'd send them anywhere, it seemed, except the old neighborhood standbys. Teachers, academic rigor and extracurricular programming followed the exodus. That left the poor, the minorities, the immigrants to fend for themselves at schools like North.

"There have been many, many layers of bad behavioral decisions that have been made throughout the last twenty or thirty years," says Denver Board of Education member Lucia Guzman. "One level is based on racism. Another on classism. Another is lack of good leaders at the administrative level. Another is a lack of focus. Year after year, these layers have produced a very dysfunctional system."

Aron doesn't need a modern history lesson to understand the next evolution in northwest Denver's schools. Looking around on this spring day, he sees all he needs to know. L.L. Bean jogger strollers occupy the same sidewalks as the old helado pushcarts. The white flight is boomeranging back; the area around North High School is looking less working-class. This new population has the time, energy and means to demand a drastic change at North High — a change, many longtime residents worry, that will come at the expense of the kids who are in the system right now.

"Ten years ago, no one wanted to live here," says one North teacher. "Now north Denver is changing. It's becoming more yuppies. They look at this school, they don't bother to check it out, but they read about it in the newspaper and say 'We don't want our kids here.' They want to wipe the slate clean and say 'brand-new North.' It's hard, because you're pushing out the kids who can't afford to live here anymore. You're changing what North has always been."

That's why Aron's so keen on Academia Sandoval, an educational experiment in the midst of northwest Denver's cultural upheaval. One of the nation's first public dual-language Montessori schools, it opened in 2001 thanks to cooperative neighborhood activism. Now hundreds of local parents have their names on a waiting list so that mentors like Aron can tutor their kids in both English and Spanish. "Academia Sandoval is a shining example of successful integration and bridge-building," says Jennifer Draper Carson, executive director of Northwest Parents for Excellent Schools. "I think schools like this are a way of breaking down the barriers in the community."

Sandoval has become one of the inspirations for a new and improved North High. Starting next fall, the redesigned North will be slowly fused with nearby Valdez to create a kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade campus. The elementary school will feature Montessori and dual-language academic programs, bolstered by heavy parental involvement — similar to Academia Sandoval. The middle and high school components will build on this framework, with world-language emphasis and interdisciplinary academic rigor.

When North's principal, Darlene LeDoux, stepped down last summer, the district brought in Joann Trujillo Hays, until then the principal at Sandoval. "What really intrigued me about this opportunity was I could continue the work I did at the elementary level," says Hays. "We need to have a school that brings in different perspectives. I am doing this for all students, including those students who don't have the choice to move out of the neighborhood. This school had better offer them what no one else can."

Aron wants to feel good about North's future. He likes the new principal and has heard positive reports about the teachers coming in next year. But standing here at Academia Sandoval, watching his sister play, he can't help but feel that North isn't being reinvented for the right reasons. It isn't being done for Ruthie. He frowns and lowers his voice.

"I just don't know who they're doing it for," he says.

North High School isn't alone in its academic woes. Fed up with dismal performances at high schools across the DPS system, Denver families are having their children vote with their feet. A quarter of the school-aged kids living in Denver did not attend DPS schools last year. The message is clear: If DPS doesn't act fast, there won't be any schools left to save. "In the Denver Public Schools, it's reform or die," says Alan Gottlieb, education program officer for the Piton Foundation. "The fact of the matter is, there really isn't a traditional high school in Denver that is serving most of its kids well. If something doesn't change radically, the district is in big trouble and the city is in big trouble."

In 2006, Michael Bennet, DPS's fresh-faced superintendent, tried to make that change, unveiling an ambitious plan that involved faculty professional development, re-energized leadership, community participation and prudent student assessment. To show that he meant business, he shut down Manual High School, a high-poverty and low-performing northeast Denver institution, for one year — and found himself in a public-relations nightmare. The community around Manual accused DPS of lying, racism and shattering their neighborhood. "When we decided to close the school, it caught people off-guard," says Bennet. "I think, under the circumstances, we did the best we could, but we learned a lot from that."

Any attempt to fix North High had the potential to turn into an even worse debacle, considering the already existing neighborhood divisions. But last summer, the activist groups Padres Unidos and Jovenes Unidos, representative of the neighborhood's long-established Hispanic population, joined together with Northwest Parents for Excellent Schools, a group that symbolizes the influx of new families. Then, along with city council members, education-board members and other community representatives, they began demanding the same thing. North should not be closed, they insisted, but should be immediately redesigned. Such a redesign would allow the district to completely clean house, requiring all faculty members to reapply for their jobs and drastically restructuring the academic program. Essentially, it was a way to reopen North without ever closing it down.

For DPS, the opportunity was too good to pass up. "There's a very direct community in northwest Denver," says Bennet. "Again and again, it became very clear that business as usual was not going to be accepted. And we weren't going to bring students back to North unless we had a very decisive turnaround." In December, after months of community meetings, Bennet announced that North would indeed be redesigned, starting with the 2007-2008 school year.

It looked like a win-win situation. But one faction was excluded from the victory: the people who insisted that North was already on the road to improvement.

In 2004, after the school had seen four principals (and four DPS superintendents) in a decade, North faculty members, students and administrators joined together with local parents and community groups, including Padres and Jovenes Unidos, to create a five-year, $380,000 reform effort. By last summer, after one year of implementation, North was showing improvement: higher CSAP scores in five out of six categories, beating average district and state increases; the third-highest increase in ACT scores of comparable high schools in Denver; a 12.2 percent increase in student attendance; and more than 200 additional enrollments in accelerated courses. But then, suddenly, Padres and Jovenes Unidos announced that the reform wasn't working well enough.

"It came out over the summer, to the surprise of everybody who had worked on reform," says Cindy Daisley, a school parent on the reform committee. And the faculty members who'd pushed for the change were going to take the fall.

"I'd been waiting for school reform since I started here in 1988," says Melissa Underwood-Verdeal, a teacher on the reform committee who lost her job at North. "We were finally moving in the right direction. And then Dr. LeDoux resigned, and Joann Trujillo Hays came in, and the next thing we knew, we were redesigned. The teachers who wrote the reform plan were not asked back to the school. We should be able to have a conversation about school reform. Instead, our voices are ignored."

Yes, there had been improvement at North, those behind the redesign push acknowledge, but not nearly enough. "The scores were going up, but at such a small pace — and even at that small pace, they were still lower than other local schools that were underperforming," says Ricardo Martinez, co-director of Padres Unidos. "There wasn't enough buy-in from the teachers."

Redesign was the better option, Hays insists, and those on North's payroll who wouldn't get on board would hold everyone else back. "Someone can be a strong teacher, but if they do not want to work collaboratively, it's not going to work," she says. "In the rehiring, you look for those who are willing to work collaboratively and constantly examine school practice." Only 34 of the 68 teachers at North this past year were rehired.

What began three years ago as a promising school-community partnership soon devolved into teachers, principals and activists at each other's throats. And according to Paul Ruiz, senior advisor for the Education Trust, a nonprofit hired to assist with the original reform plan, the ultimate blame for the mess lies with the one party that should have been involved all along but came to the negotiating table way too late: DPS administration. "Allowing the school people and community people to bloody their noses showed very little leadership in the central office in negotiating a new and improved relationship between the school and community," he says. "I want to believe that under redesign the improvement efforts will continue. But I also happen to think that it would have happened if the original reform had continued, too. The ultimate tragedy from a systemic point of view is that by removing the reform effort, it may have sent a chilling message across the system that this work may be impossible to do."

As the weather warms up, luring lunchtime crowds out of the cafeteria and into the athletic fields and the parking lots where pickups blast music, North High's family tree begins to take root. Art students create a design for the mural: two wooden trees reaching arm-like branches toward each other. Hays finds an artist to create the trunks: Jay Smith, a local children's-furniture maker who doesn't charge $11,000. Kids in wood shop cut leaves from particle board, dozens and dozens of them. In the basement, at a student council class run through the DU program Public Achievement, kids brainstorm what to do with it all. "Each of you can paint your dreams on your leaf," suggests student council instructor Melanie Gieger. One of the girls giggles. "It won't fit on one leaf for me," she says.

Aron witnesses some of this progress firsthand, but not all of it. There are rotary clubs to speak at, AP tests to study for. And he still needs to decide where he's going to college. "I'm kind of stuck right now," he says. The other day he got lost when he went to drop off enrollment papers at the School of Mines. Wandering around the campus, his crying sister in tow, "I took it as a sign," he recalls. "It was this feeling that I don't belong here." On top of that, many of his role models have said that DU would be a better fit. "I would love to be able to work with you as a future DU student," Frank Coyne, head of his Public Achievement course, told him.

Aron sighs. "I've been getting bombarded."

He returns to Mines and spends a day there, exploring the red-roofed buildings. He goes to the school career center, where he learns that if he continues with his plan to major in both mechanical and petroleum engineering, he can expect job offers in the range of $50,000 to $70,000 after he graduates. He plays the Taboo board game with members of a Hispanic student group. He meets with admissions director Bruce Goetz, who doesn't mince words: "When people come to Mines, they work really, really hard. People here are friendly. The curriculum here is not."

This makes Aron wonder about his education at North, something he doesn't like to question. But now it's hard not to. Because of the school's limited course offerings and teachers, he never got to take physics. And many of his textbooks are the same ones his teachers used when they went to North. The recent uproar over the school's academic shortcomings doesn't help. "I've always had a doubt about how well I've been prepared by DPS and North," Aron says to Goetz. "But I think I can be prepared."

Then Aron changes the subject, asking about another key concern: "How do students here get involved in the community?"

Goetz looks confused. "In Golden?"

Aron also meets with Heidi Loshbaugh, an assistant research professor at the Center for Engineering Education. "Engineering is about as white as it gets," she warns. "But the people who rise to the top on campus are the ones who are able to have a different perspective and push back, argue back."

Aron nods, thinking aloud. He's liked mechanical engineering ever since he fell in love with fast cars and fancy paint jobs. A lucrative petroleum-engineering degree would go a long way toward helping him establish a chain of family businesses. But if he double-majors at Mines, how much time would be left for his family, for North High? Would he be letting everyone down? "Do I want to go to Mines to make money," he asks, "or do I want to go to DU to make a difference?"

"You are wrestling with a very important human problem," says Loshbaugh, pulling a book from her office shelf and handing it to him: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. She wants him to read the self-help volume based on four fundamental beliefs, and to focus on one belief in particular: Don't take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering. "When people talk to you," she says, "they are always doing it for themselves."

Aron takes the book and reads it over the weekend. On Monday, he visits DU, where counselors and professors are on hand to woo the student they've heard so much about, the kid who goes around helping people. Then he goes home, lies on his bed and makes his decision.

"I'm thinking about going to Mines," he says. "I am going to Mines." He knows the curriculum won't be easy, but he remembers what Loshbaugh said: The ones who succeed are those with a different perspective, who push back. If there's one thing North's taught him, it's how to think for himself. "If I go to Mines, I don't know how involved I'll be in northwest Denver," he admits, but The Four Agreements makes sense.

"I have to consider myself first," Aron says. "I just think I will be better prepared if I go to Mines in the long run." That way, once he's successful, he'll be able to give back so much more.

In the meantime, he's timed the trip from Mines to his high school: "It's only fifteen minutes from North, so it's close, but not too close."

On Aron's last day of school, he doesn't feel like celebrating.

"I just want to get out of here," he says, throwing up his arms. He's standing in the student council room, surrounded by kids painting primer on wooden leaves. Aron has raised thousands of dollars — more than he originally planned — for North's family tree, but not fast enough. They've run out of time. The components of the mural will have to be locked away for the summer, then completed and assembled next year.

"We've run into a lot of hurdles this year," Coyne says to the students, wrapping up the final Public Achievement meeting. "The lesson is that doing hard work and democracy is messy, and the mural project showed how messy that can be."

The mural isn't the only mess. The junior/senior prom felt like a dud to Aron, despite his being named prom king. Too many students avoided the dance floor; kids who'd transferred to North after Manual closed down said that the scene resembled the final dance at Manual. The student-council-staffed Northwest Coalition 4 Better Schools Annual Fair, designed to inspire more families to enroll their children at North, drew a less-than-stellar attendance. The three-on-three basketball tournament that Aron had organized to raise money for a teacher-appreciation event was called off when hardly anyone signed up. Yesterday's pep rally, the last of Aron's career, was canceled after a bunch of seniors showed up at school with eggs and water balloons.

And then there was a personal disappointment: His father won't see Aron graduate. "He's matured into a sensible man," says Aron. But a judge in El Paso disagreed, refusing him a temporary visa.

Maybe Aron could have worked harder on the mural and other projects, but between final exams and pizza parties, winning the Metropolitan Mayors and Commissioners Youth Award and racking up one scholarship after another, there just wasn't time. He could have delegated more responsibility, but that's not how he works. "I'm happiest when I'm helping others," he says. Letting others help him doesn't always fit into the equation.

Aron had gone with two of his favorite teachers to see The House on Mango Street performed by North High's Black Masque Theater Company the night before. "It was about this girl who was going against the stereotype," he says, overcoming the low expectations of her Hispanic working-class family to make something of herself. At the point in the play when she realizes she has to go back and help her family, the two teachers with Aron turned to him. "They looked at me as if to say I have to come back," he remembers. Back to help North.

"It's a family in here," he explains. "You walk around in here, and you will see students talking to each other and fighting like they are families." For many kids, North is the only positive social context they have. "It's tough for these kids to go home," Aron says.

He knows, because he used to be one of them. When things were bad for him, when his stepfather was still around and he felt like the son of an outcast, "I didn't want to be at home," Aron says. "I wanted to be at school. I was fed, I had shelter, and I had my friends with me." He'd tried to explain that at the school-board hearing in January. "We're all a very big family: students and teachers. La familia, that's what we are," he'd said in tears.

This sense of refuge, of familia, is the secret to Aron's success, Coyne suggests: "What is the role of public education in this country? Is it to be a safehouse, or is it a way to get to college? In suburban schools, it's about 'How do I get to college and fulfill the American dream?' In urban America, it's often just 'How do I beat the odds and get a piece of the pie?' For Aron, it's the safehouse atmosphere at North that allows him to be successful academically. That doesn't get measured in test scores, and it doesn't get measured in teacher performance reviews, but that's what produces kids like Aron Palma."

What with the negative headlines and the demanding community rallies, the mass layoffs and teachers crying in their classrooms, Aron's familia feels like it's falling apart. "The teachers and students believed that they would have the opportunity to offer input on the future of North, but we were wrong," wrote sophomore Gemma Tamariz in an essay that's been going around school. "Feeling angry and stressed, I was left with questions, but no answers. The administrators set the plan, and we had no choice but to follow it or we could leave North."

"It reminds me of a divorce," says Erin Stutelberg, a North teacher who's not coming back next year. "It reminds me of what a kid goes though when a family is put through that change: the confusion, the self-blame."

Maybe North was such a refuge for Aron because it was so easy. After all, the same atmosphere he found so supportive allowed the vast majority of his classmates to fail. "I completely understand where Aron is coming from, because I used to be one of those students," says Julieta Quinonez, a North High alum and member of Jovenes Unidos. "A big problem is kids like me were getting all the attention. I realized later that I wasn't getting the rigorous curriculum I should have been getting. Imagine the kids who didn't get the attention."

Sitting in his office across town, Bennet says North may be a welcoming environment for some kids, but that's not enough. "You know what? These are high schools, and not orphanages," he explains. "We need the place to feel like a compelling place to be a kid and be a sanctuary for learning."

But Aron wonders if that sanctuary couldn't be built at North without making it feel like the school is being closed. Couldn't there have been more support for the students instead of just a couple of assemblies? How can there be any academic improvement at North or any of the other DPS schools poised for redesign or shut-downs if the kids don't believe they'll be in a stable environment? Why does it sometimes seem like no one is trying to keep the school together except him?

Standing in the student council room, letting this debate run through his head for the millionth time, Aron is distracted by three giggling underclass girls who've been painting leaves. "Aron!" they holler, beckoning him. "You're leaving, and, like, we're never going to see you again." So they've made him a present: a huge poster painted with the words "We love you, Aron!"

Aron blushes and smiles. When the bell rings and most students empty out of the classroom, he hangs back. During the last period of the last day, he talks with a few other students and a couple of teachers. They laugh about the teachers' outfits on Pajama Day, look at camera-phone pictures of the huge "Seniors 2007" poster they made for yesterday's pep rally, which they hung in the main hall after the event was canceled. "This is the best part of the week," says one of the teachers. Aron nods: "Yeah."

Aron Palma, usually so publicly outspoken about North High School, is tight-lipped on graduation day.

Dressed in a gold cap and gown, he sits quietly on the stage of the Colorado Convention Center's auditorium with 171 of his classmates (his March estimate of 248 graduates was a little high). He has no inspiring words; those are left up to class salutatorian Charles Michael O'Mara and valedictorian Juan Carlos Valles: "The fact that we are all sitting here today is a victory," says one; "No matter how many times we fall, getting up is always worth it," says the other. The frustration Aron feels is voiced in the farewell address of classmate Seth Ian Treber, who defiantly declares that, considering "what some have called the 'rebirth' of north Denver, it is with great importance that we honor this class of 2007, for it may be the last class to embody and distinguish that which is North High School and its community."

Aron turned down an invitation to speak. "I don't want to go up there and make a fool of myself. I've done that so many times," he explains, thinking of the sob stories he told at the school-board hearing and on other occasions. "This day I just want it to be happy."

He's been working hard to stay positive, telling the teachers who are leaving — whether because they were fired or chose not to stay — that some day they'll be back at North, teaching Ruthie and his cousins. He believes teachers and students need his reassurance, even though he has a hard time feeling hopeful himself. He's heard about too many North students who aren't coming back next year, too many returning teachers afraid of losing their jobs if they disagree with the school's future.

"The reason I don't have a lot of hope is that I don't know the people controlling it," he says. "I don't know Bennet; I don't know Principal Hays that well. A better North has to be an equal dream that everyone needs to pursue. I want it to be a top-notch school, but for the people who have worked so hard for it all along."

Still, as the diplomas are awarded and some students drop marbles on the floor before shaking school administrators' hands — to symbolize how they dropped the ball at North — Aron keeps his marble in his pocket. "It was just a gut feeling," he says afterward.

When Hays presents the Class of 2007, the crowd erupts and graduation caps spiral through the air. Aron's extended family and his friends and mentors shower him with hugs and photos. "I'm happy right now," he gushes, grinning. And when many members of the Class of 2007 climb onto waiting school buses that will take them back to North, Aron hangs back. He's leaving with his family, but soon enough he'll return to North.

There's a long white wall in the central atrium — a blank slate at the heart of the school — waiting for him to leave his mark. "I have to finish the mural," Aron says. "I feel like it's destined."

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