By Susan Horsburgh
March 31, 2003 12:00 PM

Three years ago José Cruz faced a tough decision. Should he go to Columbia? Or to Yale? It was the kind of choice often reserved for wealthy students at private schools. But Cruz is from Elsa, Texas, one of the poorest communities in America. And remarkably, he wasn’t alone. Other classmates were considering equally heady alternatives. Indeed, in the last dozen years, 51 graduates of Edcouch-Elsa High School have wound up at the nation’s top universities. Their secret? A teacher named Frank Guajardo. “I thank him,” says Cruz, 19, now a sophomore at Yale, “for the doors he opened for me.”

Guajardo has been opening doors since September 1991, when he first challenged his honors English students to apply to the Ivy League. “Some of them looked at me as if I was crazy,” he recalls. Few kids at Edcouch-Elsa had traveled beyond the twin towns for which the school is named, and many, children of Mexican migrant workers, lived in shacks with no electricity or running water. They perked up, though, when Guajardo pledged to show them the campuses himself. The next spring, after raising $12,000 selling cakes and tacos, nine students joined him in two borrowed vans on a tour of top East Coast schools. That fall five entered the Ivy League.

Today the March college tour is an annual event, and 65 percent of seniors go on to higher education—double the rate of a decade ago and extraordinary in this area 15 miles from Mexico where three-quarters of the households earn less than $10,000. “To see a whole community change its way of thinking,” says Guajardo, 38, “from expecting mediocrity to expecting people to go places, that’s a priceless reward.”

Guajardo insists that he is not alone in helping to turn things around. In 1997 he and four others—including his wife, teacher Yvonne, 38—created the school’s year-round Llano Grande (“great plains”) Center for Research and Development, where students collect oral histories, run a radio station, make documentary films and even work to improve the water supply. Such extracurricular activities help foster a sense of heritage, beef up college applications and boost confidence—crucial for kids thousands of miles from home coping with culture shock. “People bring up certain authors or classical music, and I don’t always understand,” says Jason Rodriguez, 20, a Brown sophomore majoring in computer science. “It does make me feel kind of dumb and weird, but the feeling doesn’t last.” Instead, Rodriguez strives to enlighten non-Latino friends about his background. “They’re intrigued,” he notes, “with some of the simple stuff I take for granted, like breakfast tacos.”

Funding for the $500,000-a-year center—and for some student scholarships—comes from grants. Guajardo has the students do the grant applications and manage the money themselves, good experience for college and beyond. “Our kids’ résumés are very, very substantive,” he says.

Guajardo found his calling at an early age, sitting in the lap of his father, José, a Mexican field hand who left school after fourth grade and moved to Elsa with his wife, homemaker Julia, and their four sons when Frank was 6. José would read the story of a peasant boy named Pablito who went to the city to continue his education. “Pablito came back home to help develop his village,” says Guajardo, “and that’s what I did.” After completing his master’s in history at University of Texas, Austin, and studying abroad at Oxford’s Brasenose College, Guajardo joined EEHS. He soon concluded that his students’ greatest need was “exposure, to break the isolation, both geographic and mental.”

His former students agree. Israel Rocha, Class of ’96, went all the way to Washington, D.C., where he’s press secretary for U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa. The tour, says Rocha, 25, who earned a political science degree from Columbia, “made us realize that these schools were attainable.” For some, the journey ultimately led them home. Ernesto Ayala, 25, majored in economics and international relations at Brown, washing dishes 20 hours a week to help pay his way. After snagging his B.A. in 2001, he returned to EEHS to teach. “I could be working at a corporation, making much more money,” he says, “but something would be missing. The power a teacher has is incredible.”

Susan Horsburgh

Anne Lang in Elsa