Aspire's startup academy sends off its first graduates

naustin@modbee.comJune 13, 2013 

    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin

— Six graduates took their ceremonial walk as the first graduating class of Aspire Vanguard College Preparatory Academy, requiring barely one chorus of "Pomp & Circumstance" to enter the hall and take their single row of seats.

Families raised cell phones to record the moment, settling themselves next to flowers and bunches of balloons. Whoops and claps echoed across the Petersen Event Center on Wednesday, a congenial send-off for a tightknit group.

The four young women and two young men helped mold the program, Principal Wesley Frakes said. "You helped us, making sure the school we're still developing will be the school you students want," he said.

The student-chosen speaker, English teacher Gary Rohwer, included anecdotes of every graduate in his speech — the quiet guy with the messy binder; the girl dreaming of college but struggling to read; the wordless one who blossomed; the defiant teen who turned it around.

Coming to a charter school "bydefinition was a choice," for parents, students and staff, Rohwer said. "We all made a decision to come together at Vanguard," he said.

These staunch few remained from a freshman class of 15 who drifted off to clubs and sports at larger schools, students said. Their choice was to stick together, focus on academics and yearly Shakespeare productions.

"All of us changed so much in four years. We grew up with each other," student body President Alycia Guerrero told the graduates.

Her mother, Linda Guerrero, said she switched her daughter to Aspire schools in middle school because she felt classes at her neighborhood school focused too much on English learners. The Aspire years included Spanish courses, "but it was one period, not the whole day," she said.

"I was nervous about the opportunities she would have," Guerrero said, but found the school challenged her daughter. Alycia Guerrero will be going to Willamette University in Oregon in the fall.

Grads Jennifer Corriente-Ruiz and Cathy Sanchez will be going to California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock.

Paul Eldridge II said his son, Paul Eldridge III, will be the first in the family to go to college. "We just wanted a better school for him. City schools are so crowded," Eldridge said. His son said he plans to study geology or archaeology at National Hispanic University in San Jose.

Emily Johnson will attend the same private Bay Area college and is also the first in her family to aim for a degree, said grandmother Janie Arroyo. High school at a startup wasn't always smooth sailing, Arroyo said, but going to a crowded Downey High football game with a friend convinced her granddaughter that Vanguard was the best place to be.

Graduate Lucas Evensen said he nearly went to a neighborhood school in sixth grade, but learned he'd have to repeat a year of math. "That didn't work for us," he said. Evensen said he plans to study engineering at the University of California at Davis.

He attended Aspire schools since kindergarten, another first the 34-campus public charter school system celebrated in its 13th year, said James Willcox, chief executive officer of Aspire Public Schools.

Willcox said his dad insisted the family's nine children all go to college. "I know not everyone has a chance to grow up in a college-for-certain house," Will- cox said, urging graduates to promise themselves to graduate from college by 2018.

"Give yourself the best shot you have to find what you love. There will be distractions, lots of them," Willcox said. "You're making a choice to have choices ahead of you."

His parting words: "Everyone in this room is looking forward to your next graduation."

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter @NanAustin,'All of us changed so much in four years' — student body President Alycia Guerrero

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