By AL CARTER
He was soaking wet as he stood there inside the front door of
the Community School Building, irrigating the linoleum with runoff from his rain-drenched clothes. Javier Quintanilla, consumed by
the elements, looked as forlorn and lost as any stray cat caught
in a cloudburst.
Yet, that was the day that Quintanilla, an 18-year-old stray from the Pasadena ISD graduation rolls, found himself -- for good.
Staff members helped him dry out that day, just over a month ago. Happily, none of his Community School classmates tried to spin the soggy scene into a joke.
"They all knew I rode my bike," Quintanilla says, "so I guess they understood."
Yet, that was the day Quintanilla wasn't sure if he understood. That was his day of doubt. The day that almost derailed his
dream of a high school diploma -- a dream that this week finally became reality.
That was the slick September morning when Quintanilla seriously questioned his decision to go back to school. He wondered whether enrolling at Community School, a district alternative campus that specializes in getting near-graduates across the finish line, had been the right thing to do.
Quintanilla's decision to return to school came with a dilemma -- transportation.
Rather than take a public bus to Community School, he decided to ride his bicycle - 50 minutes each way.
For the first month of class, he spent nearly two hours a day -- four days a week -- on the seat of his green Pacific Scorpio road bike. The first two weeks was all smooth cycling. Then it rained.
"It started pouring down, raining on me," he recalls. "It was real tough, and I said I don't know why I'm coming back to school. I said, well, I still got to come. I want to get my diploma. So I pushed it out and made it over here."
On Wednesday, Quintanilla completed the one-half credit of Algebra II he needed to graduate. Teachers and classmates arranged a party for Quintanilla and four other Community School students who have earned the diplomas just since the start of school on Aug. 24.
Officials will now send his certification to his home high school, Sam Rayburn, and a Rayburn diploma will be issued in his name. Once his graduation is official, U.S. Navy recruiters will accept his enlistment.
Sometime next year, Quintanilla will ship out for the Navy's Great Lakes training facility in Illinois.
"I'm going to be an interior communications electrician," he says.
"That's a long name for a telephone man."
Quintanilla has already memorized the list of things he's allowed to take.
And a sturdy shaving kit.
"It takes me about two hours to grow a beard," he laughs.
But his bike will stay parked at home, with an aunt and an uncle in Pasadena who two weeks ago gave him an alternative place to stay -- one closer to school. That enabled him to cut his bike commute from 50 minutes down to a half-hour.
Although he's leaving it behind, Quintanilla says, his bike will always be parked in his heart.
"It symbolizes that there are still people out there who care about me," he says. "Before, I didn't think that anybody cared about me at all."
Now Quintanilla seems to make another fan every time he turns around.
"He did not miss a single day, not one" says Tom Swan, director of the Community School. "He was always 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir,'" He was always just the most polite kid."
"I have never seen anyone as driven as that young man," says Donna Groce, the Community School math teacher who helped steer Quintanilla through his final slice of Algebra II.
"He not only came to class, he stayed for two periods - he stayed for the next class, as well. He had that driven to want to finish."
Community School, expanded this fall from its previous evenings-only schedule, has already made great strides in tapping into the hidden drive of many dropouts.
Sixty-six students have enrolled already this fall, and more are trickling in each week. Students are offered four daytime class sessions and can grab as much - or as little - as each needs to graduate.
"Some will say, 'I'm not going back to high school for just two classes,'" Swan says. "But here they can take only those subjects they need to take."
A senior last spring at Rayburn, Quintanilla found out just before graduation that he had failed the second half of Algebra II and would not graduate with his class.
"I had a really tough teacher and I just gave up on myself," he says. "I didn't see any future for myself. I was doing the wrong things, and I didn't see anything out there."
He moved in with an uncle, who pressed him into getting a job. Quintanilla decided to join the navy. In early August, he met with recruiters, who told him the same thing they had told him when he had inquired in the spring.
To enlist, he had to have a high-school diploma.
So in mid-August, he went back to Rayburn to register for another semester. While filling out the paperwork to re-enroll, a counselor told him about the new program at Community School and the possibility that he could finish up in weeks, not months.
"All right!" he said. "I'll do it!"
Quintanilla's biggest problem was how to get to school. He turned to his friends at the New Testament Christian Church in Pasadena for help.
Quintanilla, who played flute in the Rayburn band, had honed his musical skills at church singing in the choir. Now he let it be known that he needed a bike to get to school.
A couple who attend the church gave him one they had at home.
Quintanilla began his routine of 50-minute bike rides to school and home. To beat traffic, he began leaving at the crack of dawn, arriving at Community School at 7 a.m. - 90 minutes before the start of class.
"I noticed one day he wasn't doing very well," Groce says. "He wasn't really focused. I asked him about it and he said he hadn't had breakfast that morning. Well, I went to the vending machine and got something in him."
Soon other staff members were taking turns picking up food for Javier on their way to work.
"He's actually gained weight," Groce says with delight.
"His pants fit now!"
Well, at least when they're dry.
What matters more to Quintanilla is that Community School turned out to be a perfect fit for his career goals.
"A lot of people who gave up on me have noticed how much I've changed," he says. "They're proud of me now. And that's a great feeling."
* * *
Quintanilla is one of five students who have earned their diplomas through Community School since the start of the school year. The first was Henri Mestizo, a Dobie student who graduated two weeks ago.
Janet Hernandez earned her diploma from Memorial High. Married with a nine-month-old son, she made up a full credit of English in night school and then picked her missing half-credit, in Economics, at Community School. She plans to continue her education at San Jacinto College and hopes to be an elementary school teacher one day.
Njarie Thomas earned his diploma from Dobie. He made up his full credit of senior English and his half-credit in Government at Community School. He plans to attend San Jacinto College and then Baylor in pursuit of a degree in bio-chemistry.
Melissa Torres also earned her degree from Dobie. She made up two half-credits of English, one from her sophomore year, and a business credit at Community School. She says she'll decide soon whether to enroll at San Jacinto College or join the army.
Javier Quintanilla parks his bike in front of Community School (right); Community School math
teacher Donna Groce (upper left) helps Quintanilla try on a Sam Rayburn graduation gown;
Quintanilla and fellow Community School grad Njarie Thomas (lower left) celebrate
at the school's graduation party this week.