No one had their back. As Osbaldo Hernandez looked around Bellevue's Interlake High School, he saw Hispanic students growing discouraged...

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No one had their back.

As Osbaldo Hernandez looked around Bellevue’s Interlake High School, he saw Hispanic students growing discouraged, starting to skip class and then not going at all.

Without a high-school diploma, college wasn’t even a dream.

“I see it a lot in school,” Hernandez said. “Students drop out, become part of gangs, feel they don’t have support or anyone pushing them to accomplish their goals.”

So last fall Hernandez, 17, organized his fellow Hispanic students to raise academic achievement, graduate from high school and go on to college. They did it by encouraging each other to show up for class and turn in homework, by meeting twice a month to research college options and financial aid, and by seeking support from parents, school counselors and volunteers to navigate the application process.

Hernandez called his Interlake group ELITES — Estudiantes Latinos Internacionales Trabajando por una Educación Superior — International Latino Students Working Toward Higher Education.

Looking back over their senior year, the students now agree that the turning point was what Hernandez called the “Grand Opening” of ELITES, a potluck held Nov. 2, the traditional Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead.

The district paid for invitations and food. Hernandez asked Spanish-speaking parents to call other parents and tell them their presence was crucial. Out of 32 seniors, 28 came, most with at least one parent. Hernandez’s mother cooked 80 tamales for the guests.

After dinner, the students excused themselves and talked about what it would take to bring up their grades, make up missing credits and complete the classes needed to graduate in June.

Then they returned to their families and, one by one, promised to finish high school, continue their education, and make a difference in their lives.

Unexpectedly, their parents also rose to speak. They told of their own sacrifices to come to this country and how little schooling their own families had been able to afford. Most had to work to help support their families. None had finished high school.

“We will support you,” the parents told their children, as they began to cry. “We don’t want you to waste this opportunity we have worked so hard for.”

“After that meeting, everything changed,” Alexis Aguilar said.

Her twin sister, Joanna, agreed. “We no longer felt like we were doing it alone.”

The students quickly got to work. They visited Bellevue Community College and Lake Washington Technical College. They looked up scholarships. They made timelines for the application process and reminded each other of approaching deadlines.

Rocio Gonzalez, who teaches Spanish at Interlake, said Hernandez’s inspiration was to draw on the Hispanic “culture of we.”

“In America, the emphasis is on individual success. Osbaldo’s idea was to create a place where students could do it together. The students worked on the same goals at the same time.”

Turning things around

Three years earlier, the Bellevue School District had looked at the lagging test scores of Hispanics and a dropout rate almost four times that of white students and tried to help. It organized a Latino student-leadership conference in 2005 and hosted a series of parent forums. It partnered with an Eastside Latino advocacy group and created a districtwide advisory board.

And still the Hispanic students at Interlake struggled to stay in school.

Aguilar, 17, said that by her senior year, she wasn’t doing homework and wasn’t going regularly to class.

“I thought nobody cared if I graduated or not,” she said.

Janeth Garcia started to skip classes and get bad grades. Her older brother, whom she looked up to, dropped out two years ago. She wondered if anyone would notice if she, too, just stopped going to school.

Some students feared that they were already too far behind. Many were enrolled in English Language Learning classes and had missed college requirements — such as four years of high-school English — as they tried to catch up.

Some said that counselors made assumptions that they weren’t college material. Others said the academic emphasis at Interlake assumes students know how to take the next step.

Despite the obstacles, nearly all of the Interlake students now share a success story. Aguilar, who had been on the verge of dropping out, plans to attend Everest College in Renton and become a dental assistant.

Angelica Monfeda plans to prepare for a career in health care at Bellevue Community College or Northwest University in Kirkland.

Maria Lopez, who was placed in a special-education class as a freshman because of a learning disability, will choose among Gonzaga University, St. Martin’s University and Western Washington University.

And all of them give credit to Hernandez.

sWhen some said their poor grades would make college impossible, Hernandez told them to apply to Bellevue Community College, which he advertised as one of the best community colleges in the country.

When college representatives visiting Interlake made the required personal essays seem intimidating, Hernandez told them to write about their dreams.

Ronna Weltman, a Bellevue Schools Foundation trustee who founded College Corps, a volunteer group that helps low-income and minority students navigate the college-admission process, said she was impressed by the support she saw Hernandez give other Hispanic students.

“I noticed him talking with all these kids. He encouraged them without telling them what to do. He was just there, helping,” she said.

Carrying the flag

Hernandez arrived in the United States at age 12, able only to count to seven in English. His father, Javier, left school at age 12 to work in the fields of Jalisco, Mexico. His mother, Evangelina, dropped out at age 14. She said that while school is free in Mexico, many poor families can’t afford the costs of books, supplies and uniforms.

Despite the poverty, Hernandez said his parents expected him to do well in school. Each week the top five students at his middle school carried the Mexican flag around the school plaza.

“I was always carrying the flag,” Hernandez said.

The Bellevue School District offers an intensive English-immersion program to immigrant students. Hernandez spent two years in Bellevue’s English Language Learner program and qualified for regular classes.

He will graduate next month with a prestigious International Baccalaureate degree from Interlake. He’s been accepted at his first choice, Whitman College in Walla Walla but hasn’t been given enough financial aid to attend. He also has been accepted at the University of Washington and Seattle University.

The school district worries about the future of ELITES once he graduates.

“It’s going to be hard to replace Osbaldo,” said Ann Oxrieder, community-outreach coordinator for Bellevue schools, citing his combination of leadership, humor and concern for others.

Hernandez resists any suggestion that he’s irreplaceable. He said his fellow students had the potential all along.

“They just needed someone who had their back, someone saying, ‘you can do this,’ ” he said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or