TACOMA — On Vincenzo Di Salvo’s last day of class, he strolled down the blue-and-gold Stadium High School halls with a big smile on his face, high-fiving friends and saluting teachers. He wore a candy graduation lei and a black-and-red honors cord around his neck.

Di Salvo, 18, graduated from high school Thursday evening, though it’s an accomplishment he wasn’t sure he’d get to celebrate.

Family conflicts, financial struggles, gang violence and homelessness almost kept him from accepting a diploma. But in the fall, he plans to attend the University of Arizona  his top choice  and become the first in his family to attend college.

“I’m ready for my next chapter,” he said. 

While teachers and counselors say Di Salvo has done extraordinarily well, thousands of other students in Washington scramble to find stable housing and to stay in school.

Despite a push by the Legislature to offer more in-school support and housing resources, the number of students who are homeless or unstably housed has grown. During the 2017-18 school year, 40,365 students identified as homeless, according to state education data, up nearly 20 percent in four years.

About 36% of homeless kids were chronically absent last year, and 28% dropped out of school. Only about half graduated on time.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

Di Salvo moved to Washington from Phoenix as a kid, after a gang-related drive-by shooting left bullet holes in his family’s windows and furniture. They were barely scraping by when they arrived in Tacoma.

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At the beginning of his sophomore year, he was suspended from his first high school for getting in a fight with a football teammate. The teammate’s family later pressed felony charges, requiring Di Salvo to complete community service and pay a $1,800 fine, said his mother, Cristina Di Salvo.

He also had a rocky relationship with his parents, he said. His father, who stayed behind in Phoenix, came in and out of his life, and he argued with his mother and grandmother until, after a screaming match in October 2016, he got kicked out of the house.

Di Salvo was 15, about to start at a brand-new school — and homeless.

“That was painful for all of us to watch him go through that,” said his mother, a single mom of six who works in the medical records department at Tacoma’s St. Joseph Medical Center. “He was having a hard time listening to anybody. He got real ugly and angry with us.”

For 10 months, Di Salvo couch-surfed and stayed with friends and relatives, but spent most nights sleeping behind the dumpster at his former middle school, he said. He covered himself with jackets to stay warm and woke up at 5 a.m. to start his day before anyone saw him.

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Once he transferred to Stadium, he stopped going to school regularly, opting instead to make money by working landscaping jobs and selling drugs. All the money he earned went right back to his family, he said. He was determined to send food, clothes and even Christmas presents to his younger siblings.

By the end of the year, he had failed five classes, he said.

“But he always wanted to go on to higher education. He knew he wanted to move forward. He just didn’t know what steps to take,” said Pam Campbell-Frazier, who coached Di Salvo in middle school through the Edge Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit that mentors students with learning challenges and difficult childhood experiences. 

The August before his junior year, Di Salvo’s mom got her own place and asked him to move back in, and since then, he’s thrown himself into academics and school activities.

He raised his GPA from a low of 1.3 to a 3.8 by the end of junior year. He was on his school’s wrestling, football, basketball and baseball teams. He also plays the saxophone and starred in two of the school’s plays this year. And he’s active in several clubs, including TRIO, a federal outreach program for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Through all the ups and downs, he got himself out of it,” said Stadium Principal Kevin Ikeda, who met Di Salvo three years ago. “That’s why I’m so proud of him. Everything he’s attained, he’s earned.”

He barely sleeps, Di Salvo said with a laugh, but it’s all worth it.

Di Salvo was happy and energetic, but focused, said John Grevstad, his former English teacher. “Social kid, but would isolate himself in the room to work.”

The English class, Grevstad said, was a University of Washington course that allows high-school students to earn college credit if they do well. By the end of the year, Di Salvo could cite sources, back up his arguments and analyze research topics, Grevstad said — and he earned the UW credit.

“I’m just so proud of him,” his mom said. “He’s worked through so many obstacles.”

Now, Di Salvo’s goals are clear: He wants to double major in anthropology and history and minor in musical performance and sports management in college. One day, he wants to become an actor, a singer, an anthropologist, a professional athlete and, in 2036, the president of the United States.

While family and friends consistently checked in with Di Salvo, Ikeda said, the drive to succeed always came from Di Salvo himself.

“I tried to support him early,” Ikeda said, “but once he got going, I was just a cheerleader.”