At Richmond High School during school hours, there is always a police car parked just off the sidewalk that leads to the front doors. Just past the auditorium and administration office, an iron fence stands between visitors and the rest of the school. Many students call it “the prison wall.” This is where more than 1,500 Bay Area teenagers receive their high school education.
Senior Andre Taylor says Richmond High has students of all colors: “Everyone's here. We have white people, a lot of Latino and Latina people, black people.” As an African American, he’s a part of the school’s second biggest ethnic group. Richmond High School is predominantly Latino, at 75 percent. Regardless, Andre talks to everyone and he loves going to school. Mostly everyone knows Andre. He’s gregarious, friendly, and he even hosted the school’s multicultural night.
“People here, for the most part, are really nice,” says Andre. He says he didn’t expect that at first. Many people don’t.
Richmond High School is mostly known for gangs, violence, and low academic performance. Last year only 19 percent of the students who took the High School Exit Exam passed for English; only 18 percent passed for math. The school is also known nationally as the place where a 15-year-old-girl was gang raped in 2009 after a Homecoming dance.
Andre knows the dangers well. He was accosted during his sophomore year and accused of living in the wrong part of town. Andre explains: “Two guys come up to my friend and point guns at him and was like, "Where you from blah, blah, blah, blah... all that.”
Andre wasn’t physically hurt, but for about a year after the event, he says he was afraid to leave the house. The threat of violence was just one obstacle he has faced while growing up. The other is the lack of a stable home.
“I haven't been with my mother since I was one and I've been in the actual foster care system since I was five,” Andre says. Since then, he’s lived in seven homes. “But the one I am in right now, I've been with them since I was eight. So, going on the tenth year right now,” says Andre. He says he’s felt ashamed of his housing situation in the past and hasn’t always wanted to talk about it.
When Andre was six, one of his foster mothers verbally, physically, and mentally abused him. He says the only thing good about the home was that it had books. He read, and eventually wrote, as a form of escape. In fact, he’s dabbled in various art forms throughout his life, like acting, and drawing.
Andre is almost through with high school. He has a solid GPA of 3.6 and his SAT scores are 1530 out of 2400, slightly better than average. Andre wants to go to college, major in English, and become a teacher or professor. In November, he got started by sending in his college applications. He has applied to multiple colleges across the nation. “I have applied to four states, four UCs, and five private colleges – Harvard, Yale, University of Chicago, University of Southern California, and Sarah Lawrence.” His list includes some of the most competitive universities in the country. Getting admitted to one of those schools would be a leap for a kid from Richmond High School. About half of its students come from “socially disadvantaged” backgrounds and only about half of its graduates go on to college. So there aren’t a lot of people where Andre comes from who make it that far from home.
Andre Taylor’s home is on a cul de sac in Central Richmond. Every yard has a fence and every house has a security alarm system. There aren’t a lot of people walking around, but Andre’s home is full. His foster father and legal guardian, Jose Jesus Ramos, is originally from Mexico. “I am gonna be in his life until he says, ‘That's it,’" says Ramos.
Ramos and his wife have been foster parents for 14 years. Altogether, including their biological sons, they live with seven teenagers. The family keeps two diplomas visibly posted on the front table. They serve as inspiration in the face of adversity. Foster kids graduate at a rate 10 percent lower than their classmates. Next month, Andre’s diploma will be added to the display.
When asked about Andre going to college, Ramos says he feels proud, but he stresses. “When he come here and he was into the process of middle school, I heard a lot of negative things about him,” Ramos recalls. “People were saying about Andre that, when he turns fourteen, he's gonna be in ‘juvy.’ I was like wow, why? Because you say so?” Andre admits that he “was suspended of times from school for really dumb things.” At five suspensions, Andre was rambunctious in class and a bit hard to handle.
Andre reveals a little more about his past: “I was also in [non-severe handicap] classes for awhile because people thought that I needed to be in them.” From grades two through six, Andre was kept in classes for kids with special needs. “There was like a tag on his chest: ‘I’m a foster and I’m a bad kid.’ That's how people were looking into him,” says Andre’s foster father.
Ramos also says he tries to raise Andre with the understanding that when people tell him things about himself, he has the power to prove them wrong. An eighth grade teacher did the same thing – and Andre started to turn his life around. “I think it's from my past, when people are all like: ‘Oh you can't do this, you can't do that, you're stupid.’ That got to me and I was like you know what I can do this,” says Andre.
Andre has a Justin Bieber poster hung up in his room. When asked about his role models, he will admit one of them is, in fact, Justin Bieber, along with Michael Jackson. Andre wants to be a star. And he pursues his own artistic talents through weekly with singing lessons in downtown Richmond at The East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. He’s on a full scholarship there as part of a program that helps low income kids learn fine arts. He plans to try out for the TV talent show X-Factor next year, when he feels more ready. He’s got big dreams and he is inspired by his family and by the support he finds from teachers and counselors at Richmond High School.
At the Career and College center, dozens of students filter through everyday. Angelica Arriega, who works there, says she’s has “a few kids that actually call [her] mom.” Arriega is with a nonprofit called College is Real, which serves about 100 kids. Grants and donations cover its $100,000 budget, which pays for college testing and application fees. The program is one of four in the counseling center that helps students with college applications.
Arriega says many students don’t enter Richmond High School thinking that they will continue on to higher education. “I don't think they're necessarily making the connection that they can go to school. They just see Richmond High as a negative place that they should try to avoid,” she says with a tone of distress.
Nikolitsa Paranomos works for two nonprofits: Destination College and the Early Academic Outreach Program. She splits her time between Richmond and neighboring De Anza High. She claims there is a certain tenacity and philosophy that goes with college counseling. “Consistency and follow through and sincerity is really important and I think the problem with my position is that I’m in two places at once. [Students] don't really care if you’re the most on point college advisor,” Paranomos admits. “It's if you’re there that means a lot – just being there physically so they can come to you.”
Krista Jann runs the counseling center, working with about a third of Richmond’s students, including Andre Taylor. She says part of her job is fundamentally convincing kids to aspire.
At the end of March, Andre took a trip with a college prep program called Upward Bound. He hiked 14 miles on his first backpacking trip with the school. When he got back home, the letters from colleges had started to arrive. UC Berkeley, Andre’s top choice, came first. He did not get in. “That was my dream school,” he says with disappointment. “But it's okay.”
He still had many applications out, but then it got worse. “Then I got rejected by four more schools that day. And it didn't hit me until I got rejected by the fourth, I mean the fifth out of the five I got rejected by and I was like ‘Dang,’” Andre remembers.
Andre was accepted into UC Merced, which was the only UC to increase its acceptances this year. He made plans to go there and eventually warmed up to the idea.
That was until mid-May, when he found out he was accepted into UC Santa Barbara after being waitlisted. His simple response was: “It’s amazing.” That’s because UCSB is ranked by US News and World Report as one of the top 50 schools in the country. Getting in is something of a dream come true for Andre and still, he wasn’t sure. He’d be far from home, on his own, and he’d had trouble before when he didn’t feel supported.
In attempts to make a decision, Andre talked to family and friends. “I talked to my foster father. He just said. ‘You're 18 Andre, you should be able to do whatever you want. You should be able to take whatever risk you want. And you will see in the end whether it was a good decision or not. But I want you to make that decision.’ So I was like, ‘Okay.’ And that was that.”
Andre Taylor will leave Richmond soon. He says he’s loved his time here. It wasn’t always that way, but with some help, he started to find himself. And he’s got a chance, now, to become whatever he wants to be.