Finding "Hope" In Middle School

Michelle Miller is a CBS News correspondent based in New York.
From the outside, it looks like any other three-story pre-war brick building, the kind that harkens back to the little red school house where simplicity is the order of the day.

But walk in and what you feel is community, middle school girls who really get one another.

They have a lot in common, most are children of immigrants, most are from families struggling to earn a living, and most admit if not for the Esperanza Academy, they're not sure where they'd be.

They've gotten in by chance – there are just 80 slots, each won by lottery for the opportunity to attend class 11 hours a day, 11 months a year.

They eat three meals here, pray here and complete their homework here. Even parents are required to volunteer two hours a week. Add a smaller class size of 10 students or less and that's what makes this school so different.

School has become a second home to these girls, who say the respect demanded from them is in turn given back.

One student named Rosalia says she was the loud one at her old public elementary school – always talking with little of substance to say. But at Esperanza, that was one sign she was a leader who needed direction.

Catherine had trouble separating her frustrations at home from challenges at school. Now she says she has focus: "I don't bring my problems from one place to the next. I stay in the present." Pretty impressive conversation for a 10-year-old.

For many girls their age and background, Lawrence, Mass., is a challenge. Lawrence has one of the highest teen-birth rates and lowest graduation rates in Massachusetts - and the numbers are getting worse.

But Esperanza is bucking that trend. Students' reading levels have jumped an average of two grade levels since the school opened two years ago. They're part of the NativityMiguel Network of Schools, a private organization with schools that beat the national average of kids who graduate high school by 21 percent – and double the number of students that go on to college.

The school's founder, Laurie Bottiger, opened the school two years ago believing "it's our responsibility to make sure we provide social equity by making sure the inner-city, the poor kids in the inner-city have the same opportunities."

Those opportunities range from music to horseback riding to fieldtrips to art … to anything that opens a door to something new. It's offered them a chance to look beyond their circumstances.

And the relationship doesn't end at graduation. Bottinger says she'll follow these girls to ensure the get past high school and college.

Here they're taught to believe in themselves and the promise of Esperanza. That very name means "hope."