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Oakland Student Rising Above Poverty, Gets College Scholarship Thanks To 'Better Chance'

OAKLAND (KPIX) -- When Alejandro Arechiga earned a scholarship to the prestigious College Prep High School in Oakland, it was like winning the lottery—except he won it with his intelligence not luck. He loves the school with it's beautiful, peaceful campus landscaped with trees and flowers and even a small waterfall. "It's heaven here," he says.

But most of all, he loves the learning. "The expectations here for college are 'you're going to college. You're going to go to a 4 year institution and you're probably going to do very well,'" Alejandro says.

Alejandro's English teacher, Andrea Tinnemeyer, has watched him rise to the occasion. "He's constantly looking for ways to get better, for ways to improve," she says. "He's not satisfied with being as he is. He's always pushing himself."

Alejandro's scholarship came through a non-profit program called A Better Chance, and the name says it all. Because when Alejandro takes the bus home to East Oakland it is like traveling to another world, where the focus is on survival, not education. He has to be alert walking from the bus stop home.

"There's gangs roaming the streets and the possibility that you might end up dying, just on the street because of a stray bullet, as has happened with many people," he says.

In fact, there were 39 murders in East Oakland last year, plus 865 aggravated assaults. The fear of crime is evident everywhere- razor wire fences, graffiti covered walls and metal guard rails on windows..

The grinding poverty is like the dust in the air--homeless people pushing shopping carts full of their bedding, men standing around idly near the liquor stores, mothers who look like teenagers pushing a baby stroller with another toddler in hand. Litter piles up near street curbs and black plastic bags full of garbage are randomly dumped in parks or empty lots.

For Alejandro's family, five people live in a two-bedroom apartment. Alejandro's parents divorced, and his single mom works very long hours as a house cleaner.

"She comes home tired and it's like, it's been so many years of the same thing going on, just work and work and work," Alejandro recalls. "It just definitely makes me want to strive to be better so I can help her out."

And he does help: Alejandro often does the cooking, and he's tasked with making sure his little brother does his homework.

Tinnemeyer knows Alejandro's living space has made schoolwork hard. "He has a small apartment, he doesn't have a place to do his work, he doesn't have quiet to do his work… It's an entirely different universe."

The boys sleep on a bunk bed in the front room, and money is always short. "Rent is $900, and my mom makes maybe a little more than $1000… So we don't do luxuries," Alejandro says.

Tinnemeyer says living paycheck to paycheck means more than just no luxuries. She has noticed there is often "not enough money to buy school supplies. Not enough money to get a snack if he's hungry."

Meanwhile back at school, some kids drive expensive cars to school and talk about their family vacations, and overseas trips. They can afford tutoring at home and their parents can buy guidebooks to help study for the S.A.T.

It would be hard for most teenagers to navigate these two worlds—a tony private school, and a tiny apartment in East Oakland—but Alejandro says something his mother taught him has helped: "be true to yourself", she tells him. And at school, he says he's learned something else: "knowing yourself knowing your story, embracing your story. Being proud of who you are. I guess that's one of the things that we emphasize here a lot."

Those lessons are part of the reason he is able to carry himself with a quiet dignity you almost never see in someone so young. He has learned to accept help graciously. "There have been families here that know of our situation and sometimes they'll give us clothes they don't need or sometimes it will be a box of food or vegetables," Alejandro says. "My deepest thanks to them because they've definitely helped us out… It meant a lot."

"He's grounded enough to know that money doesn't define him and have a sense that other things are more important," Tinnemeyer says.

KPIX 5 News reporter Wendy Tokuda asked him, "What helps you rise above?"

Alejandro knows immediately. "Education is key," he says. "It's something my mom has told me and something that I guess I live by… It's that search for knowledge" that keeps him going.

Alejandro already been accepted at Williams College in Massachusetts.

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