Can Bill Gates Rescue Evelyn Cabrera?

The journey of one high school senior through the small-school experiment of America's most generous philanthropist

As Evelyn Cabrera, a senior at Bronx Guild High School, sits down in October 2005 to write a college application essay about a meaningful life experience, she stares at a blank page in her notebook, the one where she handwrites all of her essays before typing them up on a school computer. Standing five feet four inches tall, with a round face, gray-blue eyes and light freckles on her nose and cheekbones, she appears younger than her 17 years.

She wears jeans and a plain T-shirt, nothing fancy, but she does make one fashion statement: large gold and silver hoop earrings with "Eevee"—her nickname—filling in the center.

Evelyn struggles with the essay, but not because she doesn't know what to write or because she isn't motivated. It's just that her mind wanders easily, from the prom to graduation to the senior trip—typical 17-year-old things that are much more fun to think about than the day her apartment building burned down.

But Evelyn has worked too hard over the past three years not to finish her college applications. She pulls her smooth, straight, almost waist-length dark-brown hair into a ponytail holder, scrunches over her desk, and forces herself to write.

There's always a time in your life when something unspeakable happens. It may be as positive as a new birth to the family or as negative as a death. Whatever the case may be, everyone has been through a meaningful experience. My experience has been one that I'll never forget.

Two years earlier, during the summer between her second and third years of high school, Evelyn had gone to her best friend Rubie's house to spend the night. Around six o'clock the next morning, Rubie woke her up and handed her the phone. It was Ismael, her father. "You need to go home," he told her. There had been a fire. Barely awake, she didn't really believe him, so she rolled over and fell back asleep. But 30 minutes later, she sat up in bed and realized what her father had told her. Evelyn quickly threw her clothes back into her overnight bag and took the next bus to Morris Park, where her family lived. The 20-minute ride seemed to take forever, as she imagined what her home would look like and wondered if her stuffed animals and poetry book were ruined.

When she walked up to the building, Evelyn stared at the black and gray pile of rubble and ash. Only a skeletal frame remained of what had been a three-family building. No one had been hurt, but her younger brother, Mark, had been taken away in an ambulance and her father had gone to work, leaving Evelyn to be calmed down by the firefighters and neighbors. She forced her way into the house and the first thing she saw was a box of macaroni and cheese, the only thing in the kitchen that the flames hadn't consumed. In her bedroom, which had been converted from a walk-in closet, all of her clothes, books, and stuffed animals had been destroyed. But Evelyn's poetry book, like the box of macaroni and cheese, lay untouched on the floor. She grabbed it and ran back outside. She didn't know what would happen next or where her family would live, but at least she had her poetry book.

image
Evelyn with Brian Ford, one of what Bronx Guild refers to as its "crew leaders"—a crucial element of the small-school experience.
photo: courtesy Evelyn Cabrera

After the fire, Evelyn and Mark went to live with their grandmother. Her father Ismael's live-in girlfriend, Tina, took her son from a previous relationship and Evelyn's one-year-old half sister, Victoria, and moved in with relatives. Her father moved to a studio apartment in New Jersey, though Evelyn's still not sure exactly where.

Now, as Evelyn continues with her essay, she writes that even though the fire trucks had carried away her hopes and dreams, she resolved to keep working hard in school. She promised herself that she would get into a good college and study hotel management so she could someday open her own "big-time hotel," as she described it.

Evelyn appears to have kept her resolution. She has maintained a B-plus average, been involved in several extracurricular activities, taken her SATs, passed her Regents exams, and is now finishing up her college applications. She has done everything right. It has been quite a feat considering not only her personal setbacks, but also the striking odds stacked up against New York City public high school students—less than half of whom graduate high school in four years, if at all. Of those, only one in four go on to college.


Politicians, education policy experts, teachers, and parents have been trying to improve the bleak outlook for the city's schools for decades. School reform has focused on everything from teacher recruitment and training to experimenting with private school vouchers and after-school programs. Most recently, policy makers have shifted their attention to creating new, small high schools—another controversial approach. As others debate the best ways to raise high school graduation rates and send more students to college, students like Evelyn Cabrera go on with their daily lives and responsibilities, unknowingly serving as subjects in yet another educational experiment and unaware of their role as central figures in a growing citywide—indeed, nationwide—debate.

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