Can Bill Gates Rescue Evelyn Cabrera?

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

Evelyn had always known her parents had problems. For as long as she could remember, she had shared a bedroom with her mother while her brother, Mark, had shared a room with her father. But one day, Debbie announced she was leaving. She and Ismael had been high school sweethearts and had married young—too young, probably. They had no money even with her full-time job and the overtime he earned as a UPS driver. The stress was becoming too much for her, she told her husband. Ismael, soft-spoken with tired eyes behind his wire-rimmed glasses and a round face and diminutive height equal to Evelyn's, pleaded with her to stay. He couldn't convince her, however, so she left—without her children.

The most confusing part of the divorce for Evelyn and Mark was that, unlike the other kids they knew whose parents weren't married, the children wouldn't be living with their mother. Ismael had gotten custody and Evelyn knew her mother hadn't put up much of a fight. Ismael couldn't believe how quickly his ex-wife relinquished custody of their children. He thought she was treating them like pieces of furniture to be divided between them. Three months after the divorce, Evelyn, Ismael, and Mark were evicted from their apartment and moved in with Ismael's mother.

Six months later, toward the end of eighth grade, Evelyn met her father's new girlfriend, Tina, who, with her 10-year-old son, the same age as Mark, would be moving in with them because she was pregnant. The family then moved out of Ismael's mother's home and into the third floor of the Morris Park townhouse.

Evelyn Cabrera in the doorway of Bronx Guild High School, her alma mater.
photo: Fiona Aboud
Evelyn Cabrera in the doorway of Bronx Guild High School, her alma mater.


See also:
Lost and Found in the Chalkboard Jungle
A Bronx kid's year in the Bill Gates experiment
Photo Slideshow

Ismael agonized over his daughter's unhappiness and the cloudy prospects for her future. He knew she was smart, but also knew she had gone astray at school, and he was frustrated with her picking fights with him and her classmates. He hoped high school would give her a fresh start, and when he heard of the new small schools opening the same year Evelyn was beginning high school, he made sure she ranked the new schools at the top of her high school application form. Evelyn, too, knew she wanted to go to a small school since she had been going to a small private middle school. When she read about the Bronx Guild, she liked how small the classes were going to be and that she would spend two to three days per week doing an internship. She also read something about some kind of camp she would go to. That sounded fun—she had gone to overnight camps when she was younger. Evelyn believed the Bronx Guild would be the best high school for her. She didn't get in at first after the high school selection lottery, so her grandmother, an aide at a Bronx elementary school, wrote a letter to the principal and pleaded with him to accept her granddaughter. The letter worked and Evelyn was in. She and her father hoped the school would be what Evelyn needed to return to her old self.

On an August evening in 2002, a few weeks before the first day of school, Joan Ruley, one of the original Bronx Guild teachers, knocked on Evelyn's family's apartment door. The home visit would be the first of seven, a component of Bronx Guild principal and founder Michael Soguero's vision. Before the school year started, Soguero wanted Bronx Guild faculty to go to incoming freshmen's homes to meet parents and explain the structure and philosophy. The school would eventually have between 200 and 300 students, with no more than 20 assigned to one teacher. They would participate in creating their own coursework and do internships two to three days each week. All would leave with enough credits to apply to college.

Evelyn opened the door and rolled her eyes at the sight of Joan. What was this teacher doing here? "OK, I'll get my dad," she told her future math teacher. Joan was struck by how young and immature Evelyn seemed, even for a 14-year-old. Evelyn was easily distracted and spoke in a high-pitched, squirrelly voice. Joan listened as Evelyn's father confided that he just wasn't sure how Evelyn would do in high school because she had so much trouble focusing. After she pulled out of her withdrawn phase, Evelyn had then become somewhat unruly at school, talking all the time and arguing with teachers and classmates. He told Joan he hoped his daughter would settle down once she started high school.

Once school started, Joan understood what Ismael meant when he described his daughter's behavior. Evelyn was hyper in class, wouldn't listen to teachers, and always seemed more interested in getting attention from boys than doing any work. "Who is this girl?" Joan wondered to herself.

Evelyn got off to a bad start with her new classmates too. The second month into school, all of the freshmen had to go on a wilderness trip with Outward Bound, and that's when Evelyn's troubles with other students began.

Miles away from the familiar sounds of emergency sirens or fighting siblings, Evelyn and her fellow freshmen trudged single file along a Harriman State Park hiking trail about 30 miles north of New York City. Their 40-pound backpacks, holding all the food and clothes they needed for the three-day trip, tested their balance. Only their unsteady feet crunching the orange and red leaves and the occasional declarations of "My back hurts" or "I'd give anything for buffalo wings" broke the unfamiliar stillness in the crisp late-October air.

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