Jan. 15, 2009 -- Some of the students at Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy in New York have backstories suggesting a deck stacked against future successes.
Joshua Horn comes from a single-parent home where his mother has an illness that prevents her from working and is on welfare.
Joshua Arce, who also is being raised by a single mother, has added responsibilities, helping to care for his little brother. At one time, his family contended with homelessness.
"I can slightly remember it," said Arce, who hopes to become a computer engineer. "The only reason ... the memory isn't vivid is because my mother tried to put the impression that we weren't going through what we were going through."
But what Horn, Arce and nearly all the students at BETA have in common goes beyond a desire to succeed: They excel at a school powered by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The school takes children from some of the region's toughest environments and aims them toward the stars — all for less money than it takes to run a traditional public school.
Principal Rashid Davis oversees the school, which focuses on small class size and demanding curriculum.
"[He] has really set up this rigorous curriculum and made it work," said Melinda Gates. "It just reminds me it takes these super committed adults to not only tell you, 'You can do it,' but to show you pathways."
Davis credits his pupils' success to a network of people.
"Even though you only see me as the principal, I am working with a bevy of teachers, two assistant principals, parents of 18 different departments, who I reach out [to], because it really does take a village," Davis said.
And the students said it makes a real difference having a community that supports their educational goals.
"The teachers, they're amazing," said Sha-Kora Williams, a student who will graduate with four science regents. "They will take time of their day to help you in whatever you need."
Horn added, "You can even call them. They give you their phone numbers, their cells, their e-mail addresses. You can call them for any type of extra credit — tutoring in any type of subject."
Going Beyond Technical Education
Gates said it is important students cultivate a variety of skills.
"The jobs that are in our economy need a lot of different skills," she said, "and so, kids still need the fundamentals. They still need English. They need to know how to read really well and write and take apart, you know, critical thinking."