M e r c u r y N e w s c o m   |   San Jose Mercury News
Holiday Wish Book
Education: A ticket out 
High school student needs help to move forward

Before high school, Marlen was a quiet, shy teenage girl who kept to herself. But the combination of a troubling home life, falling in with the wrong crowd and self-esteem issues quickly turned Marlen into a teenager out of control, according to Alum Rock Counseling Center's Crisis Intervention for Youth program (CIPY).

By her junior year Marlen was regularly skipping school, neglecting her schoolwork, and ignoring rules set by her parents.

Now 17, Marlen is a senior at San Jose High School and will be the first in her family to graduate from high school.

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(Dai Sugano / Mercury News)

By Lisa M. Krieger / Mercury News

Marlen Carrasco greeted a recent visitor to her high school with a smile, a firm handshake and confidence — newly learned skills that are helping turn her life around.

Only a year ago, the 17-year-old was shy at school and angry at home.

New to San Jose High School, she missed her friends at Fremont High School. Then she fell into the wrong crowd, she says. She often arrived late to school. Or didn't attend at all.

Her grades fell to F's. Homework went neglected. "I'd mean to do it the next day, but then it didn't happen," she recalls.

Yet she was too reserved to ask teachers for help. Self-reliant, "I was used to figuring things out on my own," she says.

There wasn't much help at home. Her immigrant parents were worried, but overwhelmed. They don't have much education, and can't help much with school work. They are continually anxious about money. They work hard and are often weary; her father is a chef at a Mexican restaurant and her mother works nights, cleaning office buildings. And the house is crowded with three siblings, as well as an older sister's baby and boyfriend.

Last year, Marlen no longer felt part of the family.

"There was a lot of drama," she says, as routine disagreements turned into ugly arguments. Seeking escape, Marlen came and went as she pleased, flouting authority. Her parents no longer trusted her.

Finally, her parents sought help after she failed to come home one night, and they resorted to calling her school the next morning to see if she had arrived safely. Marlen agreed to meet with counselor Aracelli Janini of the Alum Rock Counseling Center, whose Crisis Intervention for Youth program is designed to keep at-risk youth safe, in school and drug- and violence-free.

"You could tell she wanted someone to help her but she didn't know what direction to go," Janini says. "She was motivated. She wanted to succeed."

Together, they took small steps. Marlen learned to make eye contact when talking to people. They practiced ways to ask teachers for help. They discussed strategies for cooling down when tempers flared at home.

But Marlen did the hardest work all by herself. Last summer, to earn missing academic credits, she awoke before 6 a.m. to catch the bus and get to class at 7:30 a.m. She landed a cashier job at a fast-food restaurant in Sunnyvale, where she works Monday and Friday nights and all day Sunday. She spends some of her earnings on clothes for her younger brother and sister, or buys food for her family.

"I've learned to be responsible there," she says. "I'm nice to customers, explaining things to customers." She's careful giving change at the cash register. "Money can't go missing, or it's on you," she says.

Those skills also help in school, where her grade point average has climbed from 2.0 to 2.83, and she's hanging out with more responsible friends than when she first got to San Jose High. Her favorite class is physics: "I like that math," she says. "It's a challenge." She's consistently finishing her homework and is well on her way toward a diploma — which will make her the first in her family to graduate from high school.

Her sights are now set on admission to Evergreen Valley College, where she'd like to study to become a medical assistant.

But she'll need a $500 laptop computer, as there's no computer at home. And she'll need transportation. While she's saving for a car, a $100 gift card for a one-year VTA bus pass would help. And her textbooks will be expensive. With $25 gift cards to Target and Walmart, or $50 for groceries, she would feel less stress to support the family. Wish Book readers can help Marlen reach her goals with in increments of $25. The hard work has been worth it, Marlen says. With just a little more help, she's prepared for future sacrifice.

After years of witnessing her family's low wages and crowded house, "I know it's better to have a real career," she says.

Each $25 donation will build a fund to help Marlen achieve her goals

Comments about Wish Book stories? E-mail wishbook@mercurynews.com or call coordinator Leigh Poitinger at 408-920-5972.

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