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Cesar Chavez Academy Graduate Shares Tips for Success in School

It wasn't easy being an all-star student in Detroit, but Elizabeth Morales persevered thanks to grit, dedicated parents and a community of supporters. Now, she is offering advice for students to follow in her successful steps.

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When Elizabeth Morales graduated from Cesar Chavez Academy three years ago, more than half of the faces she started school with had disappeared.

"My high school (class) started out with more than 200 students," Morales says. "By the graduating class, we were down to 98. You lost more than 50 percent of the kids, from freshman to senior year. ... I knew a lot of high school dropouts."

In most cities, that number would be shocking. In Detroit, it's been the norm. Granted, things are getting better. Cesar Chavez's graduation rate last year was nearly 84 percent, according to the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information. And Detroit Public Schools' grad rate hit 65 percent in 2012 – its highest since 2006. But there is still work to be done.

Morales says her upbringing, support from family, help from community leaders and self-determination were key in her successes – and excluded her from being a stereotype or tragic statistic.

Instead, the 21-year-old is now a political science major, with a minor in Spanish, and in the midst of her senior year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The importance of education

Born in Chicago, Morales and her family moved to Southwest Detroit when she was 3. Her parents, Maria and David, immigrated to America from Michoacán, Mexico. They moved from the Windy City to the Motor City to provide a better life for Elizabeth and her now-18-year-old sister, Jacqueline.

Although neither of their parents completed high school, let alone attended college, it was important for their kids to understand there was only way to truly succeed.

"From a very young age, they instilled the thought that the only way you can get out of the 'hood, or the situation, is by education," Morales says. "My dad always said, 'That's your only way out, your only ladder. So do it.'"

The mentality prevalent in the Morales household wasn't the same across the board for some of her cousins, aunts, uncles or even among the Latino community, Morales says. "(But) it was super important for my sister and I to get an education. It was the No. 1 goal," she says. "It was never an option, and my parents were always very involved in school."

To say mom was involved in her daughters' schooling would be an understatement. She was the director of the Parent Teacher Association and volunteered at their middle and high schools. "You just couldn't get rid of her," Morales jokes. "She was everywhere."

Her mother didn't just talk the talk, either. She walked the walk, earning her General Education Development (GED) degree after Elizabeth graduated high school.

"She focused 100 percent on us when we were younger," Morales says. "It wasn't until we were older that she focused on herself and getting her education back. She's in another country, with a different language, she's studying for a huge test that people my age, who are born here, are taking. It was such an inspiration."

The challenge of excelling

Wanting to succeed and be educated hasn't been easy for Morales. Ever since middle school, she says she was called names such as smarty-pants and teacher's pet. Her only fault was she cared and wanted to do well.

"It's really hard when you know what you want and it's not on par with everyone else," she says. "When you actually do well in school and get good grades, you're singled out."

The education shock was made apparent after she came to Cesar Chavez her sophomore year. The experience was a stark contrast to what she had become accustomed to her freshman year at Allen Park Cabrini High, a Catholic school.

"If you were doing poorly in school, you were put on probation and it was a huge deal," she says. "The dean's list was very proudly shown. Then, you go to (Cesar Chavez), you do well, and people don't respond well to that."

Morales also felt the curriculum at Cesar Chavez Academy, a charter school run by The Leona Group and authorized by Saginaw Valley State University, wasn't as challenging as she needed.

"I felt like a lot of the teachers 'dumbified' the subjects and curriculum. I relearned everything I learned my first year at Cabrini over the next three years at CCA. I don't think I learned a single new thing, with the exception of maybe one or two classes."

Morales says she "faked it until I made it" and did her homework away from some classmates. Thankfully, she says she was around supportive adults a lot. The only extracurricular activity she participated in was soccer. Instead, her maturation came from being active in the community.

Morales says she enjoys being a voice for the youth and her community and was active in the Congress of Communities. The Detroit organization's mission is to provide leadership and facilitate collaboration of residents, youth and stakeholders to foster a vibrant and sustainable community.

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