EL PASO, Texas -- Ysleta High School sits at the southern edge of this desert town, just three miles from the Mexican
border in a neighborhood of flat adobe houses that is constantly shaken by gang and drug violence.
More than half its 2,500 students live below the poverty line. About 95 percent of them are Latino, and some first walk through the doors unable to speak one word of English.
When Robert Parks took over as principal nine years ago, he never waved those troubles as a white flag of surrender; instead they have fueled his desire to overcome. That desire has spread throughout the decaying halls of Ysleta and led to astonishing achievements.
This year, they have reached an academic milestone.
Five of Ysleta's seniors, all of them Hispanic, have been accepted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- thought to be the largest contingent of students ever to be admitted to the prestigious university from a general attendance public high school.
"This is an amazing achievement," says John Hammond of MIT's admissions office. "It's unusual to have two students admitted from the same general high school."
Of the 7,000 high school seniors who apply to MIT each year, only 1,000 are admitted. And Mr. Hammond says affirmative action plays no part in the selection. "It's just that these are a group of extremely bright kids," he says.
The five celebrated achievers -- Liliana Ramirez, 17; Alicia Ayala, 18; Enrique Arzaga, 17; Jesus A. Martinez, 16; and David Villarreal, 18 -- make up an articulate, giggly group. All plan to pursue scientific and technical careers. Most of them come from homes of laborers, and all except Jesus, whose father died several years ago, have both parents living at home.
Their feat caps several years of progress for Ysleta. Last year, its students were awarded more than $3 million in scholarships to institutions ranging from the University of Texas at El Paso to Stanford, Yale and Harvard.
Ysleta students have consistently been finalists in state and city academic competitions. Students in their agriculture program have ranked among the best in the country in various competitions. And Mr. Parks, an ebullient white-haired man, beams when he explains that his students are ranked among the city's best golf and tennis players.
"No one associates golf with Ysleta," he says. "Those are country club sports. But our kids just keep surprising people.
"I'm so proud," he adds with a grin. "This is such a unique place."
Over 68 percent of Ysleta's students live at or below the poverty level. And the school spends only about $2,800 per pupil. Baltimore city, the poorest school district in Maryland, spends $4,614.
Only in recent years have special funds been set aside by the Ysleta Independent School District -- one of two school systems in El Paso -- for major renovations to Ysleta's 60-year-old red brick building.
How, then, does such a deteriorating school with a large population of gang members and pregnant girls produce such driven students -- especially with nearly empty coffers?
"We don't use money as an excuse to fail like other schools," said Jesus, one of the seniors headed for MIT, with most of his tuition covered by scholarships and grants. "We just learn how to do things without money. We've become very resourceful."
And the students are rich positive reinforcement. They are pushed by parents, teachers and, most importantly, each other. At Ysleta, unlike many inner city schools, it's cool to be smart.
"When I walk through the halls, everyone congratulates me," said David, whose father is a civilian accountant at Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army base. "I have all kinds of friends here -- athletes, really smart kids, and I even get along with gang members.
"No one has ever offered me drugs, and no one makes fun of me for being smart."
There is a strong sense of pride in the halls of Ysleta. Mr. Parks, who has worked in El Paso schools for most of his career, declared the school a "neutral zone" where gang battles are not tolerated. He didn't issue severe punishments to troublemakers -- only two students have been expelled since he took over. And while drive-by shootings are frighteningly common at other schools -- El Paso has the worst gang violence in Texas -- there has only been one shooting at Ysleta.
"The gang members go to school here, and there are shootings in this area, but nothing on school grounds," he says. "I don't know exactly how we've done it. Maybe we've just been lucky."
He adds that the Latino cultural traditions teach respect for authority, making the youngsters less dangerous and more receptive to advice and knowledge from counselors and teachers.
Liliana, a computer whiz and aspiring architect, reflects the spirit of Ysleta. She clings proudly to the struggles of her past as she presses on toward a more grand future.
Born in Juarez, Mexico, El Paso's sister city across the Rio Grande, Liliana had lived in this country only for a few hours when she first entered Ysleta three years ago.