Southern Lee student addresses national conference

Jul. 20, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

When thousands of teachers, principals and education policy-makers gathered in Philadelphia this week, all eyes turned for a short while to a rising senior at Southern Lee High School.

Addie Gonzalez was born in Mexico and moved to the United States when she was 6 months old. After living here nearly her whole life, the 17-year-old does have a work permit but still hasn’t received citizenship. Add on top of that two parents with little formal education taking care of her and four other siblings, and life has not always been easy.

But speaking to 2,500 people on Thursday at a meeting of the 24-state eastern division of educational program AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), the Sanford teen told the assembled crowd about how she has drawn inspiration from her and her family’s obstacles instead of letting those obstacles bring her down.

She is now looking at becoming the first person in her family to graduate high school and attend college. And she doesn’t want to stop there, with dreams of going to medical school and becoming a pediatrician.

“I guess I get that a lot from my dad,” Gonzalez said. “He started out from literally nothing. He had no floor in his house, no lights, no anything. He has done well but also given up so much to help me. So that has made me want to do the best that I can, and help other people, too.”

Gonzalez also, she said, got a lot of help from Joanna Perkins and the AVID class Perkins teaches at Southern Lee. The program focuses on students whose parents don’t have much education, who are economically disadvantaged or who face other obstacles that might keep them from going to college.

“Everyone has struggles, especially teenagers,” said Perkins, the reigning Lee County Schools Teacher of the Year. “And they need someone to be their advocate. And AVID does that by giving them an anchor.”

Gonzalez said Perkins has indeed been her anchor, helping her find the resolve to succeed in the face of bureaucratic struggles — like trying to get a job, scholarship or college loan without being a citizen — as well as even more frustrating struggles like racism.

“Mrs. Perkins has helped me, and also AVID as a whole,” Gonzalez said. “Every time I get frustrated and want to give up, she’s there for me.”

Perkins said she simply couldn’t see herself doing anything else.

“I was sort of an AVID child myself and overcame a lot of obstacles with the help of teachers and mentors,” Perkins said. “I was really the first one in my family to be successful in college, so it’s sort of like a pay-it-forward kind of thing.”

Gonzalez has even earned the praise of Superintendent Andy Bryan, who said in an email that she’s an excellent role model, as well as an example of the good that an AVID program can do for students.

“Being chosen to speak in Philadelphia reaffirms Addie’s story and accomplishments,” Bryan said. “It also serves as an important example to all students about persevering and setting goals.”

AVID is big in this area. Lee County Schools has programs for middle and high school students and is set to begin an elementary program this coming school year at Broadway Elementary School, and the district also recently won a $40,000 grant to train teachers in the program. Robert Logan, a former superintendent in Lee and Chatham counties, also now directs the AVID eastern district which Gonzalez addressed in Philadelphia.

Gonzalez’s parents Jesus Gonzalez and Maria Barcenas were also on hand Thursday to cheer their daughter on, which she said helped soothe her nerves before the speech. Their support as well as opportunities at Southern Lee, she said, are what keep her going — even when her situation makes her dreams of the future seem impossible.

“I think Southern is a really community-based school,” Gonzalez said. “Like, all the parents and all the kids and all the teachers, too, they’re really involved. They care about how students do in the future.”

Perkins, for her part, said she knows Gonzalez will be fine once she moves on to the next stage of her life.

“Obviously Addie is really special, with her her drive and and determination,” Perkins said. “I think everyone has that, but to follow through is great. ... Everyone has a dream, but to follow through is something special.”