Cesar Chavez Academy student credits parents and school choice for admittance to Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and the University of Michigan
DETROIT — Driving down Waterman Street in Mexicantown in Southwest Detroit you pass boarded up houses, closed down businesses, and other things that make up too much of the city.
Until you get to Cesar Chavez Academy. The school stands out like an island. No boards. No graffiti. No garbage in the parking lot. This is a place for learning.
And it's where Daniel Felix has excelled. He came to Detroit from Los Angeles as a child and lives a few blocks from the high school with his two brothers, a grandfather, and parents who speak mostly Spanish.
That's not unique in his neighborhood. What's special about Daniel is that he's headed to one of the top universities in the world later this fall.
He's not sure which one yet, and it's a tough decision, because Daniel has gotten into most of them. Acceptance letters have come from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and the University of Michigan. He's still waiting to hear from Yale and Columbia.
Speaking with him, one is struck by Daniel's humbleness. He credits his success in school to his parents. His father works as a landscaper and his mother is a homemaker.
"Since early age, my parents motivated me to go to good schools," he said. "They encouraged me to try my hardest. Always told me education was the key to success and improving your life. They didn't really have much education when they grew up."
Daniel has a near-perfect GPA and achieved a 31 on his ACT, which is in the top 3 percent of students nationwide. Daniel also got a perfect score on the SAT-II Spanish and a 760 on the mathematics portion (top 2 percent). He is on the robotics team, in the National Honor Society, and participates with students from other high schools in the "Generation of Promise," a leadership development program. And he does this all while taking three advanced placement classes.
His high school principal, Juan Martinez, says Daniel possesses the most important thing of all: character.
"Daniel is like many of our students," Martinez said. "He's outstanding. He's courteous. He's kind. Respectful, as all of our students are. He is also special because he has set high goals for himself. He has many aspirations and he's pursuing his dreams."
One of those dreams is to become a doctor. Daniel said he became interested in a medical career when he helped translate for doctors when his grandfather had to spend time in the hospital because of health problems. That led to an internship at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit.
Now he is deciding between majoring in pre-med or computer science. Or, perhaps both.
Having a supportive family and the drive to succeed has certainly helped with Daniel's achievements. But there is another important piece to this journey: His school.
And it almost wasn't to be.
Half a mile away from Cesar Chavez is Detroit Southwestern High School where Daniel would have gone had the charter public school not been an option for him.
It is only in the past decade that Michigan began to expand its school choice programs, culminating in the elimination of the arbitrary cap on charter schools two years ago.
The differences between the high schools are stark.
Southwestern High was closed in 2012 for being continually ranked by the state among the lowest 5 percent of all schools in Michigan. The students were divided up and sent elsewhere.
Cesar Chavez Academy was ranked No. 2 out of 684 public high schools in Michigan on the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's latest "Context and Performance" report card, which looks at student test scores and growth and accounts for socioeconomic status.
In addition to offering lots of academic and athletic programs, Cesar Chavez has a graduation rate of 85 percent and 90 percent of students who apply to college are accepted. For the conventional schools in Detroit Public Schools, a report a few years ago found that students had less than a 25 percent chance of graduating.
“Students [at Cesar Chavez] were posting results far and above what we would expect given their backgrounds, and when we came here we saw that teachers had a great level of autonomy,” said Audrey Spalding, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center. "There was a focus on excellence and despite the fact that this is a high poverty neighborhood, they really fostered the sense of security and focus."
Daniel and his parents are happy about how things have turned out. All three Felix boys attend a Cesar Chavez school.
"I didn't feel a connection to Southwestern," Daniel said. "I was glad to have a choice."
Principal Martinez said he hopes Daniel's inspiration can be used by others.
"Daniel's success has lit a fire amongst his peers," Martinez said. "There are so many students who are excited about Daniel's success and the fact that he's been admitted to universities. I believe more students will be following that course in years to come."