Gus Contreras/KERA News

Ninth-grader Joel Luera is a smart kid in a tough neighborhood. Sometimes other kids don’t get why he’s so studious. He loves to read – so much that he’s in a book club at W.W. Samuell High School in Dallas. Joel is the latest kid to join KERA’s series Class of ’17 – a five-year project following a group of North Texas students from 8th grade to graduation. It’s part of the national public media initiative American Graduate.

The KERA Radio story

When Baldemar Luera was his son’s age, school wasn’t a priority. He was busying dealing drugs and getting into trouble. In the 10th grade, he dropped out. That’s not what he wants for his kids.

“I want them to finish school. I want them to go to college,” Luera says, on a recent evening inside the family’s Oak Cliff home. I want them to have more than I had growing up and not go through the problem that I had growing up.”

Luera manages a sign company and often reminds his four sons that there was a time when he worked 16 hour days. He lays down the law at home.

“I’m strict on them. I make sure that they do their homework and I stay on them,” Luera says. “They’ve always been fast learners, very bright and always willing to do whatever it took to get their homework done.”

Which explains why Joel is so studious. He says he enjoys school and learning new things like science, computers and math. His older brother, David, who’s a student at the University of North Texas in Denton and plays in a band, is teaching him how to play the guitar. Even ambitious students like Joel have their challenges though.

“It’s more on the social side, not like making friends. It’s just that some people they don’t like smart people,” Joel says. “I don’t understand why. They just don’t. And they’re kind of aggressive when you show that you’re smarter than them and you have more capabilities than they have. They don’t seem to like that.”

The school bell rings on a recent afternoon at Samuell High. Kids stream outside and onto the street. Some walk home or ride the bus. Others hop into their parents’ or friends’ cars.

Five years ago, the school was on the verge of closing. It’d been rated “academically unacceptable” for several consecutive years. That’s when Dallas school district officials decided to add a college prep program to keep kids from going to one of the district’s magnet schools. The school sits in Pleasant Grove in southeastern Dallas, a largely Latino area. The graduation rate here has historically been low. College isn’t even on some students’ radar, says principal Shanna Jones.

“So there could be pressures from the community, from their surroundings at home, but we don’t want those things to hinder them,” she says.

She talks about the taunting and the challenge to keep up academically.

“It’s so much easier to go along with the crowd that’s not following directions,” she says. “But I think Joel, like many of the students at Samuel, has intrinsic motivation. So he wants to succeed.”

There are other pressures, though, and Joel has seen them all.

“Drugs – yeah, there’s like a lot, especially in the area where I go to school, Pleasant Grove. There’s a lot,” Joel says. “I just ignore it. That’s not what I want to do with my life. I want to be a productive citizen for society, not just waste my life.”

So instead Joel spends his time arguing, with members of his debate team.

At a recent debate team meeting, the group prepared for an upcoming speech tournament and talked about a debate tournament in April. Next year, the school will add a debate class. Students are excited.

“In every high school, there is a niche for debate” says debate coach Don Cheatum. “These are the kids that like to talk, that like to argue, the kids that – and the same thing with the poetry club, the anime club – there are kids that have lots of interests that are outside of athletics and outside of what they’ve got going on at home.

This year, the topic is economic engagement in Venezuela, Cuba and Mexico, a subject Joel likes to discuss.

“I just like things like that, because it expands my knowledge and allows me to have a cogent discussion with other people who know the material and who are willing to have a good debate,” Joel says.

But on this afternoon, there’s a more pressing debate going on: who’s going to be the next debate team captain. As usual, there’s some good-natured ribbing. Some of the students tease Joel, who pretty much declares he’s the best candidate for the job.