Editor’s note: This is the eighth story in our 20th annual Standout Grads series about special graduates from the class of 2019. The series will appear on the front page every day through June 12.
Carlos Valencia is an unlikely candidate for graduation.
After his father was deported and his mother was sent to jail near the beginning of his sophomore year at Kelso High School, he “clung to” his childhood friends, Carlos said in a recent interview.
But the boys were a “rough crowd” who made “criminal choices,” said KHS campus security officer Lisa Lee. His friends skipped class, earned bad grades, did drugs and eventually ended up in jail.
“They were kids that smoked pot and didn’t care about their futures. I was never a follower type, but I didn’t have any father figure so I thought these were the guys that would guide me,” said Carlos, noting that he didn’t do drugs with his friends, but he picked up on their truancy habits.
But midway through his high school career — and shortly after several of his friends were arrested — Carlos realized he wanted a change and the prospect of a better future. School officials say his determination to and success in turning his life around make him a Standout Grad.
“His friends were almost like his family. For him to be able to distance himself from that and realize that he needs to make better choices (is standout),” Lee said.
Carlos moved in with his girlfriend’s parents and started attending his classes and applying himself in school. His grades skyrocketed from a “D” average to straight “As.”
At its lowest point, Carlos’ semesterly grade point average hovered around 1.2. Last semester he finished the term with a 3.7 GPA.
He “packed in four years of school in two years,” making up almost 8 missing credits, said Jodi Rogers, his truancy officer. And now Carlos will graduate on time with his class this Saturday.
“There is absolutely no reason why this kid should be graduating (this year) other than sheer will and support from his girlfriend’s family,” Rogers said.
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Carlos credits his turn around to several factors, including his desire to be a better role model for his younger brother and sister. He also wants to serve as a safe, responsible guardian for his mother and friends when they transition out of jail, he said.
Always a hard worker, Carlos received the guidance and support from his girlfriend’s parents that he needed to “put that hard work to the right use,” he said. They helped fill the void left in the absence of his father and mother, he said.
Though Carlos’ turnaround is spectacular in itself, Lee said she’s more impressed by his “heart and caring soul.” Carlos is known to offer a bright smile and chipper “good morning” if he passes you in the hallway, she said.
“He’s been dealt a crappy hand, but he is positive. He’s always upbeat. … He hasn’t let his circumstances be an excuse for being a cruddy person,” Lee said.
Carlos’ compassion shone through when he befriended a student with Cerebral Palsy who almost always ate school meals alone, Lee said. Carlos said he noticed how other students treated her, and he wanted to offer her a sense of belonging, so he started sitting with her at lunch.
“He goes out of his way to stand up for the underdog, whether it’s sitting at lunch or breakfast with them so they are not alone … or something as simple as acknowledging them in the hallway,” Lee said.
Rogers added that Carlos is a “very genuine” person with a “heart of gold.”
“He will work very hard for what he sees is right. His moral compass is very strong,” Rogers said. “He proves that no matter how many hardships you have, they are able to be overcome if you have the right mindset and support and determination to do better.”
Although some teachers and peers doubted he would graduate, Carlos said it feels good to prove them wrong. It’s one way he can show the world that he is not a “screw-up or an outcast,” he said.
“I just want to prove to everyone that the way your life is doesn’t determine the outcome of who you are,” Carlos said. “I’ve had a terrible life, and I changed who I was. If anything it’s just made me stronger.”