As bright as Lea Barros is, Brighton High was a school that often left her frustrated due to the lack of funding and opportunities that were presented to her and her classmates.
Barros – a 17-year-old South End resident who lives with her grandmother, Margaret Fernandes – will graduate on June 13 as the top student in her class at Brighton High School. As a winner of the Posse Scholarship, she will matriculate to esteemed Hamilton College in New York on a full scholarship.
“I had a very good experience at Brighton High because I had good teachers, but it was tough because we always had budget issues,” she said. “We’re an underfunded school and so I always felt like it held me back and it was hard to reach your full potential. Other schools didn’t have that issue, but I did because I was placed in an underfunded school. I saw so many kids with so much potential put into this underfunded school, and there was no way they could do all that they were capable of accomplishing.
“It was frustrating because I always got comments that I was a top student at Brighton and that wasn’t as good,” she continued. “It’s not that it’s easy or the kids don’t’ work, but it’s hard to be successful in an environment where you’re deprived of so many resources that other school have. It’s all just a matter of resources.”
Barros bounced back and forth from the South End to Cape Verde most of her academic career. Her mother, Eva Marques, is still in Cape Verde and providing for the family. Barros went to school in Cape Verde from Grades 1-6, then moved to the South End and attended a Charter School until ninth grade. In her sophomore year, she returned to Cape Verde for one year.
In her junior year, she came back to the South End, but wasn’t able to return to the same Charter School. Instead, she landed at Brighton High, which is a general enrollment school that has chronic budgeting issues.
Again though, she said she had a certain amount of guilt for leaving behind her fellow Brighton High students in an environment where they may not be able to flourish.
“I’m excited, but at the same time, it’s sad because I’m leaving behind so many students at BHS who will be going through the same thing that I went through, and maybe they don’t have the situation that I had or the advantages I had to be able to make it to a place like Hamilton,” she said. “A lot of immigrant students get here in 10th grade and have to take the MCAS right away and can’t pass it, which sets them back. It’s an unfair cycle, but I feel like I got lucky. Other people in the same situation don’t have this opportunity.”
The Posse Scholarship provides full tuition scholarships to places like Hamilton and Bucknell University and others in exchange for participating in the program – which also offers mentoring and tutoring.
Barros said she hopes to major in biology and minor in psychology. She said she wants to do medical research in the future.
“I don’t really like hospital environments, but the field is very interesting to me,” she said. “So, I decided to go into something in a very similar pathway.”
Becoming valedictorian was actually a surprise for Barros.
She said all along it was expected that another classmate would be top in the class, but at the last minute Barros’s grades surged and she got the surprise announcement three weeks ago.
“After Term 3, my grades were really good and it made my GPA surpass my classmate,” she said. “It was a really surprising thing. Everyone thought it was going to be her and then when it was me, I felt bad for her and I was also out of my mind excited at the same time. It felt good because I worked hard for this goal.”
Barros also spent two years in the Debate Club, and tried track for a time, but mostly stuck to the books.
For her, the motivation to make it to the top was her mother – who has a doctorate degree and gave it all up to go back to Cape Verde to help the family and help Barros go to college.
“She just left everything behind to come here the first time,” she said. “We came for a reason: so I could go to college. I feel like that motivated me the most.”
Other downtown neighborhood valedictorians include:
- Jonathan Yuan of Fenway-Kenmore, Boston Latin School
Jonathan is an A+ student who has challenged himself with an overload of AP courses, excelling in all of them. He has a passion for the classics, and competes in classical competitions that test his knowledge of Latin and mythology. Jonathan is also a dedicated musician who plays both the tuba and the piano. This talented young man will continue his studies at Harvard University.
- Amy Ortiz of the South End, Margarita Muñiz Academy
Amy is a proud graduate of the Rafael Hernández K-8 School. At Muñiz Academy, she has been a member of Harvard Crimson Summer Academy, the Yearbook Committee, Student Government, the Peer Leaders program, and the volleyball team. Amy also teaches at the after school program at the Hurley K-8 School in the South End. She will be the first person in her family to attend college when she enters Wesleyan University this fall.