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Realizing dream of ‘a better life’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nothing about how she graduated from high school was easy. It was not traditional. It was not usual.

Maybe that’s because she’s not the usual kind of student. And maybe she is more usual than we know.

Liset Lozano always knew she wanted to be a high school graduate, always knew she wanted to make her family proud.

“It was always my dream to become the first to graduate from high school in my family,” she said.

Her parents never made it far in school. Lozano, the youngest in the family, watched her six siblings get only so far in school, then drop out, get married, have children and get into what jobs they could to get by.

“It’s hard when you don’t have someone to show you how to get through school, how possible it is, how important it is,” she said.

So Lozano tried.

Liset Lozano on her high school graduation day in May with her husband, Carlos Lopez. “He’s really been supportive,” she says. (Courtesy of Liset Lozano)

But during freshman year at Manzano High School, she encountered trouble with a school official and left school in the second semester.

She transferred to Highland High School, but because she was out of her school boundaries, transportation was a problem. Her parents could not afford to drive her to school, and the city bus was hit or miss, she said.

After one semester, she dropped out.

“I just felt I couldn’t do it,” she said.

Like some of her siblings, she worked at a fast-food restaurant, quickly becoming shift manager, a job that still paid less than $10 an hour.

At 17, she met Carlos Lopez. At 18, they married and became the parents of a baby girl named Aylin.

Still, Lozano said, she could not give up her dream.

“I just didn’t know a way to get back in school,” said Lozano, now 21. “It just seemed unlikely.”

But while waiting at a clinic for her daughter’s checkup, the way back came right up to her in the guise of a community engagement director for the New Mexico Center for School Leadership, a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming traditional education models to fit the changing needs of nontraditional students.

The center operates four charter schools – ACE Leadership High, Tech Leadership High, Health Leadership High and Siembra Leadership High – each focused on a different industry, all with the idea that one-size-fits-all schools are not always practical in today’s myriad-sized world.

“These are still full-fledged schools, but these are smaller schools that support the students, provide more of a real-world practical focus through projects, mentorships and problem solving,” said Mistie Gallegos, director of operations.

Liset Lozano attended an economic forum meeting, where she met Mayor Richard Berry. She took a photo with him to prove to her family that she has entered a world in which meeting officials is part of her job. (Courtesy of Liset Lozano)

Lozano was intrigued. And then she was hooked.

“I really felt a part of a family,” she said. “The school welcomed us, even my husband and my daughter.”

The school – she chose Health Leadership High to pursue a career as an ultrasound technician – worked as a family. On days when she could not find a baby sitter for Aylin, she took her daughter along. Her classmates, ranging in age from 16 to 23, became close, supporting one another through rigorous days.

“We all had that same feeling, that we were in this together and we were in it to give our kids a better life,” she said.

Lozano’s days began at 5:30 a.m. at the fast-food restaurant, where she worked until 1:30 p.m. Then she would go home to shower and change clothes before showing up at her mentorship in the community from 2 to 4 p.m., and then class until 8 p.m.

After three years, Lozano graduated in May, her entire family in attendance as she walked the line with her 44 classmates.

“I felt I made my parents proud,” she said.

This summer, Lozano quit the fast-food business after being chosen for an internship at the Leadership center with Gallegos as her mentor. Lozano impressed Gallegos so much that she was hired two weeks ago as an administrative assistant.

“I love her drive,” Gallegos said. “She is always pushing herself to get things done. She’s a learner. And she’s our biggest cheerleader. When she talks to students, they listen because they know she’s been where they are.”

All of which is heady stuff to a young woman who had a dream to succeed somehow.

“I never pictured myself being in a professional environment wearing professional clothes,” she said. “I sometimes thought I would always be wearing a fast-food uniform.”

Leadership high schools have not scored well in the state’s standardized testing. But Leadership Executive Director Tony Monfiletto argues there is more to school than what can be captured on a bubble sheet.

That appears true for Lozano. This week, she began attending classes at Central New Mexico Community College to continue her academic pursuits.

She may not have taken the usual route to get there, but for her it was the right one.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.



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