A Richardson High School senior defies the odds to succeed
Students settle into their afternoon AVID class at Richardson High School. Instructor Elizabeth Brown begins coaching them on their next assignment when one senior girl raises her hand, calmly smiles and says, “By the way, I just got $52,000 from Kings College.”
Brown’s jaw drops. AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, has just surpassed $1 million in scholarships for the first time in RHS history. The students cheer and drum on their desks in celebration.
The one who put them over the top is Alesha Cooper, a self-assured, African-American teenager bursting with positive energy. She has been receiving scholarships left and right and has a growing stack of college acceptance letters. She’s a finalist for both the Gates Millennium Scholarship and the Dell Scholarship, awarded to just a handful of students in the country.
It hasn’t come easy, though. Cooper’s tough exterior and affirmative attitude hides most of the hardship she has experienced.
“You can’t just sit around and talk about it,” she says. “You have to do something about it.
Most days, Cooper rises before the sun and walks from wherever she stayed that night to the nearest bus stop. It takes about an hour to get to school. She arrives early — long before the school bus runs — so that she can tutor other students or finish her own homework without distractions.
“People don’t realize how much it takes just to get to school in the first place,” she says.
Cooper excels in math and science and loves knowing how it applies to everyday life. She gushes about the laws of physics that help Dirk Nowitzki score points on the Dallas Mavericks basketball court. She has an ambitious plan to triple major in math, physics and social work at the University of Virginia, become a teacher and eventually establish her own nonprofit to help disadvantaged children.
“I just feel like a lot of people give up. Everyone has an opportunity to do something great. I want to help people who aren’t aware of that opportunity.”
Cooper says she has thought about giving up thousands of times. Those thoughts began as early as age 8, when she was sent to Green Oaks psychiatric center for having suicidal thoughts and trying to run away.
“I was the only depressed third-grader,” she says with a laugh.
She grew up poor with a single mother and a father in prison for just about everything — robbery, drug dealing, pimping and even murder. He has at least five other children that Cooper knows of, and they are all addicts or prostitutes. On her mom’s side, the kids have tended to succeed, she says. Her brother joined the Navy, and her sister is attending Texas A&M University.
“My mom has always been a strong figure in my life,” Cooper says. “She never wanted us to know that we were poor. She always told me to be the best at whatever I do.”
Recently though, her mom became ill and is less a part of Cooper’s life. Cooper stops by a few times a week to visit. The rest of the time, she stays with her uncle or her good friend and “foster sister,” Sha’Huni Robinson, also a senior at RHS.
They both had rough childhoods, so they can relate, and they encourage one another to succeed.
School is their escape.
Every week, Cooper tutors a group of rambunctious sophomore AVID students. The class is offered as an elective and provides college readiness to students, many of whom are economically disadvantaged. The tutors typically are college students, but the program needed more tutors this year, so Cooper volunteered to help.
She keeps the sophomores in line as they discuss the pros and cons of trench warfare or work to find an equation’s axis of symmetry. One of her students complains and asks the age-old question, “Will I ever use this in real life?”
Cooper responds, “Math is everything.” She drives that message home until the bell rings.
Cooper remembers when she received her first B. She was devastated.
“School has always been something that I can control if I can’t control stuff at home.”
No matter how well she’s doing in class, she makes time to visit her favorite counselor, Colleen Monier.
“She makes all As, but she’s in here all the time,” Monier says. “I don’t know how she does it.”
They discuss which college Cooper will attend. The options grow with each acceptance letter that they add to the pile. She was wait-listed by her first choice, New York University, so she’s headed to the University of Virginia.
Monier signs Cooper up to go shopping for a prom dress at the RISD Clothes Closet, which collects donated formal gowns and accessories for girls in the district who can’t afford to buy their own.
Cooper leaves the office with a bounce in her step, reminding Monier to “live life to the fullest.”
It’s easy to be bitter, but Cooper has unconditional love and compassion for those who have let her down. She regularly visited her dad in prison. He was never around to begin with, so she learned early on not to expect much. He has since been released and is searching for a permanent place to live.
“I just want to see how he’s doing. I don’t care what you’ve done in the past, there is some good in everybody.”
However, even as she enters into adulthood, Cooper still misses that parental support.
“My friends complain about how strict their parents are. Sometimes, I wish I had a curfew. I wish someone would call me, wondering where I am at 2 a.m. in the morning. I check my phone … no missed calls.”
A group of girls sits around the table in a small conference room, taking turns talking about school, boys, careers and life in general.
It’s a club called Ladies, and it meets after school every Monday. Cooper started it as a way for upperclassmen to mentor freshmen.
“These girls have really formed a sisterhood,” says Anita Cepeda, the club’s sponsor. “Alesha came up with the idea, and it happened kind of like magic. The mentors have to get recommendation letters from their teachers. We advertised it during lunch, and we had about 20 girls sign up.”
Freshmen are more receptive to advice from successful seniors as opposed to another teacher or counselor urging them to keep their grades up and start applying to colleges early.
“The decisions you make now will determine the rest of your life,” says Genesis Butler, one of the senior mentors and Cooper’s best friend. “You get one opportunity to do it right.”
Most of the members are minority girls from diverse backgrounds. Karen Dapaah moved from Ghana, Africa, and shared her struggles to adapt to the American education system.
“School is such a different experience when you’re foreign,” she says.
However, many of the issues are the same, such as dealing with stereotypes and figuring out what you want to be when you grow up.
Although Cooper has had to overcome more than the typical teenager, she can still relate.
“Everyone goes through something in life. At the end of the day, I still think I’m like everybody else.”