As far back as Alejandra Franco can remember, the frames hanging in the hallway of her family’s Coachella Valley home were always empty. The unfilled wall décor did not represent a home devoid of memories or a showcase for an unorthodox interior decorating theme. Instead, they were an intentional symbol of an unspoken expectation of the future for Alejandra and her three younger siblings.
With only a grade school education, Ana and Marcelino Franco came to America penniless and told their kids that their only job was “to obtain an education because it is the key to your future.”
In 2000, they put their mantra into action almost immediately by enrolling three-year-old Alejandra in the Head Start Program administered by the Riverside County Office of Education within the Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD). After two years of preschool, Alejandra received a completion certificate that was immediately hung with pride in a picture frame inside the Franco family home.
Jim Greene, a veteran educator who was the Director of Children and Family Services for CVUSD, had suggested a tip to parents who wanted to establish education as a priority in their families that they could visually and nonverbally reinforce the importance of education simply by hanging empty picture frames in their homes to symbolize the expectation of forthcoming diplomas from junior high, high school, and college. As each of their children would reach graduation milestones, the framed diplomas would not only serve as a signpost of the latest achievement, but as a reminder of the journey still ahead as evidenced by the presence of the remaining empty frames.
Paralysis Initiates Perseverance
“My mom always reminds me that I was a challenge since the day I was born—that I fought to get the opportunity to simply live when doctors didn’t think I would live beyond my first year,” Alejandra said. “I challenged death, so what can stop me now? Now I know that you focus on your goals and everything is possible.”
Alejandra didn’t start walking until she was three years old due to a congenital form of hemiplegia—a partial paralysis of one side of the body that can also limit development of the brain in young children. She was diagnosed with the condition at the age of 9 months which led her parents to take whatever steps possible to retain a promising future for their first child.
“They took me to therapy all the time at Loma Linda University Hospital—leaving early in the morning and sleeping in the parking lot until they opened,” Alejandra said. “I was given special shoes to wear that I had to sleep in. I cried a lot but I’m glad my parents kept on it.”
When she was 12, Alejandra’s father was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and sent back to Mexico. Alejandra saw the struggle her mom went through with legal representation and the toll it took on their family and wants to help others in similar situations in her community. Since that time, Mr. Franco has returned to his family and has been able to support the family with a work permit. His status as a citizen of the United States is nearly finalized after years of legal wrangling.
“I had to mature and grow up at age 12 to be a big part of our household because my mom was all over the place looking for help without my dad around,” Alejandra said. “I had to tell my three younger brothers that our dad was off working somewhere. It was an awakening to see how things really were. It was like I was popped out of a child’s bubble and became mature enough to see that education is the key.”
Excelling In Education
As her high school career began to take shape, she became involved in the AVID Program, enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, captained the swim team, was active in a variety of student clubs, volunteered by working with kids in her church, studied for the ACT & SAT, and kept facing up to every challenge. Since 2006, Alejandra has also benefited from being part of the RCOE Migrant Education Program that provides educational support to students beyond the classroom.
“At first, taking AP courses was scary because I didn’t know anybody. I would stay up until 3 a.m. in the morning doing homework to get things right,” Alejandra said. “But, I’d never change that for anything. It was a beautiful experience because I got to learn from so many others and grow as a student and an individual. I thrive on challenge because it is what helps me grow. If I’m not being challenged, there’s no point in it.”
Between her junior and senior year at Desert Mirage High School, Alejandra was selected to attend the exclusive Yale University Young Global Scholars summer program in Connecticut. The all-expenses paid 2-week trip exposed Alejandra to a world outside the Coachella Valley.
“I didn’t know if I was bright enough to be accepted into the program, but I applied anyway and thought that the worst thing would be that I wasn’t accepted,” Alejandra said. “I met people from Serbia and Thailand and all over the United States and it was mind-blowing to see what others are doing with their lives.
After being named to the 2015 Riverside County All-Academic Team in April, Alejandra graduated in June with a 4.4 grade-point average with nothing but “A’s” on her transcript as the valedictorian of the Desert Mirage High School Class of 2015 in the Coachella Valley Unified School District. After promptly filling a frame with her hard-earned high school diploma, Alejandra has big plans for filling the final empty picture frames at home—and likely adding a few more at the end of the hall for graduate school.
College And Beyond
In one arm, Alejandra Franco proudly clutched a bevy of glossy acceptance packets and letters from almost every top university in California. In the other, she cradled a certificate from 2002 recognizing the completion of two years of the Migrant Head Start Program—protected in a plastic sleeve and featuring a bespectacled 5-year old girl who had no clue that she would become the first student in her high school’s history to be accepted to the University of Southern California (USC) and will be the first to enroll just months after graduating. Her career plans are to double major in Spanish and Political Science with the goal of returning to the Coachella Valley and practice law or medicine.
Beaming with pride while standing next to her eldest daughter, Ana Franco reflects on Alejandra’s childhood—from the hemiplegia diagnosis that predicted she would never walk and that her impaired mental capacities would require special education classes to the nights of studying into the early morning hours during high school and the weekends of sacrificing family activities and social events to keep Alejandra focused on her education. In the farmlands of the Coachella Valley, the seeds of Alejandra’s grit and determination have grown into a character trait that has prepared her for success in college and career.
Alejandra wasn’t the only Franco to reach an educational goal in 2015. After participating in Riverside County’s Migrant Education Parent Advisory Committee and taking steps to actively show their kids the importance of education, Marcelino Franco officially earned the high school equivalency degree in June through the Coachella Valley Unified School District Adult School—following Ana’s completion in 2013.
By the time all four of their children are grown, the Francos may need to construct an addition to their home to accommodate the overstuffed walls of frames celebrating not just the completion of an educational journey, but the start of an educational legacy that has the potential to resonate throughout the entire Coachella Valley community.
“My parents started with nothing and gave us everything. Thanks to them, I never gave up on the hope of a better tomorrow, and now I must follow their example and not give up on my dreams.”