The two friends planned to apply to state colleges. The first time they took the SAT, they didn't even know what it was. But during their junior year at Union Hill High, a French teacher named Mrs. Brown encouraged them to set their sights higher.

As seniors, Alonso was voted most likely to succeed and Valella was vice president of the student government. Still, Columbia was a leap. They felt unprepared compared with classmates from prep schools. They would have to commute from home and work to support themselves; Alonso's jobs would include delivering disco clothing to retail outlets. But thanks to a teacher's high expectations, they were bound for the Ivy League.

The key to the child
On his second day as a teacher at Samuel L. Berliner, Alonso showed up before everyone else, more than an hour before the first bell. Findley, the principal, was the second to arrive, giving her no choice but to talk to him. He told her he just needed a place to meet with the students, and to be effective, he needed the authority to make his own rules. She was perplexed by the newcomer's audacity, but she conceded and let him set up shop in the library.

Alonso quickly came to admire Findley's intolerance for educators' excuses for why certain children weren't learning. There's a "key" to every child, she would say; the educator's job is to unlock it.

He also found a mentor in veteran teacher Diane Brinkley. The two would have long conversations about what they could do to make a difference in the lives of their deeply troubled students.

Once, they combed through the cumulative folders of all 120 students to see if they could pinpoint when the children had fallen irreparably behind. Did no one help them when they struggled to read in first grade? Had they transferred schools multiple times in a year?

"We just started coming up with these markers where you could see, this kid is going to be in trouble, and how the school system failed them time and time again, year after year, until they got to us with severe emotional problems, severe disabilities, for things the schools didn't address when they were much younger," Brinkley said.

Following Brinkley's lead, Alonso took his students on field trips to expose them to the world beyond the neighborhoods they typically never left. They went to New York's museums and aquarium and circus, to ice skating rinks, to a Great Adventure amusement park and once a year, to the movies. He also began to visit them at home.

"We would go into a house, and there's nothing but a mattress in there because the mother has sold everything in the house, where some young boys had to see … their mothers were basically selling their bodies in the same bedroom that the kids were [in]," Brinkley said. "For us to go in there and try to get some drug intervention for that mother, it was not something sanctioned by the district, but you do what needs to be done."

Brinkley did something else that wasn't sanctioned: She took students to live with her when they needed a place to stay.

A kid needing a father
On Alonso's first day teaching in the Berliner library, an 11-year-old Puerto Rican boy named Joel picked a fight in his class. Alonso gave him detention.

Afterward, teacher and student headed separate ways, only to end up at the same city bus stop. Alonso realized he didn't have the 75-cent fare and had to ask a stranger for spare change.

"This boy thought this was the most extraordinary thing he'd ever seen," Alonso recalled. "It was fun, his sense of the world."

As they rode the bus together through the streets of Newark, Joel told his teacher stories about the different neighborhoods. "This kid was so smart, so fundamentally a good kid," Alonso said, "but he was in a school for severely emotionally disturbed kids."

Joel's home life was more stable than that of many other kids at Berliner. Though his father was out of the picture, his mother was caring and involved. Until fourth grade, his academic performance was normal. Then he began to struggle with what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder, and he fell far behind.

Alonso would remain Joel's teacher for three years. The boy would not behave in other classes; in Alonso's, he did.

"He cared about me learning, not like other teachers," Joel recalled. "He pushed me, pushed me, pushed me, and I kinda liked it."

Alonso wanted to get Joel out of special ed. With permission from Joel's mother, he worked out a deal for the boy to spend most of the day at another school a block away in an accelerated program to complete seventh and eighth grades simultaneously. The following year, he and Findley got Joel a scholarship to a Catholic high school.

The work, however, proved far too hard, and Joel said he didn't fit in with the "rich kids." By the end of his freshman year, he was failing. He ran away.

During the week or so when they didn't know where he was, Joel's mother and Alonso first had the conversation: Maybe, she agreed, the boy should be with you. "It became the put-up-or-shut-up moment," Alonso said.