From behind the counter of her parents' convenience store, Namisha Patel studied her textbooks each night while tending to business. Some customers got upset, but her homework came first.
Her efforts paid off: She finished first in her graduating class at Patterson High School and was class valedictorian.
But working as a cashier was only part of Namisha's schedule. She also volunteered at a research laboratory, played two sports at Patterson and was involved in several school activities during her senior year.
"School and schoolwork was always my No. 1 priority," Namisha, 18, said recently as she stood amid milk crates and soda bottles in the stockroom of her parents' store in the 4700 block of Eastern Ave.
"It was tiring, but you only live once."
Namisha finished with a 95 academic average at Patterson, first in her class of 240 and received a full scholarship to Villa Julie College in Baltimore County.
After graduating from Villa Julie, she plans to pursue a graduate degree in physical therapy from the University of Maryland at Baltimore.
"My nerves are coming on big-time about college," Namisha said. "I enjoyed high school and all of the things I was involved in, but I look forward to college now."
Namisha joined other students who opposed a state takeover of Patterson, located at 100 Kane St., in East Baltimore.
This year, Patterson and Frederick Douglass High School in West Baltimore were targeted to be taken over by the state because of deteriorating student academic performance, poor attendance rates and high dropout rates.
Patterson and Douglass were among the lowest-ranking schools the state in the proportion of students who passed the functional reading, math, writing and citizen tests, necessary for graduation.
At Patterson, 77 percent of the students passed all of the tests by the 11th grade, compared with a 93 percent statewide average.
This week, the state approved a city plan to revitalize the school that calls for removing the entire teaching staff and dividing the school into separate academic and career preparation programs.
The plan averts a state takeover and places emphasis on parents, community leaders, alumni and business involvement to make the proposal successful.
All 130 of the school's teachers will be replaced and must reapply for their jobs, competing with applicants both inside and outside the district. The school's principal also will be replaced.
Namisha and a number of other students picketed outside the school in May against a city plan to turn Patterson over to a Maine boarding school that stresses discipline, character-building and parental involvement.
Amid last-minute budget woes and overwhelming opposition from parents and teachers, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey abandoned the Hyde School plan three weeks ago.
Although she said she feels that students will learn better with separate academic and career preparation programs, she did not want to see all the school's teachers replaced.
"At Patterson, you had so many dedicated teachers pushing you to do your best," she said, adding: "The teachers really push you. The school had problems, but they weren't the teachers. They were its assets."
Namisha said unruly students forced many teachers to devote too much time to disciplining students in the classrooms, which reduced lesson time.
She also said Patterson did not always have the supplies needed to enhance learning.
"It was a very hard atmosphere there sometimes, a tough situation there," Namisha said.
"Our building was in bad shape; our books were in bad shape. But the faculty and staff made sure you learned, even if they gave you a ditto copy."
Namisha's secret to success was to seek out instructors after class if she needed academic help.
Gerald W. Hoskins, one of Namisha's teachers at Patterson, said students such as Namisha make it much easier for teachers. "She'd learn in spite of you. If you didn't put the information in front of her, she'd dig in and find out," said Mr. Hoskins, who retired this month after teaching at Patterson High for 30 years.
Mr. Hoskins agreed with Namisha that many of the school's problems have not been created by poor teachers. He said the school lacked the financial resources to really help students. "The problems we had at the school were created by the city and state in failures of their own," he said.
Before her freshman year, Namisha was accepted at City College High School, but transferred to Patterson after two days City. The "atmosphere" just didn't feel right at City, she said.
Hasu Patel, Namisha's mother, said she was satisfied with the education her daughter received at Patterson.
"I like city school teachers," Ms. Patel said, who was trained as a teacher but now helps operate the family-run convenience store on Eastern Avenue. She said that at some city schools students can obtain a better education than they might receive at a private school.
Namisha, whose parents hail from India, has worked as a volunteer in a research lab at the Francis Scott Key Medical Center since her junior year in high school.
Her duties include experiments with laboratory mice on a maze at the Gerontology Research Center at the hospital. The research center is part of the National Institutes of Health. "I'm a rat runner. I'm involved with the experiments and tests with the rats," she said.
Edward L. Spangler, a research psychologist who is Namisha's supervisor, said Namisha has assumed more and more responsibilities in her year and a half at the lab.
"It's tedious and requires her to be conscientious and to do things simultaneously," Mr. Spangler said. "But she's became more and more independent."
As part of a school work-study program, she worked at the hospital from 7:45 a.m. to 10 a.m. daily, then attended classes at Patterson. After school, she participated on the volleyball and lacrosse teams.
"Then from 6 to 8 [p.m.] I worked at [her parents'] store so my mother could go home and cook," she said. "This was every day."
She did most of her homework while on duty as a cashier at the store.
"You can ask all of my customers. They'll tell you I was working there and working my calculus, too."