WORCESTER, Mass. - Academic miracles were a hard sell when Donna Rodrigues went door to door in the grim area she grew up in, recruiting students for a new public high school.
But six years later, as University Park Campus School prepares to graduate its first senior class, the unusual partnership between a small private university and its hardscrabble city neighborhood has emerged as a vehicle for community transformation - and a symbol of hope.
Although most came from homes where no English was spoken - and all from desperately poor families - the school's 30 12th-graders sailed through a tough state achievement test and plan to attend college. About half have applied to Clark University, which promised full scholarships to qualified graduates.
"This defeats the literature," said University Park history teacher Ricci Hall, who signed on as a student teacher from Clark University six years ago and never left. "These kids are beating the odds."
Clark officials proposed the idea to the city school district, offering funds, teachers and other support to make University Park a reality. It opened its doors in 1997 in a long-vacant elementary school across the street from the university.
Since then, officials say, crime and transience have gone down in the one-square-mile area known as Main South, and residential occupancy is up. Some families say they have moved in just so their children can attend University Park.
Delegates from dozens of other urban colleges have visited University Park to study its strategy. As colleges around the country struggle to thrive in poor urban areas, some education experts note the small high school's success as a model.
The school was established after Clark and Main South spent years eyeing each other with mutual unease - so much so that Clark officials talked seriously about moving the century-old liberal-arts institution to a rural area.
"But to ignore your neighborhood is hypocritical; you can't do that," said Jack Foley, executive assistant to Clark President John Bassett. "You've got to take fences down and strengthen your neighborhood."
Fueled by what Foley called "enlightened self-interest," the university reached out, launching a collaboration almost two decades ago to revitalize an area that once was home to proud Victorians and prosperous tradesmen.
But rehabilitated housing, federal funds and good intentions were not enough. University administrators worried that Clark could not maintain an undergraduate population of about 2,000 if Main South continued to deteriorate.
Rethinking their approach, Clark officials decided a school could serve as "the centerpiece for neighborhood stability," said Tom Del Prete, director of Clark's Hiatt Center for Urban Education. Del Prete knew of no comparable teaming of a private university and a public school district, and no other university that guaranteed free tuition to such a large crop of local residents.
Although the undertaking was "an academic leap of faith," he said, Clark leaders "had faith in the kids and faith in the neighborhood. We knew that good schools anchor people's commitment to a community."
But the smartest move of all, Foley and others said, was hiring Rodrigues to run the new school.
An educator for 34 years, Rodrigues grew up in Main South, raised her family there and taught many parents of students she now mentors as principal.
Tenacious, supremely determined and armed with a master's degree from Harvard University, Rodrigues envisioned a school with small classes, long hours and high expectations. She decreed that all University Park students would succeed.
The edict has worked, said language-arts teacher June Eressy, "because no one wants to let Donna down."
A sturdy woman in her mid-50s, Rodrigues banned street talk and bullying. As she welcomed students, she informed them that disrespect would have no place at University Park.
"Mrs. Rodrigues, she is real persistent," said senior class valedictorian Damian Ramsey. "She gets what she wants, and she makes you want to do your best."
A majority of the first students came from homes where no English was spoken. Sixty percent were minorities - largely black, Hispanic and Vietnamese.
Most families earned less than $20,000 a year. Three-quarters qualified for free or subsidized lunches. The average reading level was third grade.
At least one member of the first class, Jovan Pressie, could not read until history teacher Hall taught her. Since then, she said, "I never wanted to stop."
Had she not gone to University Park, Pressie said, she probably would have dropped out of school by eighth grade. Now, she is headed to college.
The seniors boast an attendance rate of 98 percent - and dropout, suspension and expulsion rates of zero. Along with Clark and various state schools, students have applied to Boston College, Dartmouth, Brown, Georgetown and Harvard.
The 12th-grade class also made University Park one of a handful of Massachusetts high schools to score 100 percent passage rates on the state's demanding mandatory achievement test.
Elizabeth Mehren writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing company newspaper.