Land of 10,000 Stories: A teacher's promise

ST. PAUL, Minn. - It is fully expected that a third grade teacher will educate and nurture her students, but no one imagines that same teacher still doting over her kids ten years later.

Kelli Porthan is the kind of teacher we all remember as our favorite. "She believes in me, so it helps me believe in myself," says Brenda Alquicira, a high school junior who once sat in Porthan's third grade classroom.

At times Alquicira has difficulty explaining to her friends, the relationship with her third grade teacher. "They're kind of like, 'What?'" Unusual, perhaps, but when the third graders dispersed from the former Homecroft Elementary, their teacher went with them.

It all started when Porthan looked at a news article - and then looked into the faces of her largely Latino class. If statistics were correct, fewer than half of them would graduate from high school.

"No, this isn't okay," she thought to herself at the time. "This is not okay that this many people aren't making it."

She guided her students to the school's front steps, while summoning three previous third grade classes she had taught. Then she made them all a promise. If they would stick with her, Porthan pledged to stick with them - all the way through high school and into college.

First Porthan started tutoring sessions, which led to a monthly Saturday institute. Now her former students are bused to Concordia University where they meet with personal mentors, many of them volunteers from Target.

Recent high school graduate Luz Lopez was among the students gathered on the Homecroft steps. "All my teachers are great, but nobody has ever gone so far to help us."

Initially named "Walter's Wish" after Porthan's pet Chihuahua, the program was renamed "Youth in Action" (YA!) when it was absorbed by CLUES, a St. Paul non-profit organization.

Not all of Porthan's former students took advantage of her invitation, but those who did are graduating with college offers and, in some cases, scholarships to boot.

Julio Valazco is the perfect example a Mexican-born student who might have fallen through the cracks. The night before cancer took Valazco's father,Porthan and his mentorvisited. "And his father looked right at us and said, 'Take care of my son,' she recalls.

Already tight, the relationship between teacher and former student was cemented. Valazco began referring to Porthan as his aunt, while she called him nephew.

This spring Valazco graduated with honors from Johnson High School, where he played varsity soccer and was co-captain of the math club. In the fall he'll study engineering at Augsburg College.

"She talked to me about taking challenging classes which would really help me get prepared for college," Valazco said. "She wanted each and everyone to succeed."

Across the room Porthan pulls out a third grade paper she presents to Alquicira, who is surprised her teacher kept it. "She believes in me, so it helps me believe in myself," she says.

Yet Porthan's commitment goes beyond belief.She has promised each of her students a $1000 for college. When she married, Porthan asked her guests to forgo wedding gifts and instead contribute to her scholarship fund. "Maybe I can't make a difference with hundreds and hundreds of kids in St. Paul, but I'm making a difference with 40 of them."

When Valazco accepted his diploma this spring, Porthan was nearby cheering him on. "I'll always be there for them," she said.

Her students once entered a classroom expecting a teacher for third grade. But through the randomness of good fortune, before putting a crayon to paper, they'd already drawn a friend for life.


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