City student overcomes the odds on his way to college

Manuel Rosado went from dropout to life on his own to class valedictorian.
Manuel Rosado went from dropout to life on his own to class valedictorian. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 26, 2012

Doors that Manuel Rosado never knew existed are now opening to him.

Manny - who dropped out of high school at 14 but now is a high-achieving student on track to be valedictorian of his class at Olney ASPIRA Charter School - was profiled in The Inquirer last month.

Since then, Manny has received an astonishing stream of kindnesses from people inspired by his story of determination, perseverance, and the power of education.

People have written notes, offered to mentor him, sent checks. An entire class of middle school students wrote to tell how proud they were of him. Most important, one family has offered to help him get through college.

He has been brought to tears more than once by people's generosity. Manny is much more poised and present than his 18 years and life experience would suggest. But he is struggling to articulate how people's outreach has changed everything for him.

"Wow," he said. "Wow. I never imagined."

Four years ago, Manny was a statistic, another ninth grade dropout in a city where about half of all African American and Hispanic males fail to graduate from high school. He was a bright child with a lot of baggage - a history of behavior troubles in school, a mother struggling with mental illness that escalated to the point where she urged him to drop out, then kept the two of them locked in their Feltonville home.

Eventually, she went to Puerto Rico to live with a relative, but Manny stayed behind, living essentially on his own at age 14.

Aimless, planless, without job or education, Manny finally realized he had to finish school. He persuaded his uncle, acting as guardian, to sign papers to enroll him at Olney High - at the time, a Philadelphia School District school, now a charter school - and worked his way into honors classes there.

These days, he is class president, reigning prom king, an active volunteer in his community. He is planning for college, a career in pharmaceutical sciences or math.

Manny maintains high grades, but more important, his teachers say, he loves learning, and always is pushing to greater understanding. He devours calculus problems. English, he says, is his weakest subject, but he writes creatively to let off steam.

His mother is back in town, and they live together, but she cannot provide much support. A surrogate family - counselors, teachers, the staff at the Philadelphia Education Fund, a nonprofit organization whose college access program has helped him zero in on his goals - surrounds him.

And they are as delighted as Manny at the way people have reached out since his story appeared Nov. 26.

Adriana Rivera, his Education Fund college coordinator, took Manny to open his first bank account a few weeks ago. She urged him to set a little of the $250 in cash readers sent to buy himself new clothes, which he has not had in a few years.

But Manny was firm. People had donated the cash to help him with college, and that's what he is determined to use it for.

"He said he's going to need it all for book money next year," said Darren Spielman, executive director of the Education Fund. "He hasn't touched it or spent it."

Each gift and note and word of encouragement is meaningful to Manny, but the game-changer came via John Marsh of Malvern.

Marsh and his sister received an inheritance when their aunt Miriam Damron died in October. Marsh figured his aunt, who spent 44 years teaching first and second graders in Media, would want something good and generous done with her money.

And then Marsh read about Manny.

"He has done all this on his own," Marsh said. "He took every opportunity he found. To have that kind of drive at 14, on his own, with no parent pushing him, that's a kid that's really going places, and we want to be part of that in some way."

Marsh and his sister agreed that they would help Manny afford college, using their aunt's money to cover whatever financial aid does not pay for.

"We want to make sure that lack of funds doesn't stand in the way of him going to the best school he can get into," Marsh said.

In the past, when he talked about college, Manny was excited but visibly anxious.

"He would always say, 'What does it cost?' " Rivera said. "I always said, 'You just apply, and then we'll tackle money. It's been a huge burden on him."

Now, things feel different. He realizes the magnitude of what is happening.

"I'm just so excited," Manny said. "I was shocked."

Richard Negrin, Philadelphia's managing director and deputy mayor for administration and coordination, offered a summer internship.

The day Manny took the long SEPTA ride to City Hall to meet Negrin, he was "nervous as heck," Rivera remembers. She spent 25 minutes giving him a pep talk.

Once he walked into Negrin's office, Manny was all poise and composure.

"He's such a great communicator, such a thoughtful kid," Negrin said. "He has a level of clarity on his goals and what he wants to accomplish for the next three four years. Much more than I did at that age."

His goal, Negrin said, is to expose Manny to people and things that will broaden his horizons even further.

For now, he's concentrating on completing college applications. His list includes University of the Sciences, Temple, the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford, and Drexel.

Even Manny's supporters know he is not home free.

"Of course, anything can happen in life, but he is working hard and has the work ethic and the persistence," said Spielman, head of the Education Fund. "It's exciting to see, and he's dealing with everything really well."

The city is full of young people like Manny, bright but limited by their home lives. That Manny is getting a shot feels like the best kind of gift to those around him.

"It's life-changing," Rivera said. "It's overwhelming. It just shows that there are still people out there who care."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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