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Leonal Peguero: ‘I have to be a new person’

Leonal Peguero during Boston International High School’s “passing of the torch” ceremony.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Leonal Peguero during Boston International High School’s “passing of the torch” ceremony.

Every student at Boston International High School is a new immigrant. All at once, they must become adults and become Americans. Their teachers impart lessons in tenacity. They learn courage by example, from each other. Meet Cassania Gilson and Leonal Peguero, two graduating seniors from a school where roaring rounds of applause are the norm. Both face incredible odds as they depart.

Before Leonal Peguero boarded the plane to Boston, he told himself: “This is my opportunity to share my life. I have to be a new person.” He was 19 years old.

Leonal chose work over school after eighth grade in his native Dominican Republic. He’d spent four years delivering potable water by the gallon on the unpaved streets of La Calata, just east of Santo Domingo, when his grandmother gave him the news that he would be moving to Boston.

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“I was like, ‘It’s not true,’ ” Leonal recalled. “And then it was.”

He had his first day of school in the United States on April 28, 2011. A test placed him in Newcomer’s Academy, a pre-high school program in Dorchester for students who have missed multiple years of school in their home countries. He transferred to Boston International High School, in the same building, upon completing the program. His new classmates came from refugee camps, crossed the US border on their own as children, survived natural disasters, or, like Leonal, had been working.

“He was the oldest and the biggest,” said his teacher, Marilu Alvarado. “But you could see in the way that he was behaving that he wanted to learn.” Leonal was functioning at a fifth-grade level in his native language. He spoke no English.

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Alvarado gave him a set of colored blocks to help him learn fractions. He puzzled over them for days, sorting the small pieces with his grown hands. He couldn’t figure out how to calculate only portions of whole numbers. When he finally got it he said, “I can do math now.” He pushed the blocks aside.

In the fall of 2011, Leonal learned about the MCAS test — a graduation requirement. He saw it as his gateway to college, to the kind of life he wanted. He met Catharina Stassen, who volunteers two days a week preparing immigrant teens for the MCAS. “Algebra was a foreign word to him at that point,” says Stassen, who immigrated from the Netherlands.

‘He was the oldest and the biggest. But you could see in the way that he was behaving that he wanted to learn.’

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She taught Leonal twice a week. He came to school on Saturdays for more help. Yet in that spring of 2012, he did not take the MCAS. His teachers didn’t want to put him through a five-day test he still couldn’t read, even though his absence counted against the school in MCAS rankings.

The following fall, Leonal’s teachers gave him the option to wait again for the next round of testing. He insisted on taking it. He was 20 years old. After he finished the test he was sure he failed, but he began stopping by Stassen’s room regularly to ask for his results anyway.

She got the score sheet on a morning in late January. She stepped out of her room and into the hall, hoping to catch Leonal before school started. She didn’t see him.

After the first bells rang, she walked up to his homeroom and spotted him at his desk. He looked at her. She gave him a victory sign. “Is it true?” he asked. It was. His classmates roared with applause. He’d scored “needs improvement,” the lowest passing grade, on both math and English. He counts it as the happiest day of his life in this country.

“Leonal can make a contribution to the United States, and he will,” Stassen said. “He is not selfish, and he is going to work for it.”

On a Tuesday in April, three full years after his arrival in the United States, Leonal was 30 minutes late to school. He’d missed his train at Uphams Corner. Advanced Algebra was halfway over when arrived.

“This is not good,” his teacher said. Leonal was failing math.

Later, his second-period teacher met him three paces into the room. He was days behind in his senior research project. As Leonal turned up the stairs toward his third class, a friend slapped him on the shoulder and said, “Trabaja duro!” Work hard.

He works four shifts a week at the Burger King on Columbia Road, where he earns $8.25 an hour. He pays some money to his aunt, whom he lives with in Boston; he sends money to his relatives in the Dominican Republic; and he gives a portion to his mother, who keeps a savings account for him. She works as a home health aide, and lives in Lawrence with Leonal’s two younger siblings. Most nights, Leonal falls asleep while he’s doing his homework.

His teachers, unwilling to let him fail, drew his last assignments out of him. They demanded his time in study hall periods and after school.

Leonal will graduate from high school this week — a statistical feat. Last year, 66 percent of Boston’s graduating seniors completed high school within four years. But only 60 percent of English-language learners, 60 percent of Hispanics, and 59 percent of males did so. Leonal finished in three years and one month. He is 22 years old.

He plans to attend Bunker Hill Community College, and then hopes to study agronomy at Ohio State University. He wants to give his life to protecting land and nature. He called his father in the Dominican Republic to share his plans, and his father told the whole family. Their ancestors grew trees and cultivated land.

Eventually, he dreams of living in the countryside, possibly in the Dominican Republic.

“When I get old, that’s what I want — a house, and to spend the rest of my life breathing nice air.” Leonal laughed out loud at the prospect.

Alexa Mills can be reached at mills.alexa@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexatimeaus.
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