For a time, Irlando Goncalves wanted to be “that dude,” the guy who got attention in school for all the wrong reasons.
He and his family lived on Hendry Street in Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood, a place thick with the pitfalls and snares of urban environs. He was skipping class, clowning around, mouthing off, and getting suspended, barely squeaking through middle school, which educators say is one of the last places to catch students before they fall too far behind or drop out.
Then, one day during the summer before his ninth-grade year, Goncalves decided to stop getting in trouble and “change people’s perspective of me.” It was a decision made with a clarity of focus that escapes most adults.
Now 18 years old, the senior at English High School has already won early admission to his top college choice — and with a full scholarship, no less — and is counting down the days until he can put high school in the rearview mirror.
Of the 103 seniors who graduated from English High in 2011 — the most recent figures available — 55 percent went on to a four-year college, according to state figures.
Once, Goncalves embodied many of the challenges that confront educators and their students in large urban school systems: a poor mind-set about school, negative peer pressure, and a single mother who worked 12 hours a day and couldn’t afford to take time off to visit the school.
He had emigrated from Cape Verde as a fifth-grader, a grade he was required to repeat. His mother, Maria Goncalves, worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. at a factory in Lawrence, meaning that her son was often left on his own.
With few friends at Dearborn Middle School, he started seeking attention for all the wrong reasons. “I was doing a lot of negative things so people could look at me and be like, ‘Oh, he’s that dude that did this and did that.’ You know?” he said.
There were constant phone calls home from the school about his behavior and, in turn, constant calls from his mother to his father, who was still in Cape Verde at the time, about their unruly child. Goncalves said his behavior was so bad that his mother temporarily sent him back to the African island nation for a dose of discipline.
“My mom doesn’t like me talking about it because it makes her feel bad,” he says. “I was just a troublemaker.”
But the summer he got a job as a counselor in training at the Teen Center at St. Peter Church on Bowdoin Street “changed my whole perspective,” he said. “The money felt good. I felt independent, and in a way it made me think: ‘If I keep up the good things, more good things will come.’ ”
And come they did.
The teen center director, Paulo De Barros, made sure Goncalves had the right people around to help guide him along the way. There were his mentors, Peter Roby, now a graduate student at Northeastern University, and an undergraduate student at Bridgewater State University.
There was also a history teacher who kept an eye on the teen at English High, where all freshman and core sophomore courses — English, math, science, and history — are divided by gender.
With no girls around to try to impress, Goncalves said, he could focus more on school than romance.
“I was like, OK, let me just do my work and see how it feels,” he said. “I ended up with high honor roll, straight A’s.”
Roby said Goncalves “had a bit of a reputation before I met him.” But, he added, “The young man I met when he was a ninth-grader was full of confidence in himself. That’s the most impressive piece. He put aside the distractions when he had people telling him to do the wrong things.”
The two talk philosophy. Get together on the weekends. Text and e-mail each other about school work.
Eventually, his calendar of extracurricular activities — mock trial, basketball, soccer, science fair — became so robust that Goncalves no longer had time to work at the teen center, though he did volunteer from time to time. And in the summer, when things in the neighborhood start to heat up, Goncalves would head across the bridge to Cambridge, where he spent Sunday through Friday as part of Harvard University’s Crimson Summer Academy for high-achieving students, taking classes and living on campus.
That is the strategy, keeping youths so occupied with school and work activities that they don’t have time to hang out and get caught up with the guns, gangs, drugs, and violence, De Barros said.
At 18 now, Goncalves is poised and confident as he sits in the teen center, the place that helped bring about his metamorphosis, and talks about his transformation.
Goncalves applied to 11 colleges and universities. He is headed to Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., on a four-year scholarship. The small liberal arts school in upstate New York has a 10-to-1 student-teacher ratio and was his number one choice.
His full scholarship is through the Posse Foundation, which places diverse groups of 10 public high school students — a posse — into prestigious colleges and universities each year with four-year, full-tuition scholarships.
“It was the fit,” he said before rushing out the door of the teen center to the Posse Boston Awards Ceremony at the Fairmont Copley Plaza. Roby, his mentor, was waiting outside to chauffeur Goncalves and his mother to the hotel’s gilded ballroom.
After the formal presentation of the 60 Posse scholarship awards, and the hugs, and the speeches, family and friends were invited to stand and speak from the heart. Roby grabbed the microphone and looked toward the stage.
“I just wanted to say that I’m looking forward to the bigger and better projects you’ll be doing in college,” he told Goncalves. “I’m proud of you, and I know everybody in Dorchester is proud of you. We look forward to what you have going on in the future.”
As her son spoke, Maria Goncalves sat in the audience a little unsure of what was happening because of a language barrier, but beaming all the same with pride.
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.