Mendez Middle School lies in the heart of Dove Springs. It’s the only middle school in the neighborhood – so if you grow up in the area, it’s more than likely you’ve walked these halls.
Students here deal with lots of challenges. For one, more students at Mendez have at least one parent in jail than any other school in the district. Nearly 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Most students are being raised by just one parent. Others are undocumented – or their parents are.
The school struggles academically too. Last year, just a little more than half the students passed all of their standardized tests.
Mendez principal Ron Gonzales says he's just trying to get students in the door, saying even something as simple as the rain can pose attendance problems. Teachers at Mendez say there are some students who miss up to 40 days of school in one semester.
Attendance has been a struggle for Mendez eighth-grader Isay Medrano.
First, his mother, Estela, was hurt in a car accident. Then she got sick with a kidney infection. She’s raising three kids on her own, so Isay and his siblings had to take care of her.
"We would go and get her medicine," Isay says. "I would keep her eye on her and give her some water when she needed it, remind her about her pills, wake her up, and sometimes I would make her something to eat."
Isay began missing a lot of school. "I would only go once or twice when my sister was home," he says, "and after that I would just go home and help my sister take care of mom."
His older brother has pancreatitis. When it flares up, Isay has to take care of him too – meaning even more missed school.
While Isay’s mom recuperated, she lost her factory job. The family is undocumented; she missed too many days, so she says they let her go.
The family moved from house to house. Money was tight. Sometimes there wasn't enough for gas to drive to school.
But it didn’t mean he stopped practicing his main interest: the violin.
His mother says hearing music helped her get through complicated times. "I try to be there, to support him 100 percent as much as I can," Estela says. "We go wherever he plays. I drive him around. I bring him for practice. He stays late, then when he gets home he plays for three or four hours and I just listen."
Isay picked up the violin three years ago, and quickly became the best player in his orchestra class. He says the violin keeps him focused:
"I’m not a bad kid," he says. "I don’t do stuff that other kids do, like, drug-wise," he says.
You can always spot Isay in a group of students by his red-hooded sweatshirt. He’s a quiet kid for the most part. When he does speak up, it’s usually to joke with his friends. He knows he’s a talented violinist, but says he doesn’t like the attention. So you can imagine how much he liked a reporter following him around for months.
"I try not to be a big shot," he says.
KUT's Kate McGee spoke and visited with Isay and his family over the course of five months. Listen to "Turning the Corner," KUT's 30-minute documentary on Dove Springs, this Friday at 9:30am and 6pm on KUT 90.5 FM.