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Nevada will soon spend a lot more money on public education thanks to Governor Sandoval's historic $1.1 billion tax plan. But for now, our graduation rate remains near the bottom of the national barrel at just 70 percent. As many area high schools prepare hold their commencement ceremonies, Reno Public Radio has shared the stories of students who are earning their degrees, despite adversities like being homeless, dealing with a drug addiction, or not having enough family support at home. We also spoke to local experts about what interventions really work for kids facing a tough road to graduation.

Reno Teen Beats The Odds To Become Gates Millennium Scholar

All this week, KUNR is exploring what it takes for Nevada’s high schoolers to make it to graduation. In our state,  English Language Learners have a dismal graduation rate—not even a third finish school. But there’s a senior from Hug High School in Reno, who has beat the odds, and has even won a Gates Millennium Scholarship, which will pay for college. Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray has more.

Joel Paniagua Soto is a soft-spoken and has just a slight accent. That’s because he didn’t start learning English until the fourth grade.  Although he was born in the United States, a family emergency caused his family to move back to Mexico when he was about five-years-old. When they came back to Nevada, Joel and his three brothers were placed in remedial classes where he says school felt daunting and socially isolating.  

His brothers would come back home from school and share their daily struggles of getting through the school day: they didn't understand the culture or speak the language initially. After several years in ESL classes, Paniagua Soto felt more academically confident. Although he had always excelled in math and considered it a "universal language," it wasn't until around eighth grade that he felt comfortable speaking English.

Paniagua Soto credits his parents for helping him appreciate the educational opportunities available to him that they didn't have back in Mexico. In June, he will be graduating with 5.0 weighted grade point average.

“I want to show other students they are capable of achieving what I achieved, despite your racial background or where you come from,” Paniagua Soto says.

This fall, Paniagua Soto will be heading off to the University of California, Davis where he’ll be studying bio-medical engineering as a Gates Millennium Scholar. The scholarship is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Anh Gray is a former contributing editor at KUNR Public Radio.