When Blanca Fuentes-Pholyotin was a little girl, her father told her to value education above all else. Although a captain in the Mexican army before he immigrated, in the United States he worked at a garbage-disposal center.
"He told us the more knowledge you have, the better off you will be," said Fuentes-Pholyotin, a health technician at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix.
Fuentes-Pholyotin's father died young, leaving his 18-year-old daughter to care for her mother and five siblings. Not able to go to college, she joined the American armed services.
While Fuentes-Pholyotin is grateful for the opportunities that being in the military afforded her, her dream for her five children is that they get a college education. And she believes her oldest son, Miguel Cordova, is on his way to doing that, thanks to Loyola Academy.
Miguel will be one of the first graduates of Loyola Academy, a Phoenix Jesuit middle school for high-achieving low-income boys.
The school opened in 2011 to prepare academically gifted boys from underprivileged families for Brophy College Prep, a nationally recognized Jesuit school that educates some of the Valley's most accomplished youths.
Loyola's founders noticed that despite academic potential, many poor boys across the Valley weren't getting a college-prep education and were at risk of perpetuating the cycle of poverty familiar to their families. They concluded that if these boys were given the resources to succeed, they would.
Each boy — about 25 per class — receives a full scholarship to attend Loyola and then Brophy. Tuition at Brophy is about $13,500 a year, said Kendra Krause, Loyola's director.
Students may have the ability to succeed, but with so many external pressures, they may not apply themselves, said Eugenia Mora-Flores, an associate professor at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education focused on Latino culture in schools.
"Middle school is a critical time to keep students engaged. Many students choose to disengage in sixth or seventh grade, and those same groups of students are the group that end up dropping out in high school," she said.
Loyola students are in class 10 hours a day and have to attend a mandatory summer-school session. Parents must be involved in the school, and the boys complete various service projects.
"It's a rigorous place. That's part of getting them ready for Brophy," Krause said. "There's high expectations in place for what they are able to do and produce."
Far more students are succeeding than expected, Loyola officials said. They originally admitted 32 students, anticipating half would leave before it was time to transition into high school. About 25 are on track to graduate on May 20.
"From faculty to the Brophy students to the community, there's just a ton of support," Krause said. "I had one of the boys say it's really hard to fail when you feel like the whole world is on your side."
An elementary-school teacher told Fuentes-Pholyotin about Loyola and Brophy. A single mother of five living in a two-bedroom apartment at the time, Fuentes-Pholyotin had never heard of the school.
"I didn't know it was an expensive school until I saw all of the Range Rovers, Mercedes-Benzes and Lexuses in the parking lot," she said. "And I drove up in a 1998 Cadillac de Ville with no air-conditioning."
Although intimidated by Brophy's affluence, the desire for her son to learn alongside other boys from similar backgrounds with similar goals overcame any anxiety Fuentes-Phoyotin and Miguel experienced.
"My kids are so good in school, because they know what it's like to have nothing and be without," Fuentes-Pholyotin said. "I told them education is the most important thing, so they've got a hunger for education."
Miguel is in honors geometry with tenth-graders at Brophy and hopes to one day study engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Social atmosphere also an asset
In addition to providing challenging academics, Loyola's social atmosphere is what has made Miguel's experience so valuable, his mother said.
His father left the family when he was 18 months old, and Fuentes-Pholyotin has struggled to find other positive male influences for her two sons. While leaving his elementary-school friends for Loyola was difficult, Miguel eventually connected with the Loyola-Brophy community.
Loyola's male faculty and Brophy students have mentored Miguel in the classroom and beyond in ways that Fuentes-Pholyotin believes she could not have.
"They've taught him how to become a young man," she said.
And while there was some social anxiety about going to school with boys who have apparently unlimited resources, Miguel acclimated well.
"When he started taking math class at Brophy, he said he was scared to death because he thought they would pick on him," Fuentes-Pholyotin said. "But when he proved he was as smart or smarter than some of them, they gave him respect."
Donors provide funding
The Loyola boys' tuition is paid by donors ranging from Ken Kendrick, managing partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, to individuals looking for tax credits when they give to the Brophy Community Foundation.
While Loyola has yet to set up an endowment, Krause said the school has been successful in attracting financial support.
"When people walk around our school, they see that our kids are super compelling," she said. "It's easy to see where the money goes. And Brophy is a trusted institution."
Marianne Cracchiolo Mago, president and CEO of the Steele Foundation, said investing in Loyola was an easy decision for her organization. Mago's father, who founded the foundation, was a first-generation college graduate.
The long-term economic benefits for Arizona in helping low-income kids get into college and then into the state's workforce are obvious to her foundation's board, she said.
"I don't believe any kid in one neighborhood deserves a better education than another in another neighborhood," Mago said.