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Only Latino student at Leo high school made all the right choices

Updated: June 16, 2011 12:32AM

As the only Latino in what had been an entirely African-American student body before he transferred in as a freshman, Eder Cruz-Alvarado stood out from the moment he walked through the door of Leo Catholic High some three and a half years ago.

He had little choice. There was no way to miss him.

Eder will still be standing out when he steps up to accept his diploma at Leo’s graduation ceremony next Sunday, where he will be recognized as the school’s first recipient of a prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship — an all-expense paid education at the college of his choice.

Eder, you see, is a young man who made all the right choices, including his decision to attend Leo. And when he leaves there, he will be very much missed.

The addition of two other Latino students at Leo this year meant Eder doesn’t stand out quite as much in that regard as he originally did. But he will tell you race was never an issue anyway, neither with him nor with the classmates who welcomed him into their midst.

That tells you something both about both Eder and Leo, a small Catholic school of 150 boys at 79th and Sangamon in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood.

Leo, you may know, has been in the news lately as the place Cardinal Francis George wants to send the Rev. Michael Pfleger after removing him as pastor at St. Sabina Church, which is just down the street.

There’s not much doubt the talented Pfleger, if he were so inclined, could do a lot of good for the financially struggling Leo, just as there’s not much doubt in my mind that the community would be better off if the cardinal abandoned his power play and left Pfleger alone to continue his successful work at St. Sabina.

But the story here is not whether Pfleger comes to Leo or not, but that many fine people are dedicated to making sure the work of the school will continue with or without him as it has for 86 years, exemplified in the story of Eder Cruz-Alvarado.

Eder, 18, has a 4.18 grade average in the honors program at Leo, which ranks him third in his class of 50 graduates. He’s also president of the student council, a member of the chess team and used to be on the boxing team.

Eder is planning to attend Valparaiso University in the fall, where he expects to major in mechanical engineering with the very specific goal of some day moving to Germany to become an engineer for BMW, whose cars he very much likes.

But the thumbnail yearbook resume doesn’t begin to capture what makes Eder special.

He’s the oldest son of a single mom who has worked in a factory while raising him and his half-brother in Gage Park, and he says that forced him to grow up fast — learning to cook and clean for the family since he was 5. He also works a part-time job in a neighborhood discount store to help support the family.

Yet he’s such an unassuming type that he didn’t even tell anyone at school after learning he had won the Gates Scholarship, one of 31 recipients in Illinois this year for the competitive award funded by the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation.

Aurora Latifi, the math teacher who nominated Eder for the honor, said she felt bad he hadn’t told her — until he admitted he hadn’t told his mother right away either.

“I don’t like to make it a big deal,” he said.

When the award was announced to his classmates at a recent school honors assembly, though, the room erupted.

“The kids were so proud of him,” said Principal Philip Mesina. “They were clapping. They were cheering.”

It was Eder himself who made the decision to attend Leo after doing an Internet search for places in Chicago to get an affordable high school education. He followed up by phone, then stopped by to pick up the paperwork.

Leo admissions director Mike Holmes, who is also dean of students and football coach, remembers meeting Eder that day and showing him around the school.

“I told him this was an all African-American school. He said, ‘I don’t care. I’m just looking for a good education.’ That showed me a lot of character,” Holmes said.

Eder’s attitude must have been apparent to his classmates as well.

“All the students they, like, welcomed me. It’s been like that ever since, no problem, no drama,” said Eder, a fresh-faced kid with an easy smile and a vice-grip handshake.

Next year Leo is expecting as many as 10 non-African-Americans in a freshman class of about 72 students, which would be its largest in 12 years.

With so many great kids to educate, nobody here is waiting for a savior.

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