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After arriving in the United States from Mexico as a sixth grader, Jose Gomez Moreno (second from left) will graduate from Marble Falls High School on June 1 and head to Harvard University. His parents, Jose Luis Gomez (left) and Lucila Moreno (right), came to the United States to give their children, Jose and Arely Gomez Moreno a chance for a better education. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

MARBLE FALLS — Even though six years have passed since Jose Gomez Moreno first walked through the halls of Marble Falls Middle School, fresh from his family’s move to the United States from Mexico, he easily recalled the trepidation that crept through him that day.

In middle school and even as an underclassman in high school, Harvard wasn’t on his radar. At Marble Falls Middle School, Jose just wanted to get through one day then the next. His mind wasn’t focused on the future. However, others spotted something in the student that set him apart. It started at home.

Through the ESL program, students are immersed in English. The class relies on several tools and techniques, including visual aids and phonics, to help students learn English. While Jose could speak with Portillo in Spanish — though it was rarely done — in other classes, it was all English all the time.

“I would tell the students not to speak in Spanish,” Portillo said. “It was tough for them because here they are in this school and they don’t know the language. Speaking Spanish would be so easy to fall back on, but that wouldn’t help them to succeed. Jose, when he talked, he would not speak in Spanish. He wanted to learn English.”

“I tried to use clues, even tiny clues, especially in math because you’re really learning the language of math,” he said. “In social studies and science, I often tried to use my outside knowledge. If a teacher showed a picture of something, I would sometimes know what it was, or I’d find out and study it.”

The other factor Portillo attributed to Jose’s academic success is he entered middle school with a good education already. “His education level was very high,” she said. “He was very intellectual. He had a good education in Mexico, and that helped.”

It also caused frustrations for Jose during those early days. In his school in Mexico, he hit high marks in class and was among the top students in his grade, but he found himself well below top-level performance as a Marble Falls sixth-grader because of his lack of English skills.

In the seventh grade, the state of Texas introduced Jose to the world of high-stakes, standardized testing with the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). This was one year and six months after he came to the United States knowing no English; now, he had to pass the STAAR English and writing exams. He really had no concept of the importance the state put on these tests, so he didn’t feel the stress other classmates did.

“High school was 100 percent better,” he said. “My academic life was better. My social life was better. I connected to more people. It was because I really knew English, and I could talk to people. I could talk to my teachers. I could communicate with people. Learning English helped a lot, but it was also my teachers. They’ve really been a big part of this.

If he had to point to when his journey to Harvard really began, though, it would be his sophomore year. He joked about going to Harvard, but it seemed like an unattainable dream, even though his dad kept telling him the Ivy League school was the one to aim for.

He took the College Board ACT test more than once because he knew he could score higher, eventually earning a 5, the highest score you can get. During his junior year, Jose started applying to colleges. Once he joked about going to Harvard; now, he was serious. The school was at the top of his list. He also applied to the University of Texas, Cornell University, and Baylor University — just in case the Harvard thing didn’t pan out.

Jose is one of 1,962 students accepted out of the 42,749 who applied for admission this year. The 4.49 percent acceptance rate, according to the school’s newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, is the lowest in the university’s history, highlighting how remarkable his accomplishment is.

Both his parents knew bringing their children to the United States more than six years ago was going to be tough on all of them, but especially Jose and his sister, Arely. After graduating from Marble Falls High School, she began her studies at Central Texas College but will soon take classes at Texas State University in San Marcos.