WALLA WALLA, Wash. — By 12:20 p.m. on a recent Wednesday Azuccha Ledesma, best known as “Zuci,” is heading for lunch at College Place High School.
As crowded as the cafeteria becomes upon the chime of a three-tone bell, Zuci is easy to keep track of in her signature pink shoes, backpack and almost-pink hair.
Zuci is also this year’s Associated Student Body president, and the title brings its own recognition among her peers.
Once Zuci has settled in with her chef’s salad — picking out the parts she thinks might be too calorie-laden — she lists off the numerous ASB events she is in charge of over the school year.
“We have 17 events that we do,” Zuci noted, explaining that as president she oversees them all. “It’s a lot of responsibility, making sure nothing slips through the cracks. I’m the glue.”
Before she could hold things together, however, Zuci was a broken girl who needed mending herself. That’s when her school, its principal and one determined older sister kept the teen from becoming one more dropout statistic.
Zuci began school in the College Place Public School district not long after her family arrived from Mexico when she was 4 years old.
A freshman when the new high school opened, Zuci was part of the wave of enrollees arriving at the building with see-through walls and classrooms physically designed to foster creativity.
School had long been a sanctuary. After her parents divorced, Zuci was often left in charge of her little brother while their mother worked evenings. Her mom dated some, but one relationship really took hold about the time Zuci was entering high school. The man on the other end of the internet connection moved to College Place with his two children to join her family, Zuci said.
“I said ‘Danger’ right away,” she recalled. “I didn’t feel comfortable.”
Her mom, however, seemed fully invested in the new relationship. So Zuci began staying away from home, sometimes going to her older sister’s house after school.
“My mom wasn’t supporting me emotionally,” Zuci said. “Every single day my house felt less and less like home.”
Her mother’s boyfriend made it known he didn’t consider Zuci part of the family; that life would be easier if she didn’t live at home.
“That was a really clear moment. I was afraid of him hurting me,” Zuci said.
Maybe drugs would heal the pain rejection had left in her heart, Zuci recalls thinking. She began smoking marijuana.
Once high school started, it didn’t take long to get caught — not when the teen decided the restroom in the new school building was a good place to get high.
Principal Kirk Jameson well remembers the day. He and his staff had received a heads up on Zuci, Jameson said.
“We look at the incoming class for as much information as possible,” he said.
In the high school’s debut year, staff had fewer than 100 students to watch, meaning they could keep a closer eye on all of them, he said.
“We were just watching her, trying to figure out a way to work with her,” Jameson said of Zuci.
Then they received word that someone had been smoking pot in the restroom. A small school census made finding the culprit a quick process. Once confronted, Zuci quickly folded, he said.
The freshman was presented with two options: take a 45-day suspension, which basically terminates a student for the semester, or choose treatment and five days of suspension.
“We call it the ’45 to 5,'” Jameson explained. “I will reduce it to five days if you choose assessment and treatment. I don’t want the kids out, I want them back. But I want them back clean.”
That “consequence stick” is heavy on purpose, Jameson added.
“We call it ‘creating the crisis,’ because once they are caught and they are faced with a 45-day suspension . I’ve only had one student take that suspension,” he said.
The approach works best, however, when the student is in a supportive environment, which made Zuci’s situation tricky.
Yet that’s not how the young teen herself saw things. Her mom had never come to school conferences or noticed when Zuci was failing classes; she couldn’t be counted on this time, either.
This moment would hinge on Zuci’s decision alone, and she saw no choice other than treatment. The teen first got help at Serenity Point Counseling, then at Trilogy Recovery Community.
THE PATH FORWARD
Zuci began living with her sister’s family at age 16. Although just four years Zuci’s senior, Alicia Abarca possessed the parental nurturing her sibling needed. Abarca began attending Zuci’s parent-teacher conferences and had no problem spelling things out.
“She told me, ‘If you’re going to live here, you’re going to be a good kid,'” Zuci said.
College Place High School echoed the directive, she noted, crediting the high school’s college and career adviser Anabrenda Blethen with helping the student find her academic path.
Blethen, Zuci said, “asked me what I wanted to be, and I said a surgeon. She asked me how I was going to get there. That was the part I didn’t know.”
Zuci knows now. It takes communication, work, engagement with your community and believing in yourself, she said.
Take her art project last summer, for example. Zuci wanted to paint two of the school’s bathrooms in intergalactic themes, but she figured there was no way the administration would go for it. Still, she persevered.
“I came up with my pitch. I had my budget and my previous art experience. I presented the budget to ASB to pay for materials,” Zuci said.
She got the official nod and spent about 50 hours turning two large restroom walls into celestial spaces — meanwhile working her regular job at Fast Eddy’s drive-in restaurant in Walla Walla.
Art continues to drive Zuci. As she waits for college acceptance letters to arrive — one has already landed from Seattle Pacific University — Zuci is combining plans for a career in medicine with that love of drawing, paint and color.
The senior student has dreamed up a way to help sick kids get the healing power of art when they most need it. She wants to create art kits and accompanying videos to send to hospitals for pediatric patients and their parents.
Zuci also developed a survey for parents to find out what would be most useful, then petitioned four Northwest hospital administrators to lend support to the idea.
It will cost about $600 to create 50 kits, but her high school experiences all point to succeeding — with her own efforts and the help of others, Zuci said with a smile.
No matter where Zuci starts college in the fall, she will be the first in her family to do so, she said. And when she tries to explain her life turnaround to people, it always comes back to her sister and her school experiences.
“This school helps you pick a route,” she said. “Sometimes people like me start going off the route. This school helps you get back on the route.”
Information from: Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, http://www.union-bulletin.com