PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Students from some of the most impoverished communities in our state are graduating from schools like Dartmouth, Tufts, MIT, and Vanderbilt, some with full academic scholarships, all thanks to one Phoenix-area woman and the idea she had to help kids.

[VIDEO: Aguila Youth paves the way for higher learning]

Her name is Rosemary Ybarra Hernandez. She spent years as an educator, and for her PhD at ASU, she studied youth violence.

What she learned interviewing gang members, she used to create a gang, so-to-speak, of her own. Hernandez' "gang" is a gang of believers.

"We're not just focusing on college and career readiness," Hernandez tells us. "We are focusing on the whole human being. And by definition Aguila is a gang, we are a gang of good."

"I actually like this, because you wrote your own stuff, it's good to have positive affirmations," says student instructor Analyssa Flores to another student as you overhear her teaching students to be positive and to go after their dreams.

On this day, she circles a classroom full of kids at Glenn L. Downs Elementary School in the Cartwright District. They're working on vision boards and creating goals for education, career and life. It's just one of the many programs created through Hernandez' non-profit called

Aguila Youth helps students from Title 1 schools, those who could be misguided or led down the wrong path by bad influences, achieve higher learning.

"I wanted to know what it was that made [these kids] good in a gang, stay in a gang or leave a gang," she explains.

It was a study she conducted on youth violence years ago for her PhD.

"And the common thread throughout my interviews was that sense of belonging, that sense of family," she remembers.

Hernandez explains that her idea for this program stemmed from that dissertation, but while her goal was to create something similar, she wanted the outcome to be uplifting and positive.

"A lot of them were very bright, but just needed some guidance, and so I decided to flip it around," she said.

So, instead, alums who've joined her Aguila "family," she tells us, have experienced much success, some getting full academic scholarships, and many attending some of the most prestigious schools in the nation.

Over the years, Hernandez' program has become somewhat of a movement in the Hispanic community and is paving the way for many students to continue higher learning, who otherwise don't know what to do to succeed, or where to turn.

Principal Vivian Nash of Glenn L. Downs Elementary School has seen the program in action first-hand and sees the difference it's making with her students.

"They have sessions were they go over essays together," she tells us. "They spend the night and apply for scholarships all night long, they have lots of support for the student and the family as well."

On this day, these impressionable eighth graders are creating vision boards, their intentions for the future. Some are hearing for the first time that college is within reach.

"Many would be the first generation to go to college and they don't have the family support of what it takes to apply and to get into college," Nash explains."They need to have a big fat hairy goal, so nothing is out of range for them.

"If they want to be a doctor, this helps them navigate now, what it takes for them, where they're sitting in their eighth grade chair, in order for them to get through high school, and college and on to being a doctor."

Analyssa Flores went through the Aquila program, and says she can identify with many of the kids she's teaching.

"I know what these kids are living," Flores tells us. "I come from the same background. As a first generation Latin background I know what they go through."

Flores is now a college student at Grand Canyon University and she's studying to be a teacher. It's a first for her family.

As the school year ends, she pays it forward, teaching kids to dream big, to continue their education and to stay focused.

"These kids are so bright, so incredibly smart and some of them don't know it," she says. "But I can see it as I teach them, and I'm so grateful to be helping them in this process."

Aguila Youth is available in all Cartwright schools and other Title I districts. But if you have a high school student who needs help with applying for scholarships, or with career and college readiness, this program is free and available to anyone.

"It really just puts that motivation, that hope, that inspiration in them that is amazing, they just don't get that anywhere else," Nash adds.

Aquila Youth is now in its 15th year and is celebrating its "Quinceanera" on Friday, May 17t. To volunteer, join the program, make a donation or buy tickets for upcoming events, go to:


Copyright 2019 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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