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Two Roosevelt High seniors headed to Cornell on full scholarships

Roosevelt High School Seniors Evelyn Sanchez, left, and

Roosevelt High School Seniors Evelyn Sanchez, left, and Vanessa Chicas photographed at the school Friday, May 16, 2014. The best friends, who were accepted into Cornell University, will be the first graduates to attend an Ivy League school in the last 15 years. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Best friends since the third grade, Evelyn Sanchez and Vanessa Chicas have both served as leaders in Roosevelt High School's student government, both belonged to the bowling team and both been named honor students.

Now the two high school seniors will mark another milestone together. They have been accepted all-expenses-paid to an Ivy League school -- Cornell University -- and are believed to be the district's first students to accomplish that in at least 15 years, school officials said.

Come August, they plan to be roommates at the Ithaca school as they begin their freshman year.

"They are extremely admired by their peers and their teachers," Principal Stephen Strachan said. "They have set a very high bar for underclassmen to aspire to."

Chicas, 18, acknowledged the achievement, saying that "our families both came here with nothing, and we are basically living out their American dream."

Both young women's families came to the United States from El Salvador and all are now U.S. citizens. Chicas was born here, while Sanchez was born in her parents' homeland and has become a U.S. citizen.

The Roosevelt district, with 2,800 students, is one of the poorest on Long Island. Low graduation rates at the high school have been chronic, along with low student scores on state English and math exams. The school has been posted on the state's list of lowest achievers for more than 20 years.

Roosevelt High's graduation rate, while slowly improving, still remains below the state's minimum standard of 80 percent. An 11-year state takeover of the school district ended in 2013. In September, Roosevelt High reopened after a $66.9 million renovation, with state funds covering the bulk of the costs.

Deborah Wortham, the new superintendent who took over in July, asked all seniors to make a commitment this year -- as requirements to walk the stage at graduation -- to take the SAT or ACT college admissions tests, have an acceptable GPA and attendance, and apply to at least one college.

This year, nearly 160 college acceptance letters have been sent to the 187 members of Roosevelt's class of 2014.

Wortham said she considers Chicas and Sanchez, 17, to be role models. Chicas plans to major in human development and become a neurologist. Sanchez wants to major in environmental engineering. She said she has been encouraged and supported by her teachers, including a social studies teacher who took her to Columbia University on a weekend day so she could visit an Ivy League campus.

"They would always say, 'It is OK if you don't get it, you still have come a long way,' " Sanchez said.

"I was ecstatic they got in," said chemistry teacher Yolette Wright, who mentored both young women, calling them hardworking and possessing an "intense intrinsic academic" interest.

Chicas' mother works as a housecleaner, and one of her clients has a daughter who went to Cornell and spoke of it as a great school -- words the mother found encouraging.

Chicas is graduating fourth in the high school class, while Sanchez is the salutatorian.

They are participants in Cornell's Arthur O. Eve Higher Educational Opportunity Program, offered to New York State students whose financial and academic environments have not allowed their potential to come to fruition.

Cornell received more than 43,000 applications for admission to the Class of 2018 -- the highest number of freshman applications in university history, according to university officials. Of those, 6,014 were accepted.

The university's estimated 2014-15 cost of attendance for New York State residents, including tuition and mandatory fees, housing, meals, books and supplies, and personal expenses, is $47,464. Because Cornell is both a state school and a private institution, tuition in some schools within the university can be significantly less.

Chicas and Sanchez plan to attend a summer session at Cornell that starts mid-June. They will miss senior prom but expect to return for graduation.

When both learned they had been accepted -- with major expenses covered by a generous financial-aid package -- "We knew there was no other option," Chicas said.

"I will show everyone I am capable," she said, "and that I will succeed."

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