Known as “The Researchers,” the small cadre of fourth- and fifth-graders at Santa Ana’s Pio Pico Elementary waged a battle against City Hall that nearly a decade later remains the stuff of legend.

It was 2004, and the busy intersection of West Highland and Flower streets in front of the school, situated in one of the city’s most densely populated and poverty-stricken areas, had no traffic light. It didn’t even have a crosswalk.

The city’s stance was that there was no need for a traffic light, because the intersection wasn’t dangerous. Records going back years showed only two reported incidents of people being hit by cars.

But The Researchers — formed by resource teacher Emily Wolk to channel the skills students were learning in the classroom into civic-minded enterprises — knew better.

So they went to work, using their math skills to estimate speeds of cars going through the intersection and interviewing community members who had been eyewitnesses to accidents. In the end, they found 12 instances of people being hit at the intersection.

“They went to City Hall and said, ‘We have the names of witnesses who saw people hit,’ and told city officials that their information was wrong,” said Lisa Solomon, who at the time was a resource teacher at Pio Pico and is now principal of neighboring Lowell Elementary.

City officials took the kids seriously, and a traffic light went up at the intersection.

The Researchers’ accomplishment achieved such renown that leaders at an elementary school in Lawrenceville, N.J., wanted to see a presentation of their work — in person. So Wolk and a few of the students who had worked the hardest on the project were flown to New Jersey.

Among those students was a quiet girl named Ana Maldonado. Ana had stood out from the first time she appeared at Pio Pico as a five-year-old, helping her deaf and mute mother fill out the necessary paperwork for her to enter kindergarten.

From the beginning, teachers and administrators saw in Ana a rare maturity and capacity for empathy. She was never one of the school’s most popular kids, usually preferring the company of her teachers to her peers and often staying in the classroom at recess.

But what Ana may have lacked in gregariousness she more than made up for in earnestness. These qualities made her an ideal fit for The Researchers, and no one was surprised when she emerged as a leader of the group.

“She’s the kid who sticks in your memory,” said Michael Hanson, Ana’s fifth-grade teacher. “An old soul, she as always thinking beyond herself.”

Ana has fond memories of her trip to New Jersey. Yet more than the presentation, the highlight for her was a visit they made to nearby Princeton University. She was transfixed by the beauty and grandeur of the historic campus. And though Princeton, with its majestic architecture and tree-lined quads, was a world away from the 10-year-old’s gritty reality in central Santa Ana, a seed had been planted.

But at the time, Ana’s troubles at home were far too great for her to be thinking about where she would go away to school, if she went away at all.

“I recall at the age of 5 thinking that it was up to me to bring my family out of poverty,” she wrote in a letter that has circulated among her former teachers.

Ana was the second of four girls born to Angel and Antonia Maldonado. They had come to the United States to escape grinding poverty in their hometown of Leon, Guanajuato, a city about 250 miles northwest of Mexico City.

For a variety of reasons, both were overwhelmed by the responsibility of maintaining a household and rearing children. And it was clear very early on that Ana, more than her sisters, would bear the brunt of the fallout.

For Antonia Maldonado, any form of communication with the outside world was extremely difficult, because she had not ever fully learned sign language. This often left little Ana playing the role of her mother’s primary caregiver.

“I would miss school to go to my mom’s doctor appointment,” Ana remembers. “I would also go to the market to make sure she didn’t get ripped off. … I would know how much money we had and count the prices of things in my head, including the tax, as we went through the aisles.”

Angel Maldonado does not even have a grammar school education. But during most of Ana’s early childhood he did have steady work, mainly in manufacturing, and in his own way pushed her to do well in her studies, telling her: “If you like the way I live, then do not go to school.”

But when Angel wasn’t working, he was drinking, and the family paid the price. In her own words, Ana recounted the horrors that would often follow his bouts with the bottle.

Although my dad did understand the importance of education, he, during my adolescence, did not understand how traumatizing it was to watch him drink to the point where he would end up beating my mother every weekend. But the violence did not end there. My mother out of frustration would then beat me and my sisters. Sometimes she would leave us bleeding.

Ana now says she wouldn’t have made it through the darkness of her early childhood without her faith in God and the grace of her teachers at Pio Pico. The school was her refuge, and the constant positive reinforcement she received there counterbalanced the negativity of her home life.

To this day, Ana gushes with delight as she recalls the different teaching styles of the Pio Pico educators and the warmth they showed her.

“Mrs. Hanson, she is the nicest person you will ever meet in the world. Everything she told us I took to heart. … My fourth grade teacher Mrs. Vicente, she was really amazing. There were days she would take us out and play games instead of doing our lessons. … Mr. Hanson was just the best teacher ever. He was an amazing math teacher, amazing science teacher.”

The feeling is mutual.

Solomon speaks of the patience and kindness Ana would show her mother as she filled out the school paperwork. Vivian Hanson remembers Ana being not only one of her best students but also the most humble.

“We never got the sense of what she was going through at home,” said Michael Hanson.

For a while during her later elementary and early middle school years, things seemed to be improving at home. Angel had begun to realize what his heavy drinking and abusive behavior was doing to his family, and it had tapered off.

Her dreams of Princeton had begun to fade. “At the time, I did not really know what Princeton really meant and had decided to go to Santa Ana College,” she recalls.

But Ana excelled at Lathrop Intermediate School. At the urging of an eighth-grade teacher, she entered a contest to write the school district’s scholar pledge.

Hers was selected. It reads:

We, the students of Santa Ana Unified School District, pledge to be dedicated to scholarship. We will strive to succeed and build an honorable future. We will make our city proud by being respectful and responsible. We shall not only ensure success for ourselves, but we will also encourage success in others.

But her dysfunctional home life, which was always simmering, bubbled over again. The lingering effects from the death of a close uncle (which eventually led her to want to become a doctor) and a two-year period during which her father was unemployed pushed Ana to the breaking point in her early years at Godinez Fundamental High School.

She began having health problems, first suffering from bouts of gastritis and then migraine headaches. The gastritis would become so bad that there were times she couldn’t move.

Rock bottom came on a day when Ana arrived home to an empty refrigerator. This was significant to her, because Angel — who had grown up so poor that he would sometimes go days without food — prided himself above all else on keeping his family fed, so much so that he owned two refrigerators.

From the empty refrigerator Ana went to her father’s bedroom and to a sock drawer where he kept his money. When Angel was first unemployed, he had $20,000 in the drawer, which had given Ana great comfort.

On that day it was empty. Ana collapsed, years of hurt, anger and fear overcoming her.

The abyss consumed me; it destroyed my soul. It destroyed everything I ever stood for. It destroyed the hope and faith I had in God; the hope – the reality – that things would get better. The pain I experienced when I no longer felt God’s companionship was unbearable. It made me feel alone in the world. It rendered me helpless.

But despite all of this pain and sickness, Ana continued to work hard at school, keeping a full slate of advanced placement classes and a 4.7 grade point average. In the end, she said, she just couldn’t bear to let her teachers down.

“What was I supposed to say? My dad is unemployed so I didn’t do my homework.”

In her senior year, Ana learned of QuestBridge, a program that connects high-performing students from low-income neighborhoods to top-tier universities. She had to fill out an exhaustive application and then ranked the top five colleges she wanted to attend in order of her preference.

“At first, I ranked Princeton fifth,” Ana said. “Not because I didn’t want to go but because I never thought I would get it. … But then a friend told me, ‘Are you crazy?’ “

On December 15th, just after 1 p.m., Ana stopped into her calculus teacher’s room and asked if she could log onto a computer and check her email account. In her inbox was an email titled: “QuestBridge Notification.”

It told her she was going to Princeton — on a full scholarship.

“All this bad stuff happens, all this bad stuff — and then this!” Ana said, remembering the tearful moment. “I recall thinking: Now for sure I can get my family out of poverty. It’s a done deal. … And if I hadn’t gone through what I’d gone through, I probably wouldn’t have made it.”

Ana left for Princeton on Saturday. She’s enrolled in a summer program that will extend until the fall term begins in September.

But before she left, the teachers and administrators of Pio Pico held a pinning ceremony for her, a tradition at the school when someone close to them moves on.

“I told her, ‘You don’t know how proud we are of you,’” Solomon said.

“We don’t always hear the success stories. We hear about the kids being in jail, being in gangs. We’ve had second-graders working with drug dealers. But in the history of the school, nobody, nobody has gone to Princeton! This is why we do this. This is why we come to school each day.”

Editor’s note: Through our youth media program, Voice of OC editors will be keeping in touch with Ana and posting accounts of her experiences during her first year at Princeton.

Please contact David Washburn directly at and follow him on Twitter:

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