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In America, education - and especially college - is seen as the gateway to a better life. For children growing up poor in the U.S., going to college and achieving the American dream can seem elusive, even mythical.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports that there are remarkable young people, exceptions, who show the challenges and possibilities that do exist. It's the latest installment in our series "American Dreams."

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: On the corner of 106th and Lexington in New York City, a young man with a neatly trimmed beard, broad shoulders, wearing a bright-green polo shirt, paces the sidewalk in front of an old, refurbished school building.

JUAN CARLOS REYES: My name is Juan Carlos Reyes. I am actually standing right in front of the Heritage School. It's the place that sort of opened up the doors to change in my future.

SANCHEZ: This is where Juan Carlos remembers hearing about "the American dream" - in Mr. Saltz's English class, after reading "Death of a Salesman."

REYES: That's the first time in the classroom a professor actually brought up the concept of what the American dream was. You can come from the bottom and with hard work and dedication, you'll get a nice house, a nice car, and enough money for your kids to go to school.

SANCHEZ: For Juan Carlos, though, the message rang hollow. It was 2003 - his junior year - and he was in all kinds of trouble. He had gone through a gauntlet of bad teachers and dysfunctional schools; rarely attended class; got high; ran with a tough crowd; and was written off as a lost cause.

REYES: I just wanted a job. And I said something like, well, doormen get paid like, 16 bucks an hour. And if I get that job, I can make it. And to me, I guess, that was the dream.

SANCHEZ: The first teacher he met at Heritage High School, though, disabused him of that idea. She knew what kids like Juan Carlos needed.

RACHEL RIVERA: I gave them tough love, and I gave them good love.

SANCHEZ: Rachel "Rocky" Rivera, a P.E. and karate instructor, to this day has a pretty good track record proving to kids like Juan Carlos that they're not lost causes.

RIVERA: They learned discipline, they learned respect. They learned how to get up there and be go-getters, get what they needed in life.

SANCHEZ: Juan Carlos took Rocky's message to heart, but that wasn't all he got from Heritage High. The school offered lots of academic counseling, college visits, and free SAT prep courses. For the first time, Juan Carlos says, teachers provided what nobody else had: a culture of achievement and hard work that paved the way to college.

REYES: By the time I left Heritage, I absolutely knew that I was going to complete a college degree. Something that I never pictured became a reality - seeing my mom's dreams become reality. And I teared up because it was very significant to me.

SANCHEZ: After graduating from Baruch College, Juan Carlos became senior manager in the Office of the President at Columbia Teachers College, where he's now pursuing a master's degree in higher education.

How a poor Dominican kid from an impoverished neighborhood in the South Bronx can make it to college can be seen in one of two ways, says Jim Cullen. He's a cultural historian and author of "The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation."

JIM CULLEN: Some people would look at a story like Juan Carlos, and say he's proof that the system works. Other people look at the story of a Juan Carlos and say he's the exception and therefore, he's evidence that there's a problem.

SANCHEZ: Given the poor quality of education that the vast majority of kids living in poverty receive, Cullen says access to higher education, for them, is a matter of luck and good fortune.

CULLEN: A college degree has become, in effect, the lottery ticket of American life.

SANCHEZ: Juan Carlos agrees. Back on 106th and Lexington, in front of Heritage High School, he ponders the question that he's always asked himself: Why did he make it out of the South Bronx, when so many of the kids that he grew up with didn't?

REYES: Many would say that I am the compilation of the American dream. I mean, I grew up in an inner city of the Bronx - quite frankly, being lucky to not fall into the wrong place at the wrong time. But I don't think that it's a coincidence that eight out of 10 of my friends don't have a college degree. In fact, they don't have a high school diploma.

SANCHEZ: Where's their shot at a college education? Juan Carlos asks. Where's their American dream? Juan Carlos says these are the questions that now take up his life's work: to counsel poor, inner-city kids about the importance of a college education; and convince them that their dreams are not farfetched, but within grasp.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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