They could have fallen through the cracks. But these students are defying the odds.

Vanessa Paramo and Mariah Williams are typical seventh-graders in many ways.

Mariah likes learning about ratios and fractions in math class and dreads language arts and all its bedeviling commas. Vanessa likes her math teacher, but hates math class. They’d both rather talk to friends than do homework.

They also fit into categories often highlighted as factors that can lead to academic failure. Both come from low-income families, and both are minorities. Both attend Johnston County middle schools that struggle academically.

But both girls are succeeding. Mariah expects to become the first person in her family to graduate from college. Vanessa is now fluent in English, although she only spoke Spanish when she started kindergarten.

Now the Johnston County students are among the 10 children in North Carolina this year to receive the Victor E. Bell, Jr. Scholarship. The $20,000 scholarship is awarded to seventh-graders with potential to help pay college tuition.

“I’ve been told, ‘You can’t make it,’ ” Mariah said. “I’m just like, ‘Mm, I’m going to make it some day.’ 

Middle school guidance counselors and teachers can nominate one student per school annually to be considered for the award. Applications are then sent on to the College Foundation, which draws the names of 10 students out of a hat to receive the scholarship. Johnston County Public Schools was the only district to have two winners this year.

The students will get $2,000 a year in a savings fund until after high school. As long as they maintain high academic standards and continue to meet the scholarship’s renewal criteria, they will receive the full amount upon graduation.

Johnston school officials say multiple factors affect academic performance, including the number of students who are poor and the number who don’t speak English as their first language. They say they’re working to improve academics, and they point to the successes of students like Vanessa and Mariah as proof their efforts are paying off.

“This is working,” said Selma Middle principal Chris Germanoski. “It is happening, even to a greater level than your data is showing.”

Vanessa and Mariah say two programs in particular have had a positive impact on their academic careers: Johnston County’s dual language program and AVID, a national college prep course for underrepresented students.

‘It was really stressful’

Vanessa attends Selma Middle School, which received a D grade from the state last year, up from an F during the 2014-15 school year.

Nearly 91 percent of students at the school are considered economically disadvantaged, and more than half – 52 percent – of students speak Spanish as their first language.

Vanessa vividly remembers her first day of kindergarten at Selma Elementary, sitting at her desk, watching her teacher’s mouth move and not understanding a word.

“It was really stressful,” she said. “The other kids helped, but it was really tough for me. I would see everybody move when the teacher stopped talking and I would just sit there not knowing what to do.”

She was placed in the district’s fledgling dual-language program in second grade. Half the students were native English speakers, and half were native Spanish speakers. One day they would learn in English, the next they would learn in Spanish.

At the time, the program was new and untested, and Selma Elementary principal Suzanne Mitchell had to recruit parents to allow their kids to participate.

“No one knew if this would work, but we gave it a go and held our breath for the next three years to see if it would work,” Mitchell said.

According to testing results, Vanessa isn’t the only one who has benefited from the program. Students in Johnston County’s dual-language classes regularly score at least 40 percent higher on standardized tests than their peers, and have scored as much as 200 percent higher.

Vanessa now plans to start posting language lessons on YouTube for English and Spanish. She’s also learning American Sign Language and wants to learn Russian and German.

“I know from experience when you don’t know how to say what you need or what you want, it’s really tough,” she said. “Knowing a language is knowing a new way to connect with people and connect with the world.”

She has her sights on attending Harvard University, Georgetown University or UNC-Chapel Hill. She’s interested in studying acting, broadcast journalism or law.

‘College bound’

Mariah attends Smithfield Middle School, which received a C grade from the state last year, up from a D in 2015. Nearly 81 percent of the school’s students are considered economically disadvantaged.

She participates in AVID, which teaches students strategies to succeed in high school and prepare for college.

“I’m the first kid in my family to be college bound,” Mariah said. “I’m just a girl that wasn’t really into school in elementary school. Now I want to be more.”

Through the program, she has learned about student loans, scholarships, dorm life, meal plans, organizational skills and being a leader.

“AVID teaches students like Mariah the benefits of education and how it works,” said Jeffrey Dufour, assistant principal at Smithfield Middle. “We’re very proud of her. She’s focused on what she wants to do. She’s it.”

Mariah hopes to attend the UNC School of the Arts or The Juilliard School.

“I want to go to college because I want to prove something to me,” she said. “You don’t have to be the richest or the bravest, you just have to work hard and tell yourself that you can do it.”

She added: “I see a lot of people who didn’t get the education they needed. I want to be somebody. I’m thankful for the scholarship because I know for sure I’ll be able to go somewhere thanks to that money.”

Autumn Linford is a correspondent for The News & Observer. Email her at