But students have pulled together and gotten to know each other better. Now they email about homework assignments and text each other for help.
"You see kids working on homework during lunch and nutrition," said a senior in a UC Berkeley sweat shirt. "They care about their grades. You never used to see that back when we were freshmen and sophomores."
Esmeralda remembers coasting through classes. "I used to not care if I got a C. That's passing," she said. But her teachers cared enough to push. "Now," she said, "an A-minus isn't good enough."
The students gave most of the credit to their teachers, many of them young and new to Jordan.
"They actually stay after school to help," one girl said. I heard wonder in her voice. "They give us their email so we can reach them. Teachers never used to do that. ...
"Now they're always asking us 'What college do you want to go to?'"
As our group talked with students in the library, I realized I'd never been inside that room in years of visits to Jordan.
I guess I'd spent most of my time roaming the campus looking for fights, or staking out classrooms where teachers were fumbling and kids were cutting up.
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We see what we are looking for — and that sends a message to students at schools like Jordan. They know we don't expect much of them.
I realized on Wednesday that it matters to these kids when big-wigs come to see them — even if I might write off the gestures as self-indulgent politicking.
"It makes me feel like people out there actually care for you," said a soft-spoken girl in a Hollister jacket, who wants to be a police officer after college.
So I stifled myself and listened, while the mayor went on and on about his life story: single mom, bad grades, redemptive teacher, college, law degree, their city's leader.
And the superintendent, a former science teacher and cross-country coach, handed out advice about setting goals and reaching them.
And the millionaire philanthropist posed the obligatory touchy-feely "How do you perceive yourself?" question.
Senior Devin Perkins, who plans to major in physics and music and play football in college, had an answer ready for that.
And when he spoke, I became a believer — at least for an instant, a teary-eyed dreamer.
There was something about the pride in his voice, the resolve in his words:
"I perceive that I can step into any university and succeed," he said. "Don't underestimate us."