Presented By

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  1. The Elevation of Tex-Mex
    Mico Rodriguez
  2. The Bounty of the Barnett Shale
    Kelcy Warren
  3. The Entrepreneurial Woman
    Tomima Edmark
  4. The Growth of the Vietnamese Community
    Jennifer Nguyen
  5. The Founding of Uptown
    Phil Cobb
  6. The Changing Face of Politics
    Craig Watkins
  7. The Brain Gain
    Dr. Hao Zhu
  8. The Four Sport Town
    Mike Modano
  9. The Underground Culture
    Katherine Owens
  10. The Catholic Migration
    Father Ivan Asencio
  11. The Organized South Asian Community
    John Hammond
  12. The Next Way to Develop
    Jeff Blackard
  13. The Allure of the Silicon Prairie
    Anousheh Ansari
  14. The lighting of Reunion Tower
    George Schrader
  15. The New Old Tradition
    Jennifer Moreno
  16. The Test Kitchen
    Mariel Street
  17. The Art Magnet
    Kevin Moriarty
  18. The Glamorous Return of Dallas Shopping
    Brian Bolke
  19. The Strengthening of the Gay Community
    Jack Evans and George Harris
  20. The Resurgence of Downtown Dallas
    Art Ortiz
  21. The Megachurch Boom
    Ed Young
  22. The Fundraisers
    Lynn McBee
  23. The Refuge
    Pedro Amaya
  24. The Reason Dallas Took Off
    Ron Barzyk
  25. The Girl Who Stayed Home
    Erykah Badu
  26. The Preservation of Our Historic Buildings
    Virginia McAlester
  27. The Thriving Ethiopian Community
    Birhan Mekonnen
  28. The New Dallas ISD
    Jessica Leija
  29. The Rebirth of the Trinity River
    Peter Payton
  30. The Trains Start Running
    Ladrika Davis Gross
  31. The Architect of an Art Scene
    Stephen Lapthisophon
  32. The Calculator That Changed the World
    Vonnie Howard
  33. The Rise and Fall and Rise of Deep Ellum
    Frank Campagna
  34. The Big Move
    Kendra Norwood
  35. The Expanding Empire in Fort worth
    Scott Hernandez
  36. The Family Recipe
    Chuy Cruz
  37. The Transformation of Oak Cliff
    David Spence
  38. The Now-Legal Immigrant
    Jesus Castillo Carrizales
  39. The City of Philanthropists
    Lyda Hill
  40. The Transplants
    Tara Vornkahl
00 The New Dallas ISD Friday, July 18, at 12:50pm in SMU's math department

Jessica Leija

Jessica Leija didn’t even know what a valedictorian was until her junior year at Thomas Jefferson High School. Junior year is when administrators first release a class ranking. Her classmates placed bets on who would own the top spot. Odds favored one of the Asian kids. Leija’s name hadn’t even entered the conversation. 

Leija was just as surprised as everyone else, but she took the honor in stride. Any hazing she might have gotten was dampened by two factors. First, she likes to help people. “My classmates were like, ‘Hey, Ms. Valedictorian, over here. Can you help me with this?’ ” The other thing that helped: Leija was a member of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. “I can be tough sometimes,” she says. “When I have to, I can.”

As a member of JROTC, she was on the Marksmanship Team, comprised of the five best shooters in the school. Also: she was captain of the math team, participated in the band’s color guard, played on the golf team, co-founded the Green Team, and studied Chinese for four years. 

If you want an idea of what Dallas ISD can achieve, picture Leija. Forty years ago, the district’s student population was 12 percent Hispanic; today, it’s about 70 percent district-wide and 93 percent at Thomas Jefferson. The shifting demographics—and the socioeconomic implications—present a challenge for a huge, urban school district. Leija and her family show us what’s possible when that challenge is met. 

Leija got a full ride to SMU. She is the first in her family to attend college. Her dad only made it as far as middle school. Her graduation is the only time she has ever seen him cry. 

She made her valedictory about the Green Lantern. “You know the oath that gives them the power? I broke it down and explained how it could help people in real life, making the world a better place.”