Personal Story

Impact Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders

Choosing a Better Road: Ernie's Story


Jesse Gallegos is an editorial assistant at New Mexico Highlands University, Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Ernie Jarvis Vigil remembers when, as a freshman at Robertson High School in Las Vegas, New Mexico, he started hanging out with seniors and found himself partying all the time. His mom, Darlean Urban, describes it as “he pretty much lost control.” “During my freshman year, I was found carrying a knife and was suspended from school for two weeks,” Vigil, now 19, recalls. “When I turned 16, I went back to school drunk and spent the weekend in jail. I spent my birthday in jail,” he says. Darlean used the authorities as a means to help her son. “It was my decision not to take him home that day. I called the cops,” says Darlean. “I felt that was what I had to do, so he wouldn’t do it again. He had a juvenile probation officer, and for the next six months it was really hard.” But that didn’t seem to deter him. “It was a point in my life where no one was going to tell me what I was going to do,” says Ernie, who used the excuse of his mom and dad getting a divorce for his belligerent behavior. Those are just some of the stories Ernie remembers, stories he hopes he will never forget because at some point he changed his life.

In his junior year, he and his girlfriend had a little boy, Esteban. “I started thinking what I had to do in my life. I told myself that I wanted my child to do things I didn’t get a chance to do because of my own decisions. I wanted him to play basketball and be in other sports,” says Ernie. “When I had my baby, I started to pay more attention in school. I was already living with my girlfriend. I was handling a job, school, a girlfriend and myself. I knew I had to take care of myself before I took care of anyone else.”

A student receiving special education services at Robertson High, he was diagnosed with emotional disorders. But he had one special teacher who he looked up to, Gloria Pacheco. “She was always motivating me,” says Ernie. “I love that lady. She pulled me through. She helped me through everything. Even today, she acknowledges me in town.”

Pacheco introduced Ernie to the Self-Directed IEP/ITP, an individualized education and transition planning program that encourages students to actively participate in decision-making and self-advocacy to help make a successful transition into the adult world. “When he did this, it made a big impact on his life,” says Darlean. His bad habits started tapering off and eventually he graduated from Robertson High School in 2004. “In my opinion it was the Self-Directed IEP that empowered Ernie to take control of his life. The way he did that was by looking at where he was and realizing where he wanted to go. He defined the steps he had to take,” says Pacheco. As Ernie says of the plan, “In my opinion, the Self-Directed IEP/ITP is about exactly that, taking responsibility and accepting responsibility. It is my plan, so I work hard at doing the best I can.”

Dr. James Alarid, the dean of the School of Education at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, along with Ginger Blalock, a professor of special education at the University of New Mexico; Carole Brito, a research associate at the Center for the Education and Study of Diverse Populations; Paula Kohler, an associate professor at Western Michigan University; Sue Gronewold, an education administrator for the New Mexico Public Education Department; and Marilyn D’Ottatavio, the transition coordinator for the Albuquerque Public Schools, help in training teachers across New Mexico to use the Self-Directed IEP/ITP. “I think this is the answer. We need to empower kids to carve out their own direction,” says Alarid. “The good transition ages are between 16 and 22 years of age. We can help facilitate choices regarding post-secondary experiences and community college placement. It is important to help transition individuals from high school to the real world with the idea that they have an opportunity to become as independent as possible and be rewarded with a much better life. We have to be able to support them through the process.”

In April of 2004, Ernie and Darlean gave a presentation for educators at a National Center on Secondary Education and Transition meeting in New Orleans explaining how he was able to make it through school by focusing and becoming independent. They’re invited to present this June in Washington, D.C. at the 2005 National Leadership Summit on Improving Results.

Pacheco says there was always something special about Ernie. “He was a difficult young person,” says Pacheco. “But he had a spark in his eye. As with all my students, I do not give up on them. The little baby boy that he has is his shining star. It gives purpose to his life. God works in mysterious ways.”

As a senior in high school, Ernie took a basic math class at Luna Community College in Las Vegas and he intends to attend that school in the fall in hopes of receiving his mechanic’s certificate. “I’m a hands-on guy. I’m always working on my truck. I do my own work on it, except for painting it. I’ve already changed my engine on it around ten times. What I don’t know about mechanics, I’m willing to learn. I want to own my own business some day. It’s better to run your own show.” He says school is one of his priorities. “I will go back to school no matter what,” says Ernie. “But I would prefer to get a full-time job and go to school at the same time.” He already proved he could juggle both school and work. At the end of his senior year he worked at a plumbing company in Las Vegas as a tech helper for six months before being laid off during the winter months. Today, he has gotten a full-time job at an auto parts store. He also says that taking care of his son is on the top of his list. “My little boy is my number one priority. I get to see him around three times a month. He throws a fit until he calls me on the phone. It kills me when I have to take him back or hang up the phone with him,” says Ernie. While everything is not exactly as he’d like it to be, Ernie has made a start in the right direction. And like most people, he looks forward to even better things to come, one day at a time.