A few months ago, eighth-grade student Judit Solorio sat in a crowded church in East San Jose, wondering if the striking woman at the podium really was the pop music star all the other kids were talking about, or just another recruiter for the new school down the road.
"She was smart and good," said Judit, now a student at the new school in East San Jose. "I'm here because of her."
Chalk up another recruit for Angelina Camarillo Ramos, the unlikely pop singer from Union City and Santa Clara University who's come full circle. After a successful run in urban contemporary music and the tragic death of her brother, she's pursuing the teaching career she always wanted. But her students didn't buy it at first.
"Are you really that Angelina?" they asked suspiciously.
Yes, that Angelina, who sang the hit song "Release Me" in 1996 when she was still in college and went on to write and record about 10 more radio hits during a successful 15-year career in music.
"Oh, I still get that a bit," Ramos said. "I rarely perform now. I think I have one or two more engagements under contract, and then that's it."
One recent morning, she started her class in leadership skills at ACE's new high school by shaking hands with every enrolled student and politely threw out the ones who tried to sneak in.
"Afuera!" she said in Spanish to the star-struck interlopers. "Out!"
Dressed in black pants and jacket, and with blondish brown locks falling over her shoulders, she still cut the figure of a diva with complete command of her audience.
Star is born
Born in 1976 in Union City's tough Decoto neighborhood, Ramos credits her academic success to a middle school teacher who convinced her she was college material. After graduating summa cum laude from James Logan High, she excelled in biology and psychology at Santa Clara University and planned on becoming a teacher. But her scholarship money and summer job welding gas tanks at the old NUMMI auto plant didn't cover the full cost of an elite, Jesuit education.
Then she heard about an open audition held by Upstairs Records of San Jose. Ramos loved to sing as a hobby and in choirs. Her tastes ran to soft tunes by Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan and Whitney Houston -- a combination of R&B, pop, soul, funk and hip-hop.
Upstairs liked what it heard and assisted her in recording "Release Me," a tune written in-house. Driven by a deep bass and synthesizer, the song is a girl's plea for the man she loves to let her go, because he's not right for her. The song quickly reached No. 52 on Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 singles.
Paying tuition suddenly was no problem. After graduation, Ramos set aside her teaching ambition and relocated with Upstairs to Houston. She also met and married her husband, Anthony Ramos, a personal trainer. She became an American Idol star before American Idol.
Then, two days before Christmas 2006, tragedy struck.
One of her brothers, Daniel Camarillo, was killed when a gunman shot randomly into a crowd outside a San Leandro nightspot. He was only 23 and a college student.
"Daniel was just an innocent bystander," Ramos said. "He was the kindest out of all of us in the family."
She stopped writing songs after his death but still toured on the dance music circuit. Eventually, even that last flicker of fame's flame burned out.
"I just didn't have a passion for it anymore," she said. "When something like that happens, that's when you face your legacy. What have I done? What do you do next?"
She and her husband moved to San Jose, where Ramos had always wanted to teach, but she lacked a California teaching credential and classroom experience.
"How do I prove I was that serious student 15 years before music?" she asked.
She applied for a recruiting job with ACE, a new public charter school headed by Greg Lippman, a co-founder of the well-known Downtown College Prep charter. Lippman needed someone to dramatically raise enrollment at the middle school, which had barely survived fierce opposition from the local public school district.
"We did have several other candidates who had more of an 'educational résumé,' " Lippman said. "The community outreach she does involves a lot of public speaking and making strong personal connections with people, and it was clear from the interview process that she was going to be exceptional at that, and she is."
Ramos helped raised enrollment from 350 to 465 students in less than one year, the school's largest increase.
"Most of the parents, most of the students, they just don't believe college is possible, " Ramos said. She visited homes, churches and community centers on multiple occasions. "If I can see them three times, I'll convince them."
Many of the middle-schoolers will go on to ACE's high school where she teaches leadership, an elective course that does not require a credential. She still hopes to earn one and teach core classes like English and history, but there's already a problem. Just as she became an unlikely music star, she may have propelled herself into education administration.
"Angelina is definitely leadership material," Lippman said.
The former singer is mulling over another bright career she never planned on.
Unleashing the smile of a star she said, "It's a nice problem to have."