SAN JOSE -- At every graduation, miracles march across the stage.

This year, one of them will be Cesar Torres.

At the end of his freshman year at Overfelt High, Torres had six F's and one D. He went downhill from there. "I messed up," he said -- until he decided not to.

On Thursday, he'll receive his diploma and in the fall plans to enroll at Chico State.

High school graduation season kicks off Saturday at 16 schools and programs in the East Side Union High School District. Gilroy, Mountain View-Los Altos, Palo Alto and San Mateo Union follow, with other districts' commencements in early June.

Miracles like Torres often are cultivated by one teacher, counselor or administrator. And they also blossom from a student's inner strength, confidence or resilience.

Torres, bright and thoughtful, didn't apply himself in middle school. Someone told him freshman year "didn't count." He preferred being referred to the office rather than having to work in class. He ended 10th grade a year behind in credits.

"We had a little crew," he said, about his academically failing buddies.

Two summers ago he started reflecting on his older friends' lives: working at hard or hated jobs, supporting babies or locked in jail.

And he also had a teacher, Natalia Baldwin, who had never given up on him. "She was there for me," he said. "She always respected me" -- even when he ignored her advice.

It's a reminder, Overfelt Principal Vito Chiala said, about the importance of keeping faith in students.

"It's like putting money into a slot machine. You may not get anything back for a while," he said. But later, one pull may strike a jackpot.

Overfelt, which serves some of San Jose's toughest East Side neighborhoods, this year will graduate about 275 students, from a class that was 420 strong as freshmen. About 100 plan to attend four-year colleges, a number Chiala said is steadily increasing, as the district has stiffened graduation requirements and Overfelt has embedded extra classes and services to prepare students.

On Thursday, Chiala passed out T-shirts with the names of the colleges where seniors plan to attend. He'll do a photo shoot Tuesday, to advertise Overfelt in the same way private schools promote themselves.

Overfelt's seniors who beat the odds to get into college will have to pull off a second miracle, to survive the academic rigors, culture shock and often loneliness of college -- and to figure out how to pay for it. Jessica Nuñez has won a generous, $4,000 annual scholarship for UC Berkeley, where she plans to study sociology -- but that's only one-eighth of Cal's $32,000 estimated annual cost of attendance. She's not sure how she'll pay for four years there.

But just getting in was a triumph. A student who started school speaking no English, she wasn't college-bound until English teacher Ludy Aguada got her on track and helped aim for Cal.

Nuñez's family, a source of strength while growing up -- with a single mother who couldn't deliver much "Mommy time" -- is now also a source of worry.

Working full-time at Subway while finishing high school, Nuñez has been the sole financial support for her mother, who injured her back in a car crash and no longer works as a housekeeper, dishwasher and caretaker. Nuñez also helps support an older sister, who has a young child, and a brother with disabilities.

Chiala said that about half of Overfelt's graduates who head to four-year colleges don't finish where they start, with finances being the major obstacle.

Overfelt senior Ruben Contreras Rios, 17, is one of the lucky few: He has received a full scholarship to Santa Clara University and hopes to major in mechanical and aerospace engineering. The comfort he found in science and math, when ostracized as a new immigrant, is paying off.

But senior Juan Guzmán faces more typical financial uncertainty. He has compiled enough for his first year at UC Berkeley by working at Blockbuster video and receiving scholarships. He doesn't know about subsequent years.

A child who retreated into books when classmates teased him for his immigrant accent and clothes, Guzmán aspires to become a teacher like Overfelt's Baldwin, his inspiration and confidante. "She's always been the one I could open up to."

He also credits his single mother who provided for him, yet allowed him to be independent.

And although immigrant parents may not be able to help with homework, they have been there in other ways. Armando Rodriguez's family canceled a long-planned trip to their native Jalisco state this summer, to put the money instead toward his college. He plans to study film at Cal State Long Beach.

He can rhapsodize about the versatility of Stanley Kubrick and the genius of the 1948 Italian film "The Bicycle Thief" and hopes to make his own films. His parents -- a construction worker and electronics assembler -- supported him, but it was his cousin Mayra who opened his eyes to a future of possibilities.

Torres, who turned his life around, now dreams of becoming a billionaire -- with a B -- so his parents don't have to get up at 4:30 a.m. to work long hours at tough jobs.

Overhearing his mother's casual comment one day ignited a spark in him.

"She said, 'Cesar is not going to college. He doesn't like school.' " He thought about that. A year later, he had gone from straight F's to straight A's.

Now his mom worries about Chico's reputation as a party school.

Torres told her, "Remember what you used to say to me -- 'I don't care what other people do. I make my own choices'?" he said. He plans to major in business and own his own companies. People don't believe him.

"I'll once again prove them wrong," he said.

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.