OAKLAND -- Alejandro Aguilera's transformation from troublemaker to student leader was, to many, a living example of what a great school can accomplish.
Yet the junior at Oakland's Life Academy of Health and Bioscience didn't have the chance to live out his dream of becoming a probation officer and a father. A drive-by shooting ended his life Friday evening.
As of Monday afternoon, Oakland police reported they had no answers and no leads; investigators say they don't believe the 18-year-old was the intended target. Aguilera was standing with other people outside an East Oakland market when the shooting began, police said, but no one else was hit by the gunfire. His aunt, Alicia Magdaleno, said he had been waiting for his friend, the market owner's son, to finish his shift.
Word of the tragedy spread quickly to the small school's students and teachers.
"I thought, 'It can't be. Alejandro's such a great guy. How could it happen to him?' " said Hernán Gallo, one of Aguilera's classmates.
Almost immediately, teachers and students began planning a memorial in his honor. Altars went up, and a slideshow of pictures came together. Some gathered at the school over the weekend to grieve together.
Mourning rituals are all too common in the city's schools, and Life Academy is no different. In November, some of the same students organized an assembly to reject the normalization of violence in Oakland and to memorialize five former students who had died violently since 2005: Luis Garibay, Raymen Justice, Jose Rocha, Nancy Nguyen and Marco Casillas.
On Monday, Life Academy Principal Preston Thomas once again found himself with a microphone, facing rows of somber faces and bowed heads.
"We started this school 10 years ago, and there was a dream that we could do something dramatically different for the kids of Oakland," Thomas said to them. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I'd be standing here -- again. It just feels cruel."
Before school began, incense filled the school's teen center and flowed out into the second-floor hallway as an Aztec prayer ritual took place inside. Later, in the auditorium, teachers, students and parents shared memories of the teenager -- his warmth, his smile, his politeness and his humility.
As a freshman, Aguilera was on juvenile probation; he had poor grades and spotty attendance. As time went by, his grades consistently improved, he became deeply involved in the school's after-school program and earned a prestigious spot on the school's leadership team, said Alex Vila, Life Academy's Full-Service Community Schools developer.
A positive experience with his own probation officer inspired him to become one himself, she said. Aguilera's charisma drew others to him, and the young man relished his new responsibilities as a positive role model, Vila said. He volunteered to help run the "Be a Man" program this fall for the boys in the school's new sixth-grade class (the campus is expanding to include middle school grades).
"He was a natural born leader," Vila said.
Gallo, one of the top students in the junior class, said Aguilera had a knack for defusing tension and making his classmates laugh, even when they were down. Gallo said Aguilera would often tap him on the shoulder and joke, "Can we switch brains?"
"It hurts me, and I'm sure all of you, to have him gone," Gallo told his classmates. "All of us have to leave this world, but the way that Alejandro died gets me mad, because that happens all the time here."
Throughout the event, staff members and parents urged the teenagers to live as Aguilera would, with love and compassion. Already, a group of his close friends have posted artwork by the corner where he last stood, on 96th Avenue and Olive. They plan to plant flowers at the crime scene as well, and they are raising money for Aguilera's family, who moved from Oakland to San Leandro a few months ago.
"I want you to raise your hand if you're ready to lead for Alejandro," Thomas said. "You will change this world."
Police and Crime Stoppers of Oakland are offering up to $20,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrest of the killers. Anyone with information can call police at 510-238-3821 or Crime Stoppers at 510-777-8572 or 510-777-3211, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.