Des Moines East High ‘brothers’ lean on each other to make it to graduation — and beyond


By Samantha Hernandez, Des Moines Register

On a recent Wednesday, four East High School seniors sat at Fong’s Pizza in downtown Des Moines, sharing slices of Meatzilla and mac and cheese pizza, and showing each other photos on their phones.

Eating lunch off-campus has become a regular outing for longtime friends Steven Magaña, Jesus Aviles DeLeon, Bryan Robles and Diego Lopez-Martinez.


In between bantering in Spanish and English, the four reminisced about their time in high school and how they supported each other.

“We all have a role in our friendship,” Steven said.

“We are brothers,” Diego said. “We care for each other, and we’re always going to help each other out whenever we need it.”

While their time at East High has been punctuated by tragedy — a deadly shooting outside the school in March and a hit-and-run incident that killed a young girl in April — their bond was formed through the normal pressures of high school.

Earning their diploma is especially significant in a school district where only 70% of Hispanic students graduated in 2021, according to state data. Statewide, about 90% of Iowa students graduate.

The Des Moines school district, like so many other urban school districts, has pushed to inch its graduation rates up for Hispanic and Black students. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district saw its graduation rate increase from 65.77% over a decade. The graduation rate has ebbed since 2020.


As part of that final push toward graduation, the teens took part in East High School’s senior workshops. Students who attend receive help from counselors for everything from applying for college to choosing a career path. The school also brings in speakers to talk to the students about college and different career fields.

But school officials don’t take credit.

“The boys’ friendship stands out because we have seen them lean on one another throughout their time at East,” said school counselor Lauren Brandt-Erickson. “Not just for personal support, but also when it comes to succeeding in school and planning for their futures. They act like brothers when they are together, yet their dynamic feels absent of any sibling rivalry.”

As graduation day approaches for them and students all over the country, they know they might all be going their separate ways soon.

‘I have someone I can lean on’

The four teenagers have encouraged each other to do their best in and out of school — in part to push back against stereotypes.

“We push each other to go beyond what we are, you know, labeled as Latino males,” Steven said.

Jesus knew he needed to graduate from high school to make his mother proud and set an example for his younger siblings. But a few classes — and depression — stood in his way.

So Steven, Diego and Bryan assumed the role of tutor, particularly in the areas of chemistry and English.

“They would teach me and show me things or helped me get in contact with somebody (who) could help me,” he said.


Bryan and Jesus would work on English assignments together.

Bryan had his own struggles. English is not his first language, and reading and spelling have proven to be difficult for him over the years.

He considers himself self-reliant, but having a core group of friends allowed him to open up about concerns he has for life after high school. They helped him pinpoint his interest in real estate and how his experience in construction could be used to flip houses.

“Maybe my plan doesn’t work out or something; I have someone I can lean on,” Bryan said of his friends. “It’s more like try to move forward, and if I fall down, they can pick me back up.”

For Steven, getting up for school has been difficult because he often works late in an effort to save money for college. He does not qualify for federal financial aid due to his status as an asylum seeker.

Sometimes his friends call to wake him up and remind him how important attending school is — a lecture each of them has heard more than once.

Getting through high school is not always about grades. Diego, who is more of an introvert, became the focus of a multi-year effort by his friends to get him to hang out outside of school. No matter how many times he turned them down, they kept asking.

This close friendship and encouragement taught him to step outside of himself.

“Sometimes I’ll just leave things in my head and not let it out,” Diego said. “But it’s better to let things out you want to say.”

‘We’ve tried to prepare ourselves mentally’

As one of the last off-campus lunches of their high school career drew to a close, all that remained of their lunch is one slice of mac and cheese pizza.

As Jesus eats the last piece, the conversation turns back to what’s next for the friends.

Jesus, Bryan and Diego are enrolled in Des Moines Area Community College’s Young Adult Program and Turner Construction. The program includes on-the-job experience.

Steven wants to study business administration and entrepreneurship at DMACC.


Despite all their plans, there is trepidation about the future.

“We’ve tried to prepare ourselves mentally for the world we’re about to step into,” Jesus said.

Before graduation, the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns were the longest the teens have ever been separated.

“I feel like we’re close enough to the point where even if we don’t see each other for a year or two, we could literally come back and act like we were never separated,” Bryan said.

Samantha Hernandez covers education for the Register. Reach her at (515) 851-0982 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @svhernandez or Facebook at

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