And last year, Colmenares was honored by the school board for her efforts to get students into prep schools.
Ultimately, officials hope that many of the East Coast-educated children will return to Santa Ana and make a contribution to the community.
Karla Alcala, one of the first students Colmenares placed at a boarding school, did just that: She graduated from Stanford University and now teaches at Sierra Intermediate School.
"One of the trade-offs is giving up roots, or knowing you won't be able to set them," said Alcala, who attended the Lawrenceville School near Princeton, N.J.
But that was more than offset by the wonderful friends, the incredible education and the thrill of zipping into New York City to see a play or visit a museum, she said.
Private school officials applaud Santa Ana's program. But they caution that urban kids face huge challenges, from calculus to massive culture shock, when they board the planes to take them away from the barrio and into the dorm.
It was the fear of all that could go wrong that first struck Erica Gonzalez's parents when the ambitious eighth-grader came home last fall, chattering about wide green lawns and ivy-covered buildings.
"My husband said, 'No, no, no, she's going nowhere,' " said Martha Gonzalez. Not only would they miss their oldest child desperately, but they feared that other students would look down on her and taunt her, and that her parents, 3,000 miles away, would be unable to stop it.
But Erica pleaded and begged. She wrote her father a letter: "Please, please, let me become someone."
Her father finally agreed to accept the Lawrenceville School's invitation to fly the family out--all expenses paid--to look at the school. He was amazed at the beauty of the campus, and by the kindness of the other students and their parents.
So on Sept. 4, off Erica went. "The first week I was here, I was very depressed," she said by phone. "I didn't feel like I fit in."
But she's since settled in quite nicely, she said. She's joined the crew team and made friends.
"This is a Cinderella story for our local students," Colmenares said. "From here, they will all go to Harvard or Ivy League colleges or Stanford University."