No one will accuse Maria Membrila of being shy.

The El Molino High School senior is described as a leader, focused, determined and engaged. She's a lot of things, but wallflower isn't one of them.

"I talk a lot," she said, laughing. "Sometimes I feel like I over-talk."

And though confident, Membrila can feel self-doubt, too, especially when she enrolled in two rigorous advanced placement classes this year based largely on the encouragement of her teachers.

"Do I belong here?" she wondered early on.

Veteran teacher Bill Olzman, who encouraged Membrila apply for a spot in his rigorous AP English class, reassured her.

"He said, 'You belong here. Don't doubt it for a second,' " she recalled.

"She is far brighter than she thought she was and she kind of ran with that," he said. "She is a leader in how much she cares for under-represented people. She will take a minority position and back it up with real stuff, not just her own opinions."

Membrila's leadership goes beyond the classroom.

She is a gifted dancer who, for the past two years, has been a member of El Molino's elite 12-member dance company. Membrila teamed up with her younger sister Catalina, a freshman at El Molino, to choreograph a hip-hop number for beginning dancers that will be staged at the Dance Spectacular later this month.

"She is a very hard worker, but in the same light, she is very respectful to others, which is super important in my book," dance teacher Colleen Pettis said. "They look up to her. She kind of brightens any room she walks into."

Membrila, who plans to enroll at Santa Rosa Junior College in the fall before eventually transferring to UC Berkeley and studying law, spent her summer working at Creekside Inn and Resort in Guerneville, where she did a little bit of everything, from staffing the front desk to cleaning rooms.

At the front desk, Membrila "got to interact with people from all over the world, which was nice," she said. Other days, she'd pair up with a co-worker and chat in Spanish as they cleaned rooms.

"I'd ask what life was like for them, how they came to America, which was pretty cool," she said.

Membrila, who is fluent in Spanish, is also biliterate -#8212; able to read and write in academic Spanish.

"I learned as a young child," she said. "My parents taught me when I was young and I practiced."

Membrila has a drive -#8212; whether on the job, in the dance room or the clasroom -#8212; that belies her years, Pettis said. When she took on not one, but two advanced placement classes this year, Pettis was not surprised at her success.

"She wanted to prove something to herself, and I think she has done a wonderful job," she said.

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at She can be reached at 526-8671, or on Twitter @benefield.)

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