MIAMI (CBS4) – Long before the sun rises, Miami’s Booker T. High School slowly starts to come to life. In the darkness, security guards open gates and unlock fences as the first students lumber in before 6 am. For some the breakfast they’ll receive may be the first thing they’ve had to eat since their school lunch the day before.

When William Aristide arrived as principal three years ago he was stunned to see dozens, sometimes hundreds of students remaining on school grounds well into the night – sometimes as late as 8 or 9 pm. He soon learned teachers keep the school grounds open late because its one of the few places kids feel safe.

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“It’s a whole other world when you step inside the walls of Booker T – they make sure of that,” said senior Chevon Williams.

Added vice Principal Kevin Lawrence: “In a lot of cases when kids come here they know this environment that we’ve created is a safe place. It’s an environment where they can be kids. Because when they go home a lot of these kids don’t really get an opportunity to be children.”

In the past year, more than 40 people have been shot within ten blocks of the school, including two students – Aaron Willis and Juan Videa.

“I think a lot of these kids, they see how rough it is, they see some of the things they have to deal with,” said Lawrence. “And they’ve internalized it and said, `You know what, I’m not going to be one of these statistics, I’m not going to be one of these kids that fall off, I’m going to make something out of myself, I’m going to make something out of life.’”

Or as star quarterback Treon Harrison put it: “You just can’t sit around and be a fool like all these crack heads we see in our neighborhood. We don’t want to be like them.”

Booker T isn’t alone in dealing with these issues. High schools all along Dade violent corridor are dealing with it. In December a student at Miami Jackson was shot to death on his way to a friend’s house to do homework.

“I wish we could keep these schools open year round,” said Miami Jackson principal Carlos Rios. “We have 400 kids coming for Saturday school because a lot of our kids would rather be off those streets and be here because not only are they learning but they are safe, they’re protected.”

But the teachers at Booker T have had a host of problems to overcome.

Three years ago Booker T had just been given the lowest F grade in the state and there was a push to have the school closed and turned into a private charter school.

But supporters fought to keep it open. Dade County opened for blacks.

Aristide is making progress…the school earned a C grade last year – and was just five points from a B… The school is now 45 percent Hispanic.

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Iviss Aburto came to Booker T last year after her mom lost her job and the family had to move from their home in Kendall to a place with relatives in Little Havana. She had been going to Braddock Senior High where she said the conversations were usually about trivial things.

“Parties, what car their parents were going to get them, what they were going to wear this weekend for the party, what are they going to buy,” she recounts. “It was just materialistic stuff. Nothing related to school.”

And when she came to Booker T?

“Just college talk,” she said. “`Oh I might go to Florida. I might go to Florida State. I might go to FAMU. It was just such a cultural change. These kids are actually talking about school.”

School is the way out.

“Excuse my grammar but it’s the one way to get out of the hood,” she said. “That’s the only hope, if not you’re going to end up in the streets and there is not much hope in the streets.”

Given the violence in the neighborhood, Chevon Williams says it would have been easier for him to pick up a gun instead of a diploma.

Click Here for Jim DeFede’s investigation into the gun violence surrounding Booker T. 

“You know when you are socialized to this kind of violence, you doing violence yourself wouldn’t be as un-natural,” he said. “You saw the same thing growing up so you probably think that’s okay, that’s fine. That’s what I’m used to, I’m not afraid of it, so it’s okay to do.”

But instead this Fall he is on his way to the University of Florida.

“Every day is a worry,” said teacher Danielle Robinson. “Every day is a challenge; it’s just a matter of constantly praying for them almost.”

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Will they make it home? What awaits them? And will they make it back to school safe the next morning?

Jim DeFede