Maria Cruz Castaneda Avila

Maria Cruz Castaneda Avila works on a math problem at Horace Mann Elementary School in Glendale. Maria is the youngest of four Glendale siblings who recently lost their mom to cancer, and their father died several years ago. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer / January 23, 2013)

Leticia Avila's battle with cancer lasted three years. She died just days before Christmas at age 53, leaving behind two sons and two daughters, including her youngest, Maria Cruz Castaneda Avila.

At 10 years old, the fifth-grader at Horace Mann Elementary — who goes by Mari — must now face a future without her parents, having lost her father five years ago to liver complications.

But that doesn't mean the girl whom teachers describe as gifted, smart and driven will be alone.

A teacher at Horace Mann Elementary has started a districtwide campaign to establish a college fund for Mari — who reads at the sixth-grade level — so her dreams of attending USC don't fade.

Mari and her siblings live with relatives already trying to make ends meet; saving for college isn't an option.

“Your environment usually hampers what your outcome might be,” said her teacher, Chris Burt. “We want to make sure she continues to focus on her studies. At the rate she's going, she's going to do very well. But how do we secure that?”

Even at 10 years old, Mari has already exhibited the kind of multitasking, cool-under-pressure, driven attributes that most university-bound students need to succeed.

Mari's favorite subject is math, and after school, she dances on the school's ballet folklorico crew and has a spot on the cheer team. She also finds time for the “Twilight” series, and keeps photos of the movie stars tucked in her binder.

When her mom was battling cancer, Mari bathed her and woke up multiple times each night to care for her.

Throughout that ordeal, Mari never missed a day of school and always turned her homework in on time. She landed on the honor roll and developed a desire to attend USC.

During an interview after school recently, tears welled up in Mari's eyes as she recalled one of the last conversations she had with her mom.

“I think education is real big for me because the last time I saw my mom she told me to keep on coming to school and getting good grades,” she said.

Sitting nearby, Burt swooped in to brush away Mari's tears.

Burt earned a reputation among students for driving to the fashion district in downtown Los Angeles for elastic to make inexpensive and highly coveted Chinese jump ropes.

The teacher specialist has since become Mari's mentor, fueling her protege's college dreams.

Students have made Burt countless Winnie the Pooh drawings for her office, which is also filled with USC posters, where her own daughter graduated in 2010.

“I want to become a teacher to help students with situations like mine,” Mari said.

She and more than 50 other Horace Mann students were scheduled to get a taste of her dream on Sunday during a field trip to USC chaperoned by Burt.

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Donations to Mari's college fund can be sent to Horace Mann Elementary at 501 E. Acacia Ave., Glendale, 91205. For more information, call (818) 246-2421.