“As whaler's oil provided light to the world, so shall New Bedford students shine with academic excellence,” or so says the New Bedford School District website.

With graduation rates in the district hovering just above 65 percent, academic excellence isn't shining so bright these days. In fact, the district fares well below the state average, and experts say much of that has to do with economics. In 2015, 23.4 percent of New Bedford’s population was living below the poverty line and the city’s unemployment rate is 6.1 percent, almost double the state average.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Tristan Cimini/WGBH News

The New Bedford Whaling Museumis stepping in where financially-strained schools and parents are falling short, to keep low income students on a track to college. The museum offers a program for local high school students to supplement their education with college prep, docent training, and a rich overview of New Bedford’s history.

Juelson Cardoso is a third-year apprentice in the New Bedford Whaling Museum program.

“The first two years here," he said, "was mostly getting to know the museum, learning how to give tours and share New Bedford's rich history with the public.” Cardoso said it wasn’t easy getting to know every element of the museum’s exhibit, but after some practice he finally got the hang of it. For him, this illuminated New Bedford’s often overlooked history.

“Nobody knows about New Bedford,” said Cardoso. "Everybody wants to get out of New Bedford.” But, his experience at the Whaling Museum has taught him one thing, he says, “most people probably won't know ... in 1850 New Bedford was the richest city in the world.” He explained that this wealth came from whaling, and it shaped the cultural landscape of the city.

Cardoso says immigration was a big part of New Bedford. 

“New Bedford actually took in many Cape Verdeans to take them whaling and to give them a better life here,” he said. “We actually have a Cape Verdean exhibit upstairs. It really makes me feel like a part of this museum and feel at home because I'm not the first Cape Verdean here.”

“When I came to America I was very shy and I didn't speak English, so I tried not to talk to anybody," Cardoso added. "But this museum really made me open.”

Cardoso settled in New Bedford with his father and his sister. He says the hardest part was leaving his mother behind, “but she knew that was the risk she had to take in order to give her children opportunities.”

He's had many opportunities at the Whaling Museum. “Now, I come into work and I work on things like S.A.T. prep, college applications,” he said. “We apply for scholarships. Everything that has to do with college readiness and that can prepare us for the future.”

Cardoso has even gone on supplementary expeditions to see living versions of the whales he educates the public about on tours. At the start of the program, he thought he might graduate and go into culinary arts. But since joining, he’s planning on going to college.

“I don't know where I would be right now if it wasn't for this apprentice program,” Cardoso said. “I'd probably be really behind on my college things. I tend to procrastinate. Not a lot ... just a little bit,” he said with a smirk.

In the near future, Cardoso hopes to study economics and eventually become a financial planner. Beyond academics and work, he hopes to one day bring his mother to the U.S.

"That's a big thing that I have to put all aside once I'm ready for it," he said. "I feel like I have to try my best to get her here so she can see my accomplishments and everything that I've done.”

WGBH News' coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.