When a first-time teacher steered 150 “unteachable” underprivileged students toward graduation and better opportunities, the world noticed.

Erin Gruwell pushed the Long Beach, California, teens to write journals, and then she helped them publish a collection of the entries. The students were predominantly from Hispanic and African-American backgrounds and had clashed outside the classroom. The book, titled The Freedom Writers Diary, features graphic descriptions of the students’ difficult lives. It became a bestseller, and Paramount Pictures made the story into a feature film.

More important is what has happened in the 20 years since Gruwell brought her innovative teaching techniques to Woodrow Wilson High School. Many students in her first classes went on to professional careers. One is an architect in Los Angeles; another runs a social media company. Several are nurses or military officers. (Read about another innovative teacher in Mexico.)

“I wouldn’t have gone to college at all if she hadn’t been my teacher,” said Daisy Farias. Farias’ father immigrated from Mexico and her mother from El Salvador. She now teaches at a school not far from the one where she studied under Gruwell.

Erin Gruwell (D.A. Peterson)

The first day teaching, Farias said, “when I got to that classroom, I saw myself. I saw Tiffony. I saw Maria. I saw the Freedom Writers.”

For her part, Tiffony Jacobs, the Tiffony whom Farias remembers, admits that her first encounters with Gruwell 20 years ago did not go well. “She made me sit right up front and always called on me,” Jacobs said. “I knew I would have to work.”

Today Jacobs is grateful. “I’m college educated. I have structure in my life. I refuse to be treated disrespectfully, and I respect myself,” she said.

Jacobs now works full time for the Freedom Writers Foundation, which Gruwell founded while her first students were pursuing college degrees and careers. The foundation trains teachers of at-risk teenagers how to raise academic performance and help students overcome adverse circumstances.

With the help of Farias and other former students, the foundation has trained 400 teachers and reached 450,000 students with a curriculum emphasizing tolerance and inclusion. The foundation also awards college scholarships to secondary school graduates who have overcome adversity.

In recent years, Gruwell has traveled to Taiwan, the Netherlands and Scotland to help teachers. This year she’ll travel to Israel. “There is nothing that can stop this woman,” Jacobs said. “She is like a train that just goes full steam ahead.”

Gruwell said she is motivated by teachers who work with disadvantaged students. “Teachers are superheroes,” she said. “These are people who believe in social justice, who fight for the underdog.”