When continuation high school teacher Harry Shabazian finished the L.A. Marathon in 1986, he was so personally transformed by the experience he challenged his students -- who were in trouble or headed for it -- to train with him for the next marathon.
These young people, labeled misfits and under-achievers, not only finished the L.A. Marathon the following year, but also finished high school and went on to college and jobs.
Thus was the inspiration behind Students Run L.A., a program that's still going strong with more than 3,000 students and over 400 teachers who donate their time.
The program was officially launched in 1988 when two other continuation high school teachers, Eric Spears and Paul Trapani, joined Shabazian and ran with their students. In 1989, Roberta Weintraub, a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education, saw what the teachers were doing as an effective and innovative program for students. With that, she and her deputy, Marsha Charney, established the program in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
For many of the students, training for a marathon represents the first time that they have committed to a long-term goal, said Charney, now executive director of Students Run L.A.
"By providing them an opportunity for incremental accomplishment and a supportive environment to help them on their way, this program gives the students the inspiration, excitement and encouragement to accomplish their goal," Charney said.
The mission of Students Run L.A. is to challenge at-risk secondary students to experience the benefits of goal-setting, character development, adult mentoring and improved health by providing them with a truly life-changing experience -- training for and completing the L.A. Marathon.
"The program started with six students who would never dress for P.E.," recalled Trapani, a teacher at John R. Wooden High School in Reseda. "For a lot of students this program is built on trust and acceptance that we're doing this together."
The program is not focused on student athletes, he added. "Our target audience is the kids who do not have opportunities."
On Mar. 4, 1990, more than two dozen teachers from around the city joined the three co-founders, with students from their respective schools, and together, they all ran in the 5th L.A. Marathon.
"Now, 27 years later, we never have less than 3,000 students," Trapani said. "We have over 400 teachers from 175 schools and community programs who all donate time to train students. The original people who were involved in it from the get-go are still involved."
Adult mentorship is one of the key elements of the program's success.
"Watching 3,000 kids and their adult leaders is so exciting -- you see them develop these friendships with adults and other kids," Trapani said. "They all have one common goal in mind and that's to finish a marathon."
Since 1989, Students Run L.A. has helped more than 57,000 students. The growth of the program has only increased its success.
Each year more than 95% of the students who start the marathon finish the full 26.2-mile course. Additionally, more than 95% of the seniors who run the marathon graduate from high school and more than 90% of graduating seniors involved with Students Run L.A. have plans to attend college.
In June 2013, 99% of the 693 seniors who completed the L.A. Marathon with Students Run L.A. graduated from high school.
"We know students who participate in Students Run L.A. enjoy school and learning, think school is not a waste of time and are sure they will succeed when they set a goal," Trapani said. "These students are also able to better deal with their problems and make better plans after high school."
The marathon is a great equalizer, Trapani emphasized.
"Whether you finish in four or eight hours, you ran 26 miles. It's all about the celebration of the completion of the goal," he said. "If they can apply the skills they are developing in the marathon to their lives, it makes every goal and every challenge doable."