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Teens from a struggling L.A. public campus get a chance to shine at prestigious private schools

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What impressed Joel Argueta first about Harvard-Westlake School was his locker -- a wide, ample affair that holds his backpack and all of his books. There's also a student lounge with comfortable couches, where he does homework and meets with new friends. "Overall," he said, "it is spectacular."

Heven Ambaye admits to being a bit overwhelmed with homework at Brentwood School. She is often up until 11 p.m. reading and studying for the next day's quizzes after taking two bus rides to get home. Still, she wants to join the soccer team, maybe lacrosse too, and already has joined a school book club.

Francisco Sanchez was unsure of himself when he entered Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences last month, afraid he wouldn't be able to adjust. But the school's Santa Monica complex of old and new buildings -- it is bisected by an alley -- is like a little community, and already it feels like a second home.

Even for the best of students, the transition from middle school to high school can be trying. But Joel, Heven and Francisco are embarked on a bigger challenge. Children of low-income, immigrant families, they entered three of Los Angeles' most prestigious private campuses this fall on full scholarships. Many of their classmates went to top-rated public schools or private middle schools with vastly more resources than the one they attended, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School, a struggling Los Angeles Unified School District campus in Mid-City.

A team of Cochran teachers led by first-year instructor Sara Hernandez decided these three had a shot at making it at private schools, where they would receive a more rigorous college-prep experience.

The teachers worked after-school hours, weekends and summer vacations mentoring them, helping navigate school choices, filling out applications and studying for the crucial Independent School Entrance Examination, which is required by most private schools.

The teachers connected the trio with the Independent School Alliance for Minority Affairs, a nonprofit placement and support group that offered summer math and English classes mimicking the pace and homework demands of their new schools.

There they met counselors such as Christopher Price, 19, a former Alliance participant and a 2007 graduate of Windward School, who could address sensitive cultural challenges, like the classmates who receive cars for their birthdays and spend vacations in Europe.

Price, from Gardena, said that at Windward, on the Westside, he initially judged students who seemed to flaunt their wealth and possessions as shallow, but found "you can have very much or very little -- money does not make the person."

"It wasn't so much the environment but how I handled it," said Price, now an animation major at Cal State Fullerton. "I try to tell students they are in the top tier of people in the U.S. and the world to receive an education like this, and they need to take every advantage," Price said.

Several Cochran teachers and community members started their own nonprofit group to raise money for textbooks, school supplies, field trips, lunch money and other expenses that the students' families can't fully cover. They are also advising a new group of students.

Cochran Principal Scott Schmerelson said he supports the teachers' efforts, despite what some might see as skimming the best students from public schools. "The LAUSD has great magnet high schools these kids can go to if they wish, and if their parents wish to send them to private schools it's OK with me too," he said. "It's a wonderful opportunity to go off to a prestigious school and to a wonderful college."

At 6:20 a.m., Joel is standing at a corner near his Crenshaw-area home taking a dry run on an MTA bus to Hancock Park, the closest pickup spot for Harvard-Westlake's shuttle, which will get him to the campus in Holmby Hills in time for his 8 a.m. class. By the end of classes at 3:15 p.m. and his reverse journey, he will have spent nearly 11 hours in school and getting there and back home.

On a bus packed mostly with poor workers, Joel, 14, said he has dreams of becoming an engineer, possibly one day working at NASA. He loves math and science, and in the fifth and sixth grades got perfect scores in math on the California standards test.

He has never been out of California, but Harvard-Westlake opens a world of possibilities. His mother, Delia, and father, Francisco, a construction worker, say they're ready to work extra hours to pay for his class trips and other activities. Joel is determined to succeed, even if it takes getting only an hour's sleep some nights to finish his homework.

"I'm well organized, and that's going to be really helpful doing homework on time and keeping on schedule," he said, listing what he sees as his strengths.

He recognizes the opportunity he's being given and is already thinking of what the future might hold. He said he wants to get a good job so he can buy a house for his parents and "help them like they've helped me."

His mother, who fled war-ravaged El Salvador in the 1980s, had always wanted something better for her children. She had never heard of Harvard-Westlake before Joel applied. But now she sees an endless horizon for her son. When Joel mentions potential colleges such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or USC, Delia mentions Harvard.

"Even in El Salvador," she said, "they talk about Harvard University."

As a symbol of educational success, Harvard was also in the mind of Zenebu Gebeyhu, who set the college as a goal for her daughter Heven, who came to the U.S. from Ethiopia as a 9-year-old with virtually no English skills.

At the time, mother and daughter had been apart for nearly five years. Gebeyhu, a single mother, had left her homeland for Egypt to find work and then came to the U.S., where she was granted asylum. Working two jobs, she sent for Heven, who had been staying with relatives in Ethiopia.

Heven, 14, was placed in an English as a second language program when she entered Cochran in the sixth grade. Within the year, she was placed in honors English. She defines herself by the challenges she's overcome -- a hard life in an impoverished country, separation from her mother, adjustment to a new language and a country of vastly different cultural norms.

She wrote about her life journey when applying to Brentwood, grabbing the attention of every member of the admissions committee.

"Her transcript showed her going from ESL to honors, getting straight A's in every honors class, and it was like, 'Wait a minute, isn't she from Ethiopia recently? This can't be real,' " said Keith Sarkisian, Brentwood's director of middle and upper division admissions. "We really felt a kind of vivacity and energy to Heven. A lot had to with her background but also the growth she went through personally and in her writing in such a short time."

Heven said she is inspired by her mother's own determination.

"When I see how hard she works, I think it's nothing to do simple homework, and that keeps me going," she said. "I have big family back home, and they're all rooting for me. I want to do it for them and for myself. I know what the bottom is like, and I don't want to stay there."

Francisco, 15, moved with his single mother, Jovita Sanchez, to the U.S. in 1999, and since then they have moved 30 or 40 times, renting rooms and converted garages.

He was shy and didn't take much to teachers or classmates, perhaps because English is his third language after Spanish and Zapotec, an indigenous language of southern Mexico.

In middle school he started piano lessons, performing Mozart's "Turkish March" for his seventh-grade recital. He was placed in honors classes in the sixth grade and so impressed his teachers at Cochran with his writing that he was encouraged to enter a statewide contest, in which he wrote about the lessons he'd learned from the Harry Potter novels.

Jovita Sanchez said her aim has always been to ensure that her son can fly as high as he is able.

"There are not so many opportunities to go to college in Mexico, not so much support," she said. "I dropped out when I was 15. I was not that smart and I couldn't learn. But I was a good worker, and that's why I've worked so hard to help him get the grades he needs to move on."

Along the way, Francisco's family has been there to help him dodge gangs, drugs and violence.

He has already made some quick adjustments at Crossroads: All ninth-graders spend a few days of orientation at a camp in Malibu, and Francisco didn't know how to swim. One of the teachers at Cochran volunteered to teach him. Francisco, they were not surprised to learn, was a quick study.

As the three students immerse themselves in new experiences, they're still in close contact with their middle school teachers.

"I feel very protective over them because we spent so much time together," said Hernandez, now a student at Loyola Law School. "I've dropped them off at friends' houses, taken them to orientation, taken them shopping, picked them up at school. I hope to follow them for the rest of my life. What greater accomplishment can there be for a teacher."

Rivera is a Times staff writer.

carla.rivera @latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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