Margarita Ortega, 14, spoke quietly in a classroom at Nimitz Junior High School, recalling the truancy, gang fighting and PCP abuse that landed her in jail for six months last year.
"I used to think of killing people," she said, her brown eyes darkening. "That's really pitiful. When I was in jail, I found out by thinking things over on my own that drugs isn't a way to life. I don't want to be a part of that now."
Margarita and 11 other troubled youths have found hope for a better life in an "opportunity class" at Nimitz, one of only two classrooms for potential junior high school dropouts in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The special classes at Nimitz in Huntington Park and Edison Junior High School in south Los Angeles offer a second chance for students, ages 12 to 15, who have a long record of truancy and/or drug abuse, have committed petty crimes or are unable to adjust emotionally to school.
Students are referred to the class by an attendance counselor after consultation with parents, teachers and principals in Region B of the district, which covers the Southeast area and includes Nimitz and Edison junior highs. Depending on their progress, students spend from six weeks to a year in the opportunity class before they are transferred back to a regular schedule of classes.
For most students, junior high is a "crucial age . . . a transition," said Bill Lowery, who teaches the class at Nimitz. "Most of them that make it through this period don't have many problems in high school."
Of 100 students enrolled in the two classes since they were opened in July, 1984, 15 have returned to regular classes and are "holding their own," said opportunity unit coordinator Bill Encinas. Another 15 will be ready to go back to regular classes soon. About 40 students have dropped out--some moved away, some were incarcerated and some are out on the streets again, Encinas said.
With a 50% dropout rate in Southeast-area schools, more such classes are desperately needed, Encinas said, but there is little money or classroom space. An estimated 300 students have dropped out of junior high school in the area and "need attention right now," he said. "We're trying to get those kids in here before they're attached to a gang."
Because there is limited space in the two opportunity classes, Encinas said, most junior high administrators transfer problem students from school to school, a move that rarely solves the students' attendance or discipline problems.
The opportunity classes at Nimitz and Edison operate with a disarmingly simple formula for success: small classes (a maximum of 15 students), a short, flexible schedule (3 1/2 hours a day and frequent field trips), isolation from the rest of the student body (students do not leave the classroom except for recess, and only then when other students are off the playing field) and individual attention from counselors and psychologists as well as a classroom teacher.
The opportunity classroom at Nimitz is a dismal place--a portable classroom in a corner of the schoolyard with gray walls, burned-out lights and discarded shop machines collecting dust in a corner. Swallowed up in the cavernous room is a solitary poster urging students to "dream and you will reach your goal."
But what is happening there transcends the bleak surroundings. Students are learning to read, to do long division, to work quietly in class--and to think of the future with hope.
Most have little in their past to be proud of--a pattern of poor attendance, fights at school, school robberies, repeated transfers as discipline problems. Although the students are not physically aggressive, Lowery said, some defied teachers and disrupted classes. Still others attended classes under the influence of drugs.
'Very Sharp . . . Kids'
They are "very sharp, street-wise, intelligent kids" who could not make a transition from elementary school to the looser structure of junior high, Lowery said.
"Academics are not as important as helping them solve their problems," he said. "I talk to them about their entire lives--what they are doing and what they must prepare themselves to do."
Working to build mutual trust with his class, Lowery gives students freedom to walk to the bathroom, bring in the morning snack or play football at recess without supervision--but expects their cooperation in return. Occasionally a student abuses the privilege and gets into trouble in the school halls, but for the most part the system works.
"It's all a matter of helping them have some control over themselves without you standing over them, driving them all the time," Lowery said.
Students expressed respect for the stern, bearded Lowery, who, they said, takes time to help them with their class work.
"All the other classes I had, they just gave me the work and made me do it," said Brady Tidwell, 13. "That's how come I was always talking back to other teachers." Brady, who expected the opportunity class to be "like a reform school," instead found that Lowery treats students like friends, he said.
Proud of Work
Frank Orlando, 14, said he was placed in the class for "ditching classes and stuff." He proudly displayed a folder full of spelling tests marked "A" and a list of states and their capitals in clear handwriting.
Steven Alvarez, an eighth-grader who attended the class for three months last year before transferring to regular classes at Nimitz, recalled Lowery as "my best teacher I had. . . . The way he was treating me, it was fun to be around him."
Alvarez said he had been placed in the class for fighting with teachers ("hitting them, too, sometimes"), but was "doing better now." Lowery's class "made me stop doing all those things," Alvarez said. "It made me come to school."
On a recent morning, Lowery scolded a new student for complaining about the work ("What do you mean, 'It's too much?' "), meted out punishment for a milk fight the day before and remonstrated with a boy reluctant to attend a regular eighth-grade math class.
"Why can't I stay here and do it?" asked Gabriel Garcia, 13. A student with "an excellent mind" and a record of truancy, Gabriel has not missed a day of school since he was placed in the opportunity class two months ago, Lowery said.
"You will do well," Lowery told Gabriel quietly.
Seated apart from the boys, Maria Garcia gathered her papers together to take home and finish by Friday, when assignments for the week are due. Homework is a new activity for the 14-year-old, who said she "started messing up in school," frequently missing classes, after she found a boyfriend in the sixth grade.
Now she does not "want to get involved in any relationships," Maria said. Instead of worrying about a boyfriend, she said, she "wants to be somebody in the future" and has set her sights on a career in computers or jazz dancing.
Some students feel so secure in the class that they do not want to leave, even when they are ready, Lowery said.
But not every student, he said, can make a turnaround in the class--even with the counseling, house visits and individual attention.
"We lose some," Lowery said. "They just drop out." Getting a student on the right track, he said, depends on the student, too. Margarita intends to stay on track, studying and going directly home--though she admits that "sometimes I'm ready to give up" on the class work.