Continuation School Controversy : Students Puzzled by Adults' Animosity

Times Staff Writer

Mike Long, a 17-year-old continuation student, seems puzzled by the angry controversy over where he and his classmates should go to school.

A year ago, Rolling Hills officials fought off efforts by the Palos Verdes Peninsula school district to send continuation students to the closed La Cresta school at the edge of their city.

Now residents of the Margate area in Palos Verdes Estates are waging a legal and political campaign to ward off the possibility that next year the students may be sent to the vacant Margate Intermediate School, which the district closed this spring because of declining enrollment.

While the adults argued over the choice of a permanent home for the continuation school, Long and about 100 of his classmates spent a quiet year attending classes in temporary quarters on the Rolling Hills High School campus.

Forty-four graduated in June at the continuation school--called Rancho del Mar--10 more returned to their regular campuses for the ceremonies and another five passed state tests to qualify for their diplomas, district spokeswoman Nancy Mahr said.

"Wherever we go, I guess people are going to be kind of hostile," said Long, who plans to graduate next year. "They think of us as vandals and troublemakers, but we don't do that stuff.

"People say we should be getting a good education, but then they say these bad things about us at meetings and get real paranoid about having us around."

What is there about a continuation school and its students that, in the words of one of Long's classmates, "makes people treat us like lepers"?

Perhaps in the broadest sense the public's view of continuation schools is based--wrongly, school officials say--on negative images of today's teen-agers as antisocial, rebellious, absorbed in drugs, raucous music and sex, and prone to violent behavior.

For many Peninsula residents, that image was reinforced by the brutal murders of two girls by a continuation student, 17-year-old Kevin Hindmarsh, in May of 1984.

Long said he knew Hindmarsh as an "off-the-wall type" who had transferred to Rancho del Mar only a few days before his arrest.

"He did something very terrible," Long said. "But is it fair to blame the whole school for the actions of one individual? Terrible things happen at other schools and they don't condemn everybody for it."

District officials, who have become increasingly sensitive to any suggestion that there may be something wrong with continuation students, vehemently reject fears that the school may be a danger to the community in which it is finally located. La Cresta, Margate and the soccer field on the Rolling Hills High School campus are among sites under consideration currently.

"My kids are not criminals and rapists," Rancho del Mar Principal Kelly Johnson said. "They are not somehow different from teen-agers on any other campus. They are no different. Period."

Any fair-minded person who took the trouble to become acquainted with the school and its students, Johnson added bitterly, would have to agree. Continuation students have the same feelings and dreams and needs--along with the same growing-up pains--as young people everywhere, he said.

In recent interviews, Long talked about his goal of becoming a famous rock musician and composer--"but not the heavy metal stuff, which I find too loud and obnoxious. I want to express myself in music in more positive ways. I want to strive to be the best in my field."

Bill Mickelson, 18, who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes and graduated in June, also wants to be a musician. Joe Savitt, 17, of Rolling Hills Estates, has another year to go in high school and wants to work in the medical field someday. Kevin Guaspari, 17, works in a Gardena machine shop while he completes his high school education.

Planning on College

Jerry De Los Rios, 16, of Malaga Cove, plans to go on to college to pursue his interest in astronomy. Louis Lee, 18, of Rolling Hills, wants to be a businessman and "make lots of money."

Yet continuation students are in some degree "different"--a fact recognized by the state Legislature in the mid-1960s when it required school districts with more than 100 seniors to set up separate classes for high school students who have difficulty succeeding in a traditional setting.

The reasons for the difference are many, school officials say. Some students have limited academic abilities that make it impossible for them to keep up in programs geared for high or even average achievers. Others do not have the social and personal skills to cope with the competitive climate in a regular classroom.

Some find their lives and school work disrupted by family squabbles. Some must work to help support their families. Among girls, pregnancies and early motherhood are a common reason for prolonged absences from class.

Individualized attention is the key to serving the needs of these students, according to Leonard L. Matthews, principal of the Hillcrest continuation school in Inglewood, and other administrators.

"We do a whole lot of counseling to find out a particular student's problem and what can be done about it," said Matthews, whose school recently received an "exemplary" rating from the county Education Department. "Then we set up a program designed just for that student and it's all written up in a contract."

He said the contracts are "flexible" enough to allow each student to progress at his own pace. He said that to ensure individual attention for both the academic needs and personal problems of students, continuation schools have a student-teacher ratio of about 18 to 1, compared to 27 to 1 or higher on regular campuses.

"But we don't fool around," Matthews said. "We have strict rules of conduct and performance that everyone must follow. When a student gets a diploma here, he's earned it as much as any senior in the comprehensive schools."

If the bad, misbehaving students are not in the continuation schools, where are they?

Parents Urge Transfers

Earlier this year, parents in the Centinela Valley high school district concluded that too many of the troublemakers were still on the system's regular campuses. They urged administrators to enforce a policy of transferring to the district's continuation school any student who disrupts classes, intimidates teachers and other students or otherwise interferes with the work of youths who want to learn.

But, PTA President Ann Periconi said in January, "we are not suggesting that Lloyde High School become a dumping ground. Rather, it should be a haven for confused or antisocial youths where they can receive professional help to turn their lives around and make them socially productive, instead of self-destructive."

Administrators in other districts also reject the idea of using their continuation schools as dumping grounds, although transfer policies vary. Peninsula officials said Rancho del Mar is never an alternative for misbehaving students.

"If there are grounds for suspension or expulsion, the student is not allowed to attend any of our schools," Trustee Rose Lachman said recently in explaining her district's policy.

Hillcrest's Matthews said the only official reasons for transferring students in his district to a continuation school are poor attendance or inadequate credits for graduation.

"Now there are a lot of different things that can cause a kid to miss school or fall behind," he said. "If it's a case of a youngster who's acting up, then we sit him down with his parents and go over every rule and regulation. That usually changes his whole outlook."

Continuation school administrators acknowledge that they get their share of problem students, but maintain that their rates of drug use, suspensions and expulsions are generally lower than those on regular campuses.

"Sure, my kids do stupid things sometimes and I think they learn from their mistakes," said Rancho del Mar's Johnson. "They're not all perfect, but mostly they're just pussycats who want a chance to succeed in life as we all do."

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