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School’s Success Is Rooted in Reading

Times Staff Writer

Alex Haley stopped by Junipero Serra High School last week to kick off its annual fund-raising campaign, but teachers say the Pulitzer Prize-winning author provided something worth more than money.

Speaking to an assembly in the gymnasium, the author of “Roots” told the students how he had worked to become an accomplished writer, and he issued a challenge for them to succeed.

His message was simple but firm: “Be aware of the personal investment it takes to become a writer or anything else.”

Haley’s words brought applause from the 500 students and gratitude from the faculty, because to them his message was a reaffirmation of the school’s mission.

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“Alex reinforced what I have been doing all along,” said Craig Mitchell, assistant principal and head of the school’s reading and writing programs.

Vast Improvement

A predominantly black, all-boy Roman Catholic school, Serra emphasizes reading and writing in its rigorous academic program because its principal, Father Patrick Philbin, believes lack of verbal skills has long prevented blacks and other minorities from succeeding.

Serra students often improve their test scores in reading and writing by as much as 400% during their four-year stint, Mitchell said.

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“What was most gratifying to me as an English teacher was watching the students ask several questions on how to become a writer,” he said.

But Serra’s faculty did not need Alex Haley to tell them that hard work pays off. They already believe in it.

Whether students begin in the remedial reading program or jump straight into the accelerated tract, all must read between 15 and 18 books a year and are encouraged to spend at least one hour each day writing--letters, journals, fiction, anything.

Plenty of Homework

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The average student spends about two hours each night reading, writing and preparing for the next day’s class, in addition to doing work required for his five other classes, Mitchell and other teachers said.

Serra, which draws most of its students from South-Central Los Angeles, sends 88% of its students on to two-year or four-year colleges and universities, school records show. Of these, 60% earn college degrees. Each year the school hosts college recruiters from such respected institutions as Harvard, Yale and Stanford.

The school, named for the 18th-Century Spanish Franciscan priest who founded 21 California missions, has received top ratings from the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges.

Although Serra is owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and is run by the Marianists religious order, fewer than half its students are Catholic. “Catholics and non-Catholics alike send their students to this school because they know we give them a quality education,” Philbin said.

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Serra’s minority and disadvantaged population has doubled in the past 10 years, he said. About 8% of the students receive scholarships that cover half of the $1,150 annual tuition.

Removed From Crime Areas

Philbin describes the campus as an oasis for the many students who live in a wasteland of drugs and crime.

Indeed, the 24-acre campus at Compton Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue at times does look and sound more like an aviary than a high school campus. The main courtyard is lined with large rectangular cages filled with a variety of tropical birds, and Father Philbin’s pet peacock and peahen roam freely around the open campus.

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The halls are filled with straight-backed young men in ties, sporting closely cropped haircuts. Most shy from what they call “the California casual look,” opting for Ivy League clothing, cardigan sweaters, penny loafers and pegged pants.

But not all of Serra’s students would be considered “college material” upon entering the school.

Remedial Classes Necessary

Almost half of each freshman class must go through the remedial reading program because entrance exams show they read two or three steps below their grade level. The students begin with second-grade assignments and work up to the freshman level, using special textbooks and working in classes of 25 students or fewer in which they receive a good deal of attention.

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What has surprised the faculty since they began offering the remedial program in 1982 is that most of the students’ reading skills surpass their grade levels before they leave the program. The average remedial reading student’s skills jump three grade levels within the first three months.

Rona Thompson, 15, is an example of the program’s success. He entered the program last year as a freshman because his test scores showed he had the reading skills of someone two years younger. Now a sophomore, Thompson is reading at the 11th-grade level, according to his teacher, Charles Bunker.

“I like to read now,” he said.

Bunker said Thompson’s real forte is in writing, in which he often reveals pleasure in his new skills.

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Bunker, the school’s developmental reading specialist, said many students were told by previous teachers that they had specific reading problems like dyslexia or poor comprehension. But of the 233 students that have gone through his program, only one had a diagnosed reading problem, he said. The remainder suffered from what Bunker called “developmental lags” and lack of self-confidence.

They Cried Together

Bunker recalled a former student who sat glued to his chair after class one day.

“Finally he approached me with tears in his eyes. He just couldn’t believe I said he was improving. You know, I cried right along with him. It scares me to think that these young men could have gone through life thinking they were stupid because no one gave them the skills they needed.”

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By their junior year, all students are working in the college preparatory reading program where they start receiving what Mitchell calls “hard-boiled” instruction.

“By the time they leave this class I make sure these students can make it in any college classroom,” Mitchell said.

Since most students come from minority neighborhoods, instructors spice their literature classes with books written by minority authors to provide scenes and subjects students can easily relate to.

Black author Haley’s visit was part of an effort to expose the students to positive minority role models, Philbin said.

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‘Inspire and Motivate’

“We hoped that someone like Alex Haley could inspire and motivate our students,” he said.

Haley charmed the audience as he outlined his writing career, which began in the Coast Guard where he would pad his galley chef’s salary by writing love letters for other sailors.

“I was making more money writing love letters than I was cooking,” Haley said, drawing a hearty round of laughter. When he gave an example of a love-letter line, one student started writing and said: “I’m going to use that.”

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On a more serious note, Haley told students they would need “to develop an extraordinary amount of self-discipline and self-motivation.” He also advised them to read voraciously and “to keep their heads out of the television set.”

Mitchell couldn’t agree more: “When students enter my class I tell them they might as well go out and sell or lease their TVs.”

‘Hope They’ll Want to Read’

The faculty encourages students to read and write in their spare time and during summer vacation, but they realize that students often do only what is required.

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“One might be optimistic and say (today’s teen-ager) is under-read, or one might be truthful and say he doesn’t read,” Mitchell said. “When these students leave this classroom, I hope they’ll want to read.”

Mitchell and other teachers in the English programs credit parents with part of the success. Many parents read assigned novels along with their children, Mitchell said. “They’ll call me later and ask me to suggest another book for them to read along with their children.”

“I’m paying for this, so I want to see where my dollars are going,” said Brenda Malone, whose son Keith will graduate this spring. “I’ll do whatever I can to help these teachers do their job.”


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