Although separated by about a dozen miles, students at Kranz Intermediate School in El Monte and Garfield High School in East Los Angeles have a good deal in common, not the least of which are the gangs, drugs and racism they confront every day.
Last week, the schools shared something new when cast members from the movie "Stand and Deliver," which portrays the struggle and success of a Garfield math class, asked about 120 Kranz students to make a commitment to themselves and to education.
"Nobody can do it for you," said Irma Barrios, 23, who got her first professional acting credit with a small part in the film. "You can only do it for yourself. You can accomplish anything you want if you try."
Barrios and Henry Torres were extras who played the " ganas kids" who populate the classroom in the movie. " Ganas ," a Spanish word translated in the movie to mean a desire to succeed, is the resource that Garfield math students were able to tap with the help of their unorthodox teacher, Jaime Escalante.
"Stand and Deliver" tells the story of Escalante's first math class, a group of 18 underachieving teen-agers from the barrio who in 1982 passed the rigorous advanced placement calculus test for college credit.
The success of the Garfield math students, who have continued to post very good grades on an exam taken by just 2% of high school students nationwide, is an accomplishment that Kranz teachers would like to pass on to their students.
"I think the movie is great," said Assistant Principal Sandra Macis, who organized the visit by the actors. "What it has to say is so positive. They should all see it."
In the movie and in life, Escalante motivates his students to accomplish what society tells them they cannot. The unprecedented showing of Escalante's 1982 class was challenged by the Educational Testing Service, which attributed the similarity in wrong answers among his students to cheating. Escalante and others said the challenge was based on racism, charging that the Spanish surnames and location of the school prompted the inquiry.
During the controversy, Macis, who was then president of the Assn. of Mexican-American Educators, orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to the testing service in support of Escalante.
Eventually, the scores stood, but only after the students retook the test and passed again. In each year since, the number of Garfield students passing the test has increased, with 87 students making the mark last year.
About 160 of Escalante's students, many of whom enter the class unable to do simple arithmetic, are scheduled to take the test this year.
"Imagine the guts to do that," said actor Torres, who challenged the Kranz students to display their own ganas . "It's your life. You have to deal with it and study."
The message found a receptive audience at Kranz, a largely Latino school in a low-income El Monte neighborhood. The school, with its locked gates and chain-link fences topped with barbed wire, resembles a fortress. It stands as a testimony to the struggle undertaken to combat gangs and drug dealers.
"We have kids who deal . . . we know that," Macis said. "We also know that we lose some kids to the gangs. But things like this (the actors' presentation) show students that there is a way out, something better."
Once a month, the school has "red day," on which students wear red and participate in various anti-drug, anti-gang activities. Macis said activities vary, but the message is always the same: "Say no to drugs and no to gangs."
The 25-year-old Torres, an East Los Angeles native, said he hoped the Kranz students would listen to someone who has also confronted the problems of growing up amid gangs and drugs. For Torres, a part-time computer programmer who got his first professional acting role in "Stand and Deliver," speaking to students represents a chance to give something back to the community.
"We want to tell these kids to stay in school, stay away from drugs and stay away from problems. That's all," he said.
Barrios said the campus visits began this month after her sister, a teacher, suggested it. Since then, Barrios and Torres, plus other cast members, have spoken to students at about a dozen schools in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
"We've been given an opportunity to get to these kids with the film, and we have to take advantage of it," Torres said.
Although only handful of the students raised their hands when Barrios asked if they had seen the movie, the presentation seemed to have found a receptive audience.
"I was inspired by them saying we can do what we want," said Christina Lopez, 13, echoing the sentiments of other students who mobbed the actors for autographs.
"It was good for me because I'm Hispanic, and I've had people tell me I can't do anything because of my last name," said Lopez, a seventh-grader who aspires to be an actress or singer.