Teaching Tough Students How to Take Charge of Their Future

Times Staff Writer

You are an astronaut on a solo flight in space, the work sheet advised. Suddenly you are thrown out of control in a strange galaxy. Lurching toward an unknown planet with your on-board computer warning that a crash is imminent, you can pick six items to take along for survival and escape. Which do you choose?

Brian Oramas suggested a set of encyclopedias. “You could use them to learn to survive or (to burn) for a campfire,” the 14-year-old reasoned.

Armando (Scrappy) Gomez, also 14, voted for a stack of Playboy magazines. “You don’t want to die without sex,” he said.

But others disagreed. And after passionate discussion, the class achieved consensus and put together its own list, including such practical items as 36 hours of oxygen, a first-aid kit, two boxes of matches and a bowie knife.


By all appearances, it was a game. Beneath the play, however, was a serious intent. “We’re trying to teach them responsibility and teamwork,” said Melony Alexander, who was teaching the class. “This lets them know that they have choices and that the choices affect their lives--that if you want to drop out of school, you’re held accountable.”

It’s a theme stressed often in this program, now in its second year in the Long Beach Unified School District, where about 25% to 30% of the students drop out before completing high school. Called Cities in Schools, it is a pilot project that joins the district, city and private sector in an anti-dropout partnership that has already claimed some gains.

“We hope it will be a laboratory,” said Andrea McAleenan, director of the Western region of Cities in Schools Inc. Based in Washington, the independent, nonprofit organization--founded 10 years ago as an outgrowth of a storefront education project that began in Harlem in the late 1960s--has set up similar programs in 32 U.S. cities.

Long Beach was chosen as the site of the first California program, McAleenan said, because the city’s wide-ranging ethnic diversity made it possible to work with a wider array of children. Similar programs, she said, are being planned in Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, Inglewood and East Palo Alto.


In Long Beach, she said, the project is based at Marshall Junior High School, where racial tensions and campus skirmishes a few years ago indicated that some students needed special attention.

The program is designed for students considered likely to drop out because of low academic achievement, high absenteeism or serious behavior problems.

The program’s centerpiece is a special one-hour class each day. In addition to engaging in exercises such as the astronaut scenario, the 42 students study life-style skills such as setting goals and managing time; learn to work together to improve self-esteem, and develop pre-employment skills, such as how to handle job interviews, fill out applications and cultivate good work habits.

“We’re trying to get them to enjoy a classroom,” Alexander said. “We use the jobs as incentive for these kids. We try to show them that to have good jobs they must stay in school.”

The effort is aided by the city, which provided summer jobs for 20 of last year’s students. Project partners representing private enterprise pitch in by providing speakers from various industries and occasional field trips to their places of work.

As a result of the effort, organizers said last year’s crop of participating students had a 20% to 30% reduction in suspensions for disciplinary reasons. In addition, project coordinator Willie E. Elston said he believes that they had less absenteeism and markedly improved attitudes toward school, although neither has yet been documented.

Not everyone, however, is entirely happy with how the partnership is working out.

Of the program’s annual $115,000 budget, administrators said just $40,000--about 34%--comes from private enterprise. The remainder comes almost entirely from the city, with the school district providing the facilities and some staff members.


“The program appears to be successful,” district Supt. E. Tom Guigni said, “but not to the point that I’m ready to expand it to other schools. It’s supposed to be a partnership involving the city, the school district and the private sector. The city and some aspects of the private sector are supportive, but we need more private-sector support.”

Dewey Smith, manager of community relations for McDonnell Douglas Corp. and a member of the Cities in Schools board, attributed the relatively low level of private-sector support to the program’s low profile. “It’s a new program in Long Beach, and I think perhaps that there’s not enough information out to the local businesses regarding it,” he said.

Project administrators said they are working to alleviate that problem by aggressively approaching local corporations to tell them of the project and ask for additional support. In the meantime, the kids at Marshall seem to be among the program’s biggest boosters.

“This is teaching me more than any of my other classes,” Gomez said. “It’s the only class I care about.”

“At first I thought it was boring,” Oramas said, “but now I think it’s all right. It shows you that school can be fun if you really get involved.”