Sarah F. was 13 when Potrero Junior High School in El Monte kicked her out "forlike, ditching school all the time and getting into lots of fights," the pretty teen-ager says.
Three years ago, that might have been the end of school days for Sarah. At the time, the El Monte City Elementary School District had nowhere to put junior high school students like her, who needed help for behavioral problems and couldn't assimilate into regular school.
But, thanks to an innovative pilot program that began in August of 1989 at two classrooms leased from a Methodist church, Sarah got a second chance.
The Greater El Monte Mountain View Community Day Center School, or last-hope school, is run by the Los Angeles County Department of Education. It offers Sarah and 24 other youngsters--whose real names were not used in this story--intensive counseling and personalized attention in a smaller academic setting than is possible in a regular school.
The hope is that a one-on-one approach will halt delinquency, turn troubled youths around and eventually allow them to re-enter and thrive in regular schools.
The program serves sixth- through eighth-graders from the El Monte and Mountain View school districts.
It worked better than expected in Sarah's case. She has blossomed: She doesn't fight anymore and does her class work enthusiastically, her teachers say.
In fact, Sarah liked her new school so much that she opted to stay there this semester, despite receiving clearance to return to Potrero Junior High.
"Regular school is too boring, and you don't get any attention from teachers," the teen-ager says, her brown eyes gleaming. "I wanted to come back here because, to tell you the truth, I guess I learn more here than in regular school. They explain things to you here."
The success of the El Monte pilot program has prompted other school districts to petition Los Angeles County to open more such continuation programs in the San Gabriel Valley. The existing facility can accommodate only 34 students, and that doesn't begin to meet demand, school officials say.
"The need is great; our district has 20,000 students and we could easily put 100-plus students in a program like that," says Luis Villa, supervisor of child welfare and attendance at Alhambra Unified. Last year, Villa says the district expelled 52 students for offenses that ranged from assaults to bringing weapons onto campus, including several incidents with guns.
David Flores, who runs the 15 schools in the county program, says he has also been approached by district officials from San Gabriel, Charter Oak, Hacienda La Puente, Garvey and Rosemead to launch small, storefront schools in their communities.
"In many cases, the kids would rather stay at our schools than go back to the public schools, because they feel safer here and they can get more personalized attention," Flores says.
Los Angeles County says it will provide teachers, if the districts come up with the space to open the schools. Other facilities in Los Angeles County are run out of mini-malls, church basements and rooms leased from community centers.
Students attend the El Monte school from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., in classrooms of 17 or fewer students. Parenting classes also are offered, and there is a guidance counselor, supplied by the school district, to work individually with students and make home visits when necessary.
A probation officer from the Los Angeles County Department of Corrections also meets regularly with the students.
Most of the teen-agers at the El Monte school are on informal probation for offenses that include spraying graffiti, fighting and stealing. Several are already in the juvenile justice system and have been ordered by the court to attend the special school. About two-thirds are boys.
But Sue Whiting, who has taught at the San Gabriel Valley facility for a year, says she has fewer discipline problems with her El Monte students than she did in a regular public school, because she can devote more individual attention to students who act up.
"We work on their behavioral and socialization skills as much as their academic skills," Whiting says, watching as the students take a break and play computer and board games.
Of course, this isn't exactly "American Graffiti." Whiting says she has been verbally threatened, including one student who vowed he would slash the tires of her car. And some months ago the school began searching the teen-agers each morning because the walls of the campus had become the target of graffiti.
But there has been little violence on campus and no incidents of students bringing weapons to class.
"There were still fights," says a former student, Helen M., now 14. "But the teachers would bring us upstairs and sit us down at a table across from each other, and we'd settle it by talking," she said.
The county-run program isn't cheap: Flores says it costs more than $5,000 per year per pupil to run the program, compared with about $3,500 to educate a pupil each year in a regular school. But early intervention can pay off by eliminating the staggering $33,000 that it costs to incarcerate a young adult for one year in the juvenile justice system, Flores says.
Throughout America, Flores says, changing demographics, including a large influx of immigrant children and those from broken homes, mean many children are less able to function in traditional schools with 30 students to a classroom. In addition, society itself has become more violent. Including students, gang membership in Los Angeles County has grown to 90,000, according to Sheriff's Department estimates.
Although Flores has no statistics on the success of the El Monte pilot program, he says most students are able to return to regular school after a semester or more at the community day center school.
One day last week, Helen, who graduated from the program last year and now attends El Monte High School, stopped by to visit the teachers and the counselor. She said they had helped change her from an angry, confrontational teen-ager, who resolved differences through fights to a thoughtful, more mature student.
"I learned to settle down here," Helen told a visitor. "Sure, there's always someone who wants to start a fight, but now I just ignore them. Before, I'd fight right away.
"The teachers here listened to our problems and they would try to help us out. I trusted them a lot."