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No-Frills Schools Help Troubled Teen-Agers Salvage Their Studies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everette was failing his classes at Cleveland High School. Then he got in trouble with the law and landed in a state youth camp for five months. By the time he was paroled, he had fallen a year and a half behind in his studies.

“I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it through to graduate,” Everette, 18, recalled.

That was a year ago. Now, Everette is ready to return to Cleveland High and, in June, will graduate with his friends. He was able to catch up by attending one of 20 “community schools” that Los Angeles County operates for students who have missed large chunks of their education, either from cutting classes or being in jail.

Burbank Unified School District officials recently asked the county to open a community school for their problem students. The request marked the first time that a school district had called on the county for help.

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At most community schools, the students are parolees who attend for a semester or two before returning to their original schools. The Burbank class, which should begin in April, will be filled primarily with students drawn from regular and continuation high schools. Still, the program will operate in the same manner as any of the county campuses.

The woman in charge of establishing the new school, Maxine Shepard, is the principal of the community school in Van Nuys where Everette attends classes.

“These kids have gaps in their education. It’s not because they aren’t smart, but because they’ve missed school,” Shepard said. “We work on filling in the holes.”

Community schools differ from regular and continuation high schools in several ways. The classes are smaller and each student has an individual lesson plan, geared to help the student learn material he has missed. The school day is shorter, more businesslike, with brief lunch periods and no time for elective classes such as machine shop or dance.

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In all, it’s a no-frills high school where students are given a distinct message: Get serious because this may be your last chance at an education.

On a recent visit to the school in Van Nuys, some of the students said they were eager to take advantage of the opportunity. Others seemed to treat community school as nothing more than an extension of youth camp. They were serving a sentence until it was time to go back to regular school.

The Van Nuys school is housed in a building that was part of a county health clinic. The classrooms have tables instead of desks. There was no chalkboard in the room where Everette and 12 other students studied geography Thursday afternoon.

“In regular school, they give you the assignment and if you can’t do it, you fail,” Everette said. “Here, if you fail, they give you another chance and help you learn it. The teachers give you special attention.”

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Bill Smith was the teacher of this particular class. He is a striking man, with a shock of white hair and a black eye patch. He circulated around the room, answering questions and checking on work. When the students began to whisper among themselves, Smith quickly called out: “Do you need my attention?” That usually quieted the class.

“It’s very structured here because a lot of the kids have a pattern of not being able to function in school,” Smith said.

There are three classes at the Van Nuys school and none has more than 17 students. The youths range in age from 13 to 18.

School starts at 8 a.m. During the morning break and lunch, students can play basketball on a court beside the parking lot. The day is over by 1:20 p.m. No school buses are waiting to take students home. A school administrator hands out RTD passes.

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Some students don’t enjoy the schedule and surroundings that are so different from regular schools.

“We want to go back to our old schools,” said Raymond, 16, wearing a graffiti-painted T-shirt.

During an art class at Van Nuys, a group of boys sat off in the corner, snickering when the teacher was out of earshot. Jason, 16, had a specific reason for wanting to return to his school, Birmingham High.

“So I can take driver’s ed and get my driver’s license,” he said.

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Administrators at the county’s Office of Education speak of their program as if it were a crusade. But on the front line, in the classroom, Smith realizes that he can’t save all these teen-agers. On this day, two students are absent because they have run away from home. Another two have been arrested and are in detention centers.

“You can’t make long speeches to these kids,” Smith said. “I reinforce the reality that unless you get a lucky break or have a career in crime, you can’t do much without a high school diploma. I give them an opportunity to change.”

The county’s education office doesn’t keep statistics on the success rate of its community schools. (The same office operates classrooms in youth camps and detention centers and its statistics include all such students.)

Some youths never complete the one- or two-semester program, officials say. Others return to regular school only to drop out. During his year at Van Nuys, Everette has seen many faces pass through.

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“They’re here and all of a sudden they’re in jail,” he said. “Only two ways to get out of here--get off probation or go back to jail.”

Despite its failures, the community school program offers students a combination of options that regular and continuation schools don’t.

A student who is strong in science but weak in history can adjust his individualized studies accordingly. Someone who has an interest in art can tailor his work toward that area.

If an 11th-grade student is reading at an eighth-grade level, teachers at the school will translate 11th-grade material into vocabulary the student can understand.

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“You don’t give an 11th-grade kid a book on ‘Dick and Jane,’ ” said Florence Babcock, a county education administrator. “If you give them all the information and bring their reading level up as much as you can, they are prepared to go out and think and problem-solve and read newspapers and move forward in the community.”

In a regular school, if a student attends only half a semester of social studies, he must retake the entire class. At a community school, teachers figure out what the student missed and teach him only that information.

This method can be used for any number of classes. But the quality of the program’s education could be questioned because it pieces together a student’s high-school career in such makeshift fashion. County administrators defend their schools.

“That’s the reality of the situation,” Shepard said. “We try to get the information to them any way we can.”

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Some students have fallen so far behind that they can’t possibly make up all the credits needed to graduate. At community schools, such kids either study for the state high-school equivalency exam or take vocational training.

Maria, from Arleta, is using community school as a way out of a difficult situation. She sits apart from the snickering boys in art class, quietly painting a large yellow flower. She is a small girl with dark curls, bright red pants and black-painted fingernails.

“I’m pregnant,” the 16-year-old said. “So I’ll be able to take time out when I have the baby and come back here afterward. It’ll be easier for me, and then I can go to high school.”

Maria’s father and brothers have their own businesses in landscaping and construction, and one day she would like to run an office for them. She practices on computers that have been donated to the Van Nuys school.

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“I like this place,” she said. “I learn the things I need to learn.”


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