HARD LESSONS: A YEAR IN SCHOOL : SPECIAL REPORT / EDUCATION : PART 11: THE CULMINATION : All Moving Ahead, Some Moving On

The end of the school year drew near, a day of reckoning for many.

Ceasar Martinez's grades had been nothing to brag about earlier in the year, but in the spring, they plummeted to five Fs and 11 U's. "He has the record" for the worst performance on campus, said Sue Castaneda, a history teacher. That meant he would not graduate on stage.

The same fate befell Jesse Black, who got six U's. "Jesse says he's trying to be good," said his stepmother, Vickie. "I said, 'You didn't try good enough.' "

He was embarrassed. "Yesterday, they were all in line to practice (graduation), and they pulled him out."

Despite their poor performances, neither Jesse nor Ceasar would be held back. "We don't hold kids back, because research shows it doesn't help them become successful," Beryl Ward said.

Surprisingly, Dasha's grades fell as well--to three Bs, two Ds and an F. The way things were going, it was possible that even Dasha would not be allowed to walk across the stage to get her diploma.

The last UTLA meeting of the year was, as usual, a gripe session against the administration.

Frank Randa looked like the year couldn't come to an end fast enough. Asked about continuing unrest among the teachers, he said: "It's growing every day. I wouldn't be surprised if she is promoted," meaning the district would find a way to gently move Ward to another job.

Several teachers were not waiting for that eventuality. Karen Warschaw, an English teacher, came into lunch the week before graduation with a big grin on her face, announcing that she was transferring to another school.

"Overall," she said, "kids don't realize at this school that they have to do the work. They don't care. Maybe it's because they never had requirements put on them. It's OK if they can't spell. It has to stop somewhere."

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Three teachers were retiring--Don Betts, the PE teacher; Bruce Faunce, the wood shop teacher; and Bill Kennedy, the science teacher.

On June 25, a dinner honoring them was held at the Airtel Plaza Hotel in Van Nuys. About 100 people gathered to pay their respects to three men with more than 100 years of service among them.

Betts, looking dapper in a tuxedo, was lightly roasted. His feats at the table were described. "He has the metabolism of a hummingbird and the appetite of a horse," said a friend, adding that Betts could down a pot of chili at one sitting.

"This is a whole different world," Betts said when he went to the podium, silencing the laughter.

"You have an awful battle ahead of you. I hope society finds it's got to toughen up, because the easy way isn't the way out."

Ward was called to the podium to deliver some simple remarks, which she did with tight formality. The principal's appearance was like a rock being dropped into a pool of oil, which disappeared quickly and left no ripples. Not one person in the audience clapped.

Culmination was on June 28. The auditorium was filled to bursting. Parents with video cameras crowded the aisles to take pictures of their children when their names were called and they went to get their diplomas.

Afterward, Dasha's parents stood smiling on the lawn in front of school. With Ward's help, Dasha had graduated on stage. Ward had asked the teachers to reconsider the U's they planned to give her for bad behavior. People might argue over the message the principal's intervention had sent, but the result was that Dasha was feeling better about the future.

Outside the front gate, Ceasar Martinez and his girlfriend, Wally, cuddled under a tree. Neither participated in graduation, but it seemed they needed to be near it.

"I got five U's," said Wally, explaining her failure to graduate with her class.

Asked whether their relationship had messed up their report cards, Ceasar sniffed. "They said it was because we were together, but it's not."

Both were bright, but neither seemed to think very seriously about what lay ahead. Were they given too much unearned self-esteem? Had they had such an easy ride in junior high that they had come to believe the world is a less demanding place than it really is? Maybe they figure that whatever happens they'll squeak by somehow, because, after all, it's worked so far.

Or did the fun they had in middle school, and the good feelings they developed about themselves, set them up to take off in high school?

Only the future would answer those questions. Midway through the year, Assistant Principal Bob Coburn had considered such uncertainties during a soul-searching conversation in his tiny office.

"I don't know if it's going to work," he said of the things they were doing at Northridge. "Maybe in 20 years they'll say, 'You screwed up that generation.' "*

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