Two years ago, Dolores Buenrostro arrived at the Horizon Educational Center in Anaheim with tattoos covering her body, makeup caked on her face and deep-rooted gang ties that had landed her in jail several times.
"Back then, I wasn't thinking about the future at all," said Buenrostro, now 18. "I only talked using slang words, and I only dressed in baggy clothes. . . . I wanted to finish high school, but I didn't think I would make it."
Today, Buenrostro graduates from the Orange County Department of Education's Horizon alternative education program, along with 270 other students from 35 campuses--most of whom enrolled in the alternative program because they had been expelled from regular schools, had gotten pregnant or had been placed on probation by the courts.
"For many of our kids, this is their last chance to get an education," said Carol Richardson, Buenrostro's teacher at Horizon's Anaheim center. "There always are kids who fall through the cracks. Our goal is to try to catch some of them."
At some point, many of Orange County's approximately 22,000 graduating high school seniors experience academic, family or social pressures that can make finishing high school difficult.
No one is more familiar with such frustrations than the 2,000 seventh- through 12th-graders enrolled in the Horizon program, many with troubled pasts. Their ranks include four of the seven teen-agers arrested in connection with the Lemon Heights slaying of 14-year-old Carl Dan Claes last month.
To students such as Buenrostro, graduating from high school is more than a rite of passage: It's a miracle.
"My family is totally shocked," said Buenrostro, who will speak at her graduation ceremony. "My father plans to miss a day of work to come to my graduation, and for him to miss a day of work, it has to be a total emergency."
Buenrostro said her troubles began in junior high school, when she got involved in gangs. She eventually spent a year in a juvenile facility for violating probation.
There, she said, she began to have serious thoughts about turning her life around when fellow gang members abandoned her, refusing to take her collect calls. Buenrostro decided she would enroll at Horizon upon her release.
"I never thought I would see my 18th birthday, because I had seen so many violent things happen," said Buenrostro, who has had most of her tattoos removed. "So many times I had seen people get shot. I was scared, but I couldn't show that I was scared. Now I'm not afraid to say, 'No, I don't want to be part of that,' because I have a future to look forward to."
This fall, Buenrostro will enroll at Fullerton College, where she plans to study law enforcement. Her goal is to become a police officer.
"I'm proud of myself, because lots of times I thought about quitting," she said. "One time, I told my teacher I wanted to quit, and she said, 'Give yourself a chance. Hang in there.' So I did."
The county's Department of Education started the Horizon program in the mid-1980s as a way to reduce the number of dropouts. The program teaches students in grades seven through 12 at mostly storefront sites throughout the county, said Ted Price, the county's director of alternative education.
Students who have failed in regular school settings often succeed at Horizon because they receive individual help, can arrange their own class schedules, work at their own pace and attend school in quiet, remote settings, school officials said.
However, in recent weeks, the program has received far less flattering attention because four of its students have been charged in connection with the killing of Claes, who was shot once in the head May 16 and left at the side of a dirt path. The homicide allegedly arose from a dispute over the victim's $2,500 sound system.
Elaine Goodman, a teacher at Horizon's Tustin branch, which the four boys attended, said the shooting shocked the school's teachers and students, some of whom had to undergo counseling to cope with the tragedy.
"We know that a percentage of our students are troubled, but we never thought any of our students could be linked to something like that," Goodman said. "It's disappointing, because we have so many more success stories."
For the seniors completing their education at Orange County's 58 high school campuses, graduation is a time to celebrate their success. Graduation for Horizon students often takes on an added meaning because so many of them had to overcome numerous obstacles to complete their education.
"By the time our students come to us, people have given up on them," Goodman said. "They lack self-esteem and hope. We're like a doctor's office. They come to get prescriptions to get better."
Today's two Horizon ceremonies at Rancho Santiago College-Santa Ana are the only Orange County high school graduation exercises scheduled for this weekend. Most took place earlier this week or are scheduled for next week.
In her graduation speech, Nina Stephens, 18, plans to talk about how she went from being a single mother with no hope for the future to a high school graduate on her way to college.
When Stephens arrived at the Horizon center in Tustin, she "was one angry girl," Goodman said. "On her first day, she came pushing her son in a stroller, and she looked like she did not want to be here."
Stephens said she was "fed up with school" when she and her 4-year-old son, Denzel, moved from Philadelphia to live with her father in Orange.
"I didn't want to go to school," said Stephens, who previously had lived with her mother. "But I made an agreement with my dad that I would give it a try."
Stephens, who is dyslexic, started having problems with school at an early age. She was held back a grade and placed in special-education classes, but she still had trouble reading without stuttering. Stephens said she later got mixed up with drugs, had a baby at 14 and stopped going to school.
"When I was little, I thought I would graduate, go to college, get married and buy a house," she said. "But everything got messed up."
At Horizon, however, Stephens began focusing on her schoolwork and ended up getting A's and Bs. While attending Horizon's graduation ceremony last year, she vowed that she would graduate this year.
"And here I am," she said.
Stephens plans to attend Rancho Santiago College-Santa Ana this fall and hopes to one day open a youth center.
"I want to help kids like me who grew up without hope," she said. "I want kids to see me and say, 'Look, she was a poor girl from a bad neighborhood. She came up, and she didn't forget where she came from. Maybe I can do that too.' "