South-Central Success Story Shares His Hope


Fresh from his own graduation from Harvard Law School, David Campos rose Thursday before nearly 400 Jefferson High graduates and their families and friends to urge the students toward prosperity and success.

It is a route that Campos, 25, knows well.

The son of a South-Central Los Angeles warehouse worker, Campos graduated from Jefferson High as valedictorian in 1989, less than five years after he arrived from Guatemala. He moved on to Stanford University, then Harvard Law School, then into a waiting office at a powerful Washington law firm this summer.

While his teachers credit his intelligence and hard work, Campos credits Humanitas--a then brand-new program at Jefferson High that has since spread to nearly every Los Angeles high school--with its emphasis on how subjects such as history and philosophy interrelate and affect students’ lives.


Campos believes that interdisciplinary approach and the close relationships with teachers fostered by Humanitas honed the two skills most crucial to his academic success: reasoning and self-confidence.

During his speech at East Los Angeles Community College on Thursday, a rapt audience listened as Campos challenged the students--in English and Spanish--to defy stereotypes that might hold them back.

“You need to teach the world a lesson that there is more to being from South-Central than gangbanging and drugs,” he said. “That we do not have to be their housekeepers, their janitors, for as important as those jobs are, we can be much more.”

Humanitas began at eight local high schools, including Jefferson High, in 1986 with private foundation support coordinated by the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a school reform organization. The concept was to provide a literature-enriched education by pulling teachers into teams and instruction into themes.

This year at Jefferson High, for example, the 10th-grade theme was the “human predicament,” which students approached by studying Machiavellian theory in social studies and reading “Hamlet.”

The program uses a “cooperative learning” approach, with students working in groups to solve problems. But “it’s a family formed around ideas, not just the kind of social, ‘We love you, we want to take care of you’ kind of thing,” said district Humanitas Director Barbara Golding. “It’s very much a sense that ‘We all have minds here, we’re going to do marvelously together.’ ”

Campos was a member of Jefferson High’s first Humanitas class of 35 students. Currently, the program is offered at 42 high schools and involves 8,500 students districtwide--including more than 400 at Jefferson.

Students apply for the program, which is open to ninth- through 12th-graders. Although it aims for a cross-section of students, not just the brightest, studies have shown that two-thirds of Humanitas graduates apply to four-year colleges, compared with just 11% of their peers.

“I always said I’d go to good schools, that I’d be a lawyer,” Campos said. “For this kid from South-Central, you could see a lot of people trying to protect me, saying, ‘David, you have to be realistic.’ But in Humanitas they always said, ‘Great.’ ”

Campos came here with his parents and two sisters from Guatemala in 1985 and begin middle school speaking hardly any English. But he had the advantage of a solid academic foundation from Guatemala’s parochial schools and strong support for education at home. Campos’ father was a college-educated meteorologist who gave up a middle-class lifestyle in Central America to seek better opportunities for his children here.

“College was always a given thing for me, which is not true for all kids in South-Central,” Campos said.

In 1986, when Jefferson teacher Cathy Nadler came to Campos’ middle school recruiting for the Humanitas experiment, the ninth-grader was intrigued. Campos said his parents had been disappointed in the quality of education he had received in this country, and were considering moving him to a private school. So he signed up.

Nadler, who still runs the Humanitas program at Jefferson, says Campos stood out from the first day of class. “Right away we knew he was one of our top students,” she said. “He was one of those kids who did everything he was supposed to and more.”

Others say he helped invigorate teachers in those early years--providing tangible evidence that the experiment was working.

Ties between Campos and his alma mater have remained strong. Nadler proudly attended both his graduation from Stanford and, two weeks ago, from Harvard. And Thursday’s speech was one of several times Campos has returned to Los Angeles to meet with Jefferson students.

“When you’re in that kind of environment, you need to know that someone like you has made it,” he said. “I don’t want to be seen as some kind of anomaly. . . . I want them to see that in this country, given the right circumstances, it’s possible to do what I’ve done.”