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Grateful Grad

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A high school diploma seemed an impossible dream for Shantanishia Battiste last summer.

Having been kicked out of three Los Angeles-area high schools, she had dropped out and joined a gang. She was in trouble and hanging out on the streets without a purpose or plan for her future.

“I was getting into trouble all the time, getting into fights,” she said. “You know, you just blend in with the crowd. I couldn’t help myself.”

At wits’ end, her mother last August sent the 17-year-old to live with her uncle in Laguna Niguel.

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The clean, quiet sidewalks of South County were a drastic contrast to the streets of South-Central L.A., and Battiste saw right away that her new address meant more than just a change in scenery. It represented a second chance.

On Tuesday, she not only graduated with the class of 1997 from Serra High School, she delivered the commencement address, giving a moving speech that brought tears to many in the audience, including her mother, Debra Thomas, and many other relatives.

“You have no idea how bad it is in L.A.,” she told the audience. “I consider myself lucky by coming to live here. . . . I don’t know what my life would be like without a high school diploma.”

As early as ninth grade, Battiste said, she had trouble in school. Though she was never arrested or into the drug scene, she often ditched school and roamed the streets. She admits that she had a hard time accepting authority, and on more than one occasion became so angry that she hit a teacher.

Nearly a year behind her class, she dropped out but always hoped to finish school somehow. Her plight inspired her mother to send her to Laguna Niguel.

“She had a lot of problems in L.A.,” Thomas said. “But she was determined to graduate with the class of 1997. . . . I always hoped it would happen, but I was skeptical when she dropped out.”

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Starting at the end of last summer, Battiste dedicated herself to her studies and student activities at Serra, Capistrano Unified School District’s continuation high school. She also found a job at a local restaurant and managed to juggle that responsibility with academics.

She rode the bus nearly an hour each way to school but never missed a day. She took extra classes to make up for what she had missed in previous years.

“She is such a sweet girl,” said Carol Allen, one of her teachers at Serra. “We had a hard time believing she had problems with teachers in the past because when she came she was so positive. She was very motivated.”

For her involvement in campus clubs and role as a student leader, Battiste was honored by the Peer Assistance League and Associated Student Body, cited twice as student of the month and for perfect attendance. She also took home the Principal’s Award, which acknowledges outstanding work through the year.

“She’s an inspiration,” teacher Sue Chance said. “She puts a smile on all our faces.”

With diploma in hand, Battiste has set her sights on college. She is leaving high school with three scholarships from school and community organizations to help her toward that goal.

She plans to continue working and will probably attend Saddlemback College for two years before transferring to a four-year university. Ultimately, she said, she hopes to become a judge.

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Battiste modestly credited her teachers for their personal concern and attention, and she also praised her uncle, Stanley Thomas, for welcoming her into his home. But most of all, she thanked her mother.

“If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “I barely got to see her this year. It was hard, but she let me go to come here and finish school.”

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