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Students Fear Transfer to Rival Turf

Times Staff Writers

With his troubled South Los Angeles charter school about to close, Kewun Jones has bigger fears about relocating to a nearby campus than transferring grades, making new friends or saying goodbye to favorite teachers.

Like most of the displaced students, Jones said he would rather drop out than transfer to a campus in rival gang turf, where he said he could face threats, beatings or worse on the way to and from school.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 01, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 01, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 85 words Type of Material: Correction
Gang areas -- An article in Wednesday’s California section about students afraid to cross gang turf if they transfer to a new school reversed the location of rival gangs’ territories. The youngsters’ current school, Jah’s World Foundation Academy on West Boulevard near Slauson Avenue, is in a Rollin’ 60s area, while the other campus, Spark Community Outreach Program for Empowerment on Western Avenue near Vernon Avenue, is in a Rollin’ 40s area. In addition, the surname of community activist V.G. Guinses was misspelled as Guiness.

“As soon as I go to that school, they’re going to know who I am. They’re going to kill me. I’m scared. I’m really scared,” said the 16-year-old, who has lost five friends to street violence.

Officials of the soon-to-be-closed Jah’s World Foundation Academy want its 100 middle and high school students, some with gang ties or a history of expulsion from other schools, to attend another charter campus three miles away starting next week. They say the teens’ fears of danger are exaggerated.

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But many students have refused, saying that the out-of-town administrators of the two schools don’t understand that crossing neighborhood lines in parts of Los Angeles can be fatal.

Jah’s World, located in a weathered church on West Boulevard near Slauson Avenue, takes in troubled youths, many of whom live in the surrounding Hyde Park area. Some are on probation from juvenile hall. And even those who are there simply to improve their academic records are familiar with the gang life on the streets around them.

Kimberly Proctor, 18, carried a black book bag with the words “R.I.P. Devon” written on it, a tribute to her friend who was shot and killed last summer in his car in the Los Angeles area. In recent years, she also lost a cousin to gang violence.

“At first, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand people going around killing people,” said Proctor, who is not a gang member. “Now, I just see it’s kind of [part of] life. It happens.”

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Every morning, Proctor’s mother drives her less than a mile from home to Jah’s World.

Proctor used to attend Crenshaw High School, but she struggled academically and cut classes. At Jah’s World, she got back on track because, she said, teachers took an interest in her. One helped her enroll in extra classes at West Los Angeles College to catch up on credits.

Proctor was set to graduate in June, but said she wouldn’t transfer to the other charter school. “I don’t feel safe there,” she said. “Here, I feel safe.” So she plans to look for another school and delay graduation for a year.

Jah’s World was authorized two years ago by the tiny Westwood Unified School District, an hour north of Chico. Such out-of-town oversight, which brought Westwood a slice of the charter’s tax revenue, is now banned by the state as such charters seek to renew their permits.

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Westwood district officials said they had decided to move up the school’s closure, rather than wait for the semester’s end, because the academy had not followed rules such as turning in student records on time and requiring students to take the California High School Exit Exam.

Westwood sponsors another Los Angeles charter school for troubled youngsters, the Spark Community Outreach Program for Empowerment, or SCOPE, where the district wants the Jah’s World students to enroll. Previous transfers between the two sites have not triggered many problems, officials said.

“Kids between both schools have been crossing lines so far anyway,” Henry Bietz, superintendent of Westwood Unified, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think it’s a main issue,” he said of the gang concerns.

However, Los Angeles Police Department officials confirmed that the two schools were split between rival gang territories.

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“The kids, rightfully, should be concerned about their safety,” said Lt. Edmund Wilson of the 77th Street Division. Although he said that gangs did not control those streets, he added, “No level of danger is acceptable.”

The Jah’s World neighborhood is home to the Rollin’ 40s street gang, according to V.G. Guiness, a community activist. The neighborhood just three miles north, where the SCOPE campus is located, on Western Avenue near Vernon, has the Rollin’ 60s, he said.

Diane Plourde said she and other teachers at Jah’s World had dealt with much more than academics. The Westwood officials don’t know “how these kids feel or where their minds are when they live with violence every day, or have had their home shot up by a couple of drive-bys in the morning ...” she wrote in a recent letter asking the state to keep the campus open at least until the summer.

The campus has four classrooms, in two rented bungalows behind the church and an old house next door. The pavement between classrooms is cracked and potholed. The blue and white tile floors inside one bungalow are uneven, and classrooms are sometimes without heat or water.

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Despite that setting, students say, the school has been a haven from the troubles on the streets and in their own lives. Its approach is for individualized attention and strong discipline.

“There was definitely a need,” said Nathaniel Tavasti, Jah’s World academy’s director, who started the school in the church, where he also serves as pastor. “Within a few years, these kids are going to become our adults. They’ll be the hopeless, the drug addicts, if no one intervenes to help them.”

Although the school is named after Tavasti’s church -- Jah is a term for God -- it is not a religious school. Tavasti, a calm man, controls rowdy students with a sharp look and a forceful tone.

He specializes in students like Jones, who was sent to Jah’s World after two years in juvenile hall for armed robbery.

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Jones said the academy had helped reform him and figured that regular public schools wouldn’t take him because of his history. Now he worries about going to a new school in an area where he may see people with whom he had disputes in juvenile hall.

“If this school closes down, I will go back to the hall,” he predicted in a letter to the state.

Gwynn Browne, site director at the 120-student SCOPE school, said it was a shame that students were concerned about crossing gang turf, but she insisted her campus in the Faith in Christ Ministries Church was safe. Her husband, Joseph Browne, a faculty member at SCOPE, also said he did not think the transfers would prove dangerous, even though the school had had its share of rival gang members.

“The whole thing, I believe, is blown out of proportion,” he said.

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SCOPE will provide free transportation to Jah’s World students who agree to transfer there. Those who refuse will be accepted into their neighborhood public schools, unless they have been expelled from such campuses, according to Carol Barkley of the California Department of Education.

Expelled students must find another charter school, transfer to another district or enroll in an adult or continuation school, she said.

Charter schools are financed with state taxes but excused from many regulations. However, they need sponsorship from a public entity, such as school districts. In California, several districts, like Westwood, have authorized multiple campuses -- sometimes far away, making oversight difficult. A new law requires charters to be based in the same county as the school district that monitors them.

As a result, Westwood is closing its 13 charter campuses located outside its local jurisdiction, Bietz said. The district has 300 students in its own local schools and 1,200 enrolled in its charter system. The district is closing campuses that have low attendance or are out of compliance with district and state rules, and the rest will be shut down over the next year, Bietz said.

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But Tavasti of Jah’s World said the campus had been given little guidance on rules. “It feels like they set me up to fail,” said Tavasti, who agreed last year not to receive a salary for his position. The school employs three teachers, three aides and a security guard who scans students each morning with metal detectors before they enter the campus.

Kyle David, 16, said he was not in a gang and he tried to keep a low profile by wearing “neutral” colors to school. He pointed to his gray sweatpants and sweatshirt. “This is something a bum would wear,” he said.

Still, he is afraid that if he attends SCOPE, he will be threatened because he lives in a Rollin’ 40s neighborhood. He said he had been beaten up for crossing gang lines before.

“Basically, it’s life. I go through it every day,” he said. “I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I have to watch my back every 10 minutes.”

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His mother, Laurie Miller, said she was “heartbroken” that Jah’s World was closing, because both her son and daughter have thrived there. Their grades are up and they attend school regularly, she said.

Miller said she had not decided where to enroll them.

“The area we live in has one rival gang to their other rival gang. Our kids are going to stand out.”


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