Misfits Need Schooling That Fits

This ugly two-story Lawndale strip mall seems better suited to selling kalua pork at the Hawaiian BBQ downstairs than to educating high school students. In fact, when I first walk into the standard-looking classroom on the second floor, not much education seems to be going on. Not that teacher Jeanett Hector isn’t trying. She’s picked a Stephen King teleplay for the class to read aloud, and she’s brimming with enthusiasm for it, certain that the 17 students slumping in their seats will get into it. At the moment, though, most of them are mumbling excuses and acting bored. Well aware that a reporter’s watching, Hector grows increasingly annoyed.

For my part, I’m well aware that this Los Angeles County-run “community day school” takes only students that other schools have booted, often for felonious activity. So I’m not surprised that most of these students are behaving like unmotivated losers.

Hector won’t give up. “This is a good story,” she says. “It’s very, very creepy and will make you think.”

I first stumbled upon these students while they were field-tripping through a small gallery in downtown Los Angeles. I’d never heard of the County Office of Education, a 150-year-old niche bureaucracy whose $783-million budget comes from the state, whose superintendent is appointed by the county Board of Supervisors, whose hodgepodge responsibilities include running 47 community day schools with a total enrollment of 1,789.

Judging by the numbers, which include a few students in other county programs, these schools look pretty lousy. Fewer than a third of the students taking the high school exit exam passed in 2004-05. But then this program isn’t meant for natural-born scholars, and the way these misfits gawked and yakked about the oddball paintings and sculptures intrigued me. I ambushed teacher Hector and invited myself to her class.


So here I am at Alternative Academy of the South Bay.

Ricardo, a 17-year-old in-line skating videographer with a neo-Beatle haircut knows we’re not supposed to talk about what landed him here, but he does -- and just so you know, “bombing” involves spray paint, not explosives.

Seventeen-year-old Vanessa says her school kicked her out because she had a penchant for fist-fighting with other girls and one boy -- “He was talking mess to me.”

And Wilmer Ramirez -- a big guy with curly hair, a fake diamond stud in his ear and an unruly smile -- says he started at nearby Leuzinger High, in the Centinela Valley Union High School District, as an A student.

“Second semester, I started messing up.... I just gave up. Said forget about school.”

A long string of truancies and injudicious words with a history teacher -- “I should hit you” -- landed him at Hector’s door.

At that point, Wilmer still liked smoking weed better than attending class. But truancy’s tougher at these community schools. Most have no more than 20 students to a class. This one has just two classrooms and a conference room that also serves as library, teacher’s lounge and gym (those free weights in the corner).

Hector’s students stay with her from 7:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. They work on some lessons together and chip away individually at whatever coursework they need to graduate. If they don’t show up for class, Hector or her assistant are on the phone hammering.

Wilmer remembers the moment a couple of years ago when Hector’s concern finally penetrated his stoner consciousness. He was at a friend’s house, sitting on a couch in the middle of the day “smoking and smoking and smoking.” He looked at his friends and suddenly decided that getting wasted was a waste.

Later, when his late nights parking cars at a Buca di Beppo started undermining his schoolwork, Hector spoke to him about priorities. Wilmer sacrificed that $8 an hour for the better pay he hopes will come with a high school diploma. He passed the exit exam and plans to graduate in November.

I need to look at many more of these strip mall-type day schools to have a grasp of whether the county’s doing a good job. I’ve seen enough to persuade me that Hector is. And the students, while trying not to sound too uncool, tell me that her refusal to take their guff or let them dodge responsibility is what has kept them from dropping out. The school’s size seems to have a swaddling effect. It’s self-paced approach to coursework calms, takes the pressure off to keep pace with peers.

While I’ve been talking to individual students, Hector’s been living up to her name, cajoling and then hectoring the class to pay attention to the text, to guess at the teleplay’s mystery. Before long, they’re moving back and forth from engaged, almost hammy readings of their parts to enthusiastic debate about who is likely to have killed whom.

Finally, Hector says it’s time to move on to other work. The once-reluctant students of literature beg her to let them keep reading.

“Sam, close your book,” she finally snaps, and a tough-looking kid sneaks one final peek before slamming the text shut.

I find myself embarrassed for having harbored that “loser” stereotype. It occurs to me that these kids have probably been stamped with that absurdly vague label since they first demonstrated that they didn’t fit in at standard-issue high schools. I wonder why it takes schools so long to shepherd struggling, disengaged students into programs more suited to their quirks. Why can’t that happen before they disrupt campuses designed for a different type of kid?

Should students be shipped to specialized schools at the first sign of trouble? To discuss this question or education in general, visit Bob Sipchen can be reached at