'It's Like You're Climbing Everest'

Times Staff Writer

Isaac Castillo watched uneasily as a pack of 15 boys streamed out of a Van Nuys McDonald's. They paraded across Balboa Boulevard, ignoring four lanes of traffic.

Isaac and four of his friends headed toward their car in the Del Taco parking lot. The other boys closed in.

One faced Isaac. You wanna fight?

All year, Isaac, 17, had dodged confrontations with this group of teenagers. A rivalry over a girl had escalated into a bitter grudge. Now whenever Isaac passed one of them in a school hallway, on a street corner, at a fast-food restaurant, he clenched his fists.

Despite some failing grades, fights and suspensions, Isaac had made it into the home stretch at Birmingham High School. Graduation was just a few weeks away. If he was caught fighting on this breezy afternoon, in a parking lot two blocks from Birmingham, the school would kick him out and bar him from commencement.

His pulse quickened beneath his gray hooded sweater.

Suddenly, a boy rose to Isaac's defense.

My friend is trying to graduate, said David Parraz. So if you have any problems with him, take them up with me.

Isaac's challengers grudgingly backed down.

"He was gonna graduate," David said later, "and not all of us were."

We a family

the Outsiders will always be

remember who we are

we're making history

no one understands how we stay together

I tell them we're brothers

and life isn't the same without each other.

-- Rap lyrics by Outsider Mark Cevallos

They called themselves the "Outsiders": a bunch of spiky-haired, barely teenage boys from Van Nuys whose families came from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

Eleven of them entered Birmingham High as freshmen in the fall of 2001.

There was Isaac, a tough guy the girls adored; David, a gifted student and a baseball player; and Polo Morales, a fatherless boy who loved football. There were others: An eloquent rapper, a fearless skateboarder, a rock 'n' roll drummer. The boys break-danced together and spent hours writing lyrics to rock and rap songs.

Navigating the streets of their neighborhood, they had learned never to walk alone.

Belonging to a group meant they didn't have to. The Outsiders were not a gang. Gangs killed people. They simply watched one another's backs. If one needed a dollar, another spotted him. If one got punched, another punched back.

As students, none was exceptional. Half of the boys had earned too few credits to participate in graduation from junior high, but the Los Angeles Unified School District's social promotion policy allowed them to move on to high school anyway.

They expected to graduate together.

By late spring of 2005, only four of the 11 were left.

'Classes Were Harder'

On the first day of their freshman year at Birmingham, the Outsiders gathered under a towering oak tree on the quad. From that day on, the tree was theirs.

Even though some of the boys already knew the lay of Birmingham, from days of sneaking on campus after hours to skateboard through its corridors, the sprawling Van Nuys high school seemed overwhelming.

"There were more people, older people. The classes were harder. It was such a different environment," Polo said. "It was a big change in our lives."

In the beginning, all the Outsiders attended classes and tried to do homework.

Polo, who stood 6-foot-2 and was nicknamed "Da Beast," joined the football team freshman year. He hoped it would be his ticket to Notre Dame.

David played second base on the baseball team. With test scores that classified him as gifted, he enrolled in four honors courses even though he didn't always get good grades.

Another Outsider, Andy Hurtarte, made a dangerous discovery. One lazy spring afternoon, he decided to hang out on the athletic field instead of attending sixth-period English. It was the first time he had ditched, and the simplicity of it surprised him.

His teacher did nothing. No one called home to inform his parents.

A few days later, he did it again. Another Outsider joined him. Then another.

Only David, whose classes were more demanding, expressed his disapproval. Dude, get to class, he would say when he spotted his friends cutting.

Isaac, a boy with a tough crust and a dimpled smile, didn't care if his friends ditched. But it wasn't an easy option for him. Isaac had a mild learning disability that caused him to get distracted easily, so school officials placed him in smaller classes with aides who provided one-on-one attention.

On his first day at Birmingham, Isaac met the teacher assigned to monitor him. He remembered her telling him: You're stuck with me for these four years, and I'm going to do whatever I can to help you graduate.

"She gave me all the attention I needed," Isaac said.

David was one of two Outsiders who passed all of his classes. For most of the others, Ds and Fs became routine.

Polo was one of the few who felt the consequences when he messed up.

After he missed algebra 27 times, his football coach threatened to cut his playing time. When his mother discovered he had failed algebra and English, she hired a tutor. No one in his family had graduated from high school. But his single mother was a little better off now, earning extra income from real estate investments. She was determined to see her son graduate.

Except for Isaac and David, the Outsiders say they had little contact with teachers and almost none with counselors.

One by one, they discovered how easy it was to fade into the background.

Had some good times

even though we got in trouble

just thinking about it makes my stomach want to bubble.

-- Rap lyrics by Outsider Mark Cevallos

Sophomore year came and went like a fad.

The school listed all of the Outsiders as "active" 10th-graders even though they skipped to play video games, visit friends at another school or sleep. Two racked up more than 63 absences in first period. Nine failed math. Nine failed English.

"I never said 'hi.' I never said 'bye.' I never said 'can I see you?' " Andy said of his counselors. "They're not going to keep track of all those kids."

A Birmingham counselor, Ana Martinez, advised a couple of the Outsiders, including Andy. She vaguely remembers the soft-spoken Guatemalan boy. Martinez met with his mom at least once. Andy continued to struggle.

"There's only so much you can do," Martinez said.

Most of the parents had no idea what jeopardy their children were in. Few had graduated from high school themselves and the boys took pains to hide their failures.

One day after school, when Isaac knew report cards were coming, he snatched a butter knife from the kitchen, popped the lock on his mother's mailbox and retrieved his bad grades. He crumpled the report card and buried it in a trashcan.

Another Outsider arranged for his report cards to be sent to a friend's house. Some learned to block calls from the school by tying up the house phone.

By junior year, the boys' bad habits had been set. It was their most enjoyable year. It was also the year they did themselves the most damage.

As a freshman and sophomore, Isaac didn't skip classes. But one afternoon in 11th grade, he stopped worrying about who was watching. It was easier since the teacher who had pledged to see him graduate had left for another job. He hopped the campus fence to get pizza with some of the guys and didn't return for fifth or sixth period.

Isaac got used to ditching. He and other Outsiders brought food for the school's security guards from their off-campus forays.

Junior year, their group got bigger. Mark Cevallos, an old friend from middle school but a newcomer to Birmingham, became the 12th Outsider in the Class of 2005.

Mark and David came up with the idea of throwing an Outsiders Halloween party. Isaac served as a bouncer. David created fliers.

The party was a huge success. More followed. On campus, the group's popularity soared. The boys wore their official symbol -- the letter O with a bolt of lightning through it -- on their backpacks. One member had it tattooed on his arm. They created an Outsiders website.

Then, the big rumble happened.

On a cool morning toward the end of fall 2003, Mark, nicknamed "Bad Guy," noticed a backpack in the locker room during second-period P.E. class. He rummaged through it.

Seven African American students, including the owner of the backpack, accused him of theft, challenging him to a fight. A faculty member intervened.

After school that day, across the street from Birmingham, teachers weren't around to step in.

Fights erupted between a couple of the African American and white students who had also been feuding that day. The white students had attended the Outsiders' first Halloween party, so there was a loose bond. The Outsiders jumped in on their side.

Three African American students punched an Outsider.

Andy used to play basketball with some of the black students. They had been friends. But now they had crossed an Outsider, so Andy had to get involved.

So did Isaac, who took on three guys. Soon about 50 kids were fighting.

David also threw punches. In his honors classes, he was reserved and thoughtful. Outside of class, he was among the quickest to fight. He carried a baseball bat as a weapon and boasted that he owned guns. He had a faint scar on his forehead from one of his many scraps.

After about 15 minutes, cops arrived and helicopters hovered. Everyone ran.

Polo had missed everything: He was at football practice.

In school, confrontations became a daily distraction. Mark cut class more frequently because he knew that rival students lurked outside.

Once, when David took a bathroom break from one of his Advanced Placement classes, four students cornered him in a boys' bathroom. He was in a stall when he heard them enter. David came out swinging and held them off.

With three years of failures already stacked against them, this new source of stress became the tipping point for some of the boys. It was one more reason not to focus, one more excuse not to go to school.

"That's what school was all about back then," said Andy. "Just going and having beef. That's why we couldn't focus on work. All we thought about was what's going to happen at lunch."

Even David, still enrolled in honors courses, got mostly Ds that semester. His favorite counselor had left. The new counselor rarely had time to talk to him.

"It didn't seem like she wanted to help anyone," David recalled.

Although they didn't ask for it, help was what the Outsiders needed.

As I sit back and reminisce

visualizing the school, I saw a prison

so those days, I kept ditchin'

makin' money was my way of livin'

catch me broke you must be trippin'

I was hard headed, didn't listen

I was more focused on my own vision

-- Rap lyrics by Outsider Edgar Landeros

One morning at the end of January in their junior year, David, Isaac, Mark and three others met at Birmingham. Hungry, they piled into Outsider Rene Rangel's Mustang and headed to Del Taco for breakfast burritos.

Police sirens blared. Patrol cars surrounded the Mustang. Police ordered the boys out of the car and scolded them for a broken taillight and truancy. One boy unexpectedly popped out of the trunk. Police pulled their guns on him. They hauled everyone back to school in handcuffs.

School officials had little patience. They saw students like the Outsiders as part of the problem.

Inside the dean's office, administrators found graffiti scrawled on Isaac's books and papers. They found rolling papers in one boy's pocket. Dean Matt Mowry -- who was also the baseball coach -- suspended four of the six boys.

Mowry turned to David. You hang out with these kind of kids?

The dean had warned David many times to improve his attendance. If a student failed three classes, he would no longer be eligible to play on the team. The dean looked up David's grades and discovered the four Ds from the previous semester.

He kicked David off the team.

And he told Rene Rangel, the driver, that he would be better off in an alternative school. He was the first Outsider to go.

In front of Mowry, Rene had called the cops "pigs" and cussed at the dean. Midway through his junior year, he had 64 absences in first-period algebra alone.

He had failed all six of his classes.

Until this point, the Outsiders had been skating through school.

That day, Rene took the first bruising tumble.

Andy was the second Outsider to go. Days before the end of school in June 2004, he dropped out. Edgar Landeros was the third. He wanted to earn money and make music.

The school year ended on a note of uncertainty. Life on campus had changed. The crowd at the oak tree dwindled.

It's the end of our high school career

I really wish we could go back

just a couple of years. It went from a tree full of people

to a bench full of dust

now I look back at our spot

and I see none of us.

-- Rap lyrics by Outsider Mark Cevallos

In October 2004, Steve Larios became the fourth Outsider to drop out. His girlfriend was pregnant and he wanted to support her.

In January, Elias Fuentes left to earn a paycheck.

The sixth to go was James Moreno. He had only enough credits to be a sophomore.

David made a last-ditch effort to change his habits. He persuaded his coach to let him back on the baseball team in exchange for keeping up his grades.

But his efforts to improve didn't last. After his poor performance the previous semester, David's new counselor took him out of honors courses, placing him in leadership, service, ceramics, child development and dance.

"I swear to God, I was taking [classes] with people who didn't want to read anything," he said. "It was just boring to me. I just wanted to get out of there."

The coach cut his playing time. For months, he had faithfully watched his diet, jogged and lifted weights to stay in shape. Without baseball -- and with six of his closest friends gone -- David gave up.

"After that, I was like, what is the point of me going to school?" David said. "It's like, you're climbing Mt. Everest, and you're 10 feet from the top, then you fall. I was hurt. I'm not gonna lie, I cried."

By the end of first semester, he had three Fs and a D.

David's father, who had not finished high school himself, found out and blew up.

The two of them had always been alike: stubborn, temperamental, intensely competitive.

One spring day toward the end of the school year, fed up with his father's pressure to do better in school, David gathered his clothes and moved out. In exchange for places to stay, he gave other Outsiders money he earned from a job in a hat shop at the Northridge Mall.

David was named best looking in the 2005 Birmingham yearbook. By the time it was published, he had dropped out. He was the seventh Outsider to quit.

A few weeks later, Mark, "Bad Guy," gave up too.

To Isaac and Polo, it didn't even feel like Mark had dropped out. He still showed up between classes, wearing a book bag with an Outsiders logo, to slap hands with friends and flirt with girls. He attended the prom, the senior breakfast, the senior picnic.

As graduation grew close, only four were left. In addition to Isaac and Polo, there were Eric Monge and Javier "Pancakes" Vallejo. Eric didn't want to disappoint his hard-working parents who sacrificed for him.

"Pancakes" had many of the same bad habits as his friends. But his shy nature saved him from the social pressures that other Outsiders had succumbed to, and that made a difference.

I'm Alone Here

Few would have predicted that Isaac, with his learning disability and quick temper, would have been among the last Outsiders left at Birmingham.

It had not been easy.

The same kids he had fought in the rumble confronted him over a girl, on campus and at Del Taco.

Isaac was a sweet boy who had embraced a tough-guy image, sporting baggy jeans and hooded sweatshirts to cover his shaved head. He tagged graffiti on his notebooks and flirted with joining a real gang.

One morning during the first semester of his senior year, Isaac glared at another student before class. Minutes later, that student returned with four members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. They socked Isaac. He fell to the ground, his lip bleeding.

Later that day, Isaac said about 15 gang members cornered him again. One pulled a gun and pointed it at Isaac's face. They heard someone approaching and put it away.

School officials caught the gunman later that day without Isaac's help.

Isaac considered quitting school.

I'm alone here, he thought.

He failed one class, American democracy, but he pulled Bs and Cs in everything else.

Nevertheless, Isaac was behind. To graduate on time, he would have to pass every subject and make up two history classes. He enrolled in adult school at night to make up the lost credits.

Isaac knew that if he messed up in even one class, he wouldn't be allowed to walk across the stage to receive his diploma in front of family and friends.

There were many moments that I can't even remember

just chillin' at home getting ready for September

getting ready for the classes

that I thought I would hate

and now I'm walking the stage getting ready to graduate.

-- Rap lyrics by Outsider Polo Morales

"High school is so easy," Polo "Da Beast" said one June morning at Birmingham, three weeks before graduation. The defensive tackle had just completed an outline for English class by cutting and pasting material from the Web.

"That's why I don't know why these guys all dropped out," he said in his deep mumble. "I got through all of high school without hardly ever having to read a book. They're just lazy."

Like the others, Polo had failed courses and skipped a lot of classes. But there were subtle differences that set him apart. Prodded by his mother and wanting to play football, he received tutoring in tough subjects. He made up failed classes by spending evenings and weekends in the Regional Occupational Program, where he earned school credits by working in an animal shelter.

Also, Polo enjoyed a kind of classic high school popularity that allowed him to straddle social cliques and ethnic groups. Around campus, he carried his status like a trophy.

In May, students chose Polo -- one of four Outsiders still enrolled at Birmingham -- as their prom king.

Isaac and Polo didn't hang out together on campus much anymore, because their mutual friends were not there to unite them. Isaac believed Polo thought he was better than everyone else, with his football trophies, his prom king status and, soon, his diploma.

"I'm not saying that the other guys are idiots," Polo said. "But they talk about weed or the Dodgers. I really don't care about any of those things. I'm the youngest one, the biggest one, probably one of the most mature ones."

In the weeks leading up to graduation, Polo's flippant comments about his friends grew more personal, as some of the Outsiders battled online with rap lyrics. In one song, Polo wrote about Mark:

Nineteen-year-old junior

man I think you a flake

is it me or you is dumb

call yourself a ... high class bum.

Mark wrote back to Polo online:

I guess I am a bum

but I work for a check

you work for credits bitch

so how broke is that?

Caught Cheating

On June 16, 2005, one week before graduation, Isaac stumbled.

He had been racing through assignments, trying to make up credits in time for graduation.

A teacher at the adult school caught him cheating in history. She refused to pass him.

Graduating with the class of 2005 was no longer an option.

One evening several days later, the Outsiders lounged in Isaac's bedroom, where his 1992 preschool perfect attendance certificate hung on the wall. He wore a tiny gold hoop in each ear. He laughed like a little boy with his buddies, shedding his tough-guy shell for the evening.

The group had gathered to celebrate Isaac's 18th birthday. David sat on the floor wearing a Dodger hat and talked about Metallica. "Da Beast" wore a Notre Dame tank top and watched a basketball game in the living room.

Isaac's mom, Julie Castillo, called everyone to the kitchen. She had cooked two big pots of pozole with corn and chicken.

She brought out a cake decorated with blue frosting flowers, 18 candles and a small toy handgun.

The cake was supposed to read: "Happy Birthday Isaac."

Instead, it read: "Congratulations Isaac."

"His uncle messed up on the cake," Isaac's mom said. He had thought it was for graduation.

Isaac blew out 18 candles.

Mark yelled: "Bite the gun!"

Isaac put the frosting-covered toy pistol in his mouth and clicked the trigger.

I know we're all not going to make it on stage

But don't close the book

This ain't the last page.

-- Rap lyrics by Outsider Mark Cevallos

Isaac's cellphone rang around 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 23, graduation day.

Congratulations Isaac, you made it!

Then another message: They called your name at rehearsal!

Stunned, Isaac thought maybe his counselors had changed their minds.

He borrowed a car from Andy and rushed to Birmingham. When Isaac finally caught up with his counselor, she said: I'm sorry, it was a mistake.

He wanted to throw up.

Andy waited at Isaac's mom's apartment. In 2004, Andy had been the second Outsider to leave. But he knew how badly Isaac had wanted to walk across that stage. Andy had wanted the same.

Nearly two years after he dropped out, Andy was at Independence High School, an alternative campus near Birmingham, chipping away at the 80 credits he needed to graduate. There, he had finished classes in computers, English and algebra. He arrived on time each morning. He didn't get into fights. He rarely cut class.

But Andy was still ashamed. He lied to out-of-town family members, telling them he was graduating with the class of 2005.

On graduation day, Isaac and Andy ate a breakfast of chorizo and French fries together in silence.

Isaac's phone rang. The caller was with a program that helped people find jobs.

"I'm 18," he said. "Right now, any kind of job."

His mom listened. She didn't want him to get a job. She wanted him to go back to summer school and finish his last three classes.

Isaac hung up. His mother studied his defeated expression, searching for reassurance.

Isaac looked away.

Graduation for some

it's already here

I'm not emotional

but I'm about to break down in tears.

-- Rap lyrics by Outsider Andy Hurtarte

The line of spectators outside Birmingham High School's football stadium curled like a long question mark. Mark and David cut the line to join Rene.

As they crawled toward the gate, James Dinielli, a Birmingham dean checking tickets, recognized them.

"At least you guys made it to graduation," Dinielli joked, taking their tickets.

Inside the stadium, joined by Isaac, Andy and James Moreno, they slid under a rail to find a private spot away from celebrating families: six Outsiders watching what was supposed to be their graduation ceremony from behind a metal fence.

The Birmingham graduates emerged on the field like bursts of royal blue confetti.

Adorned in his extra large cap and gown, Polo "Da Beast" spotted his friends. He grinned and flashed the Outsiders hand signal.

Isaac flipped through the program. Suddenly, he spotted his name: "Isaac Carlos Castillo." School officials had not removed it.

Isaac pinched his eyes with his fingers, trying to stifle tears. He shook his head and glanced at the field decorated with gold balloons.

He cried.

Mark rubbed Isaac's head and put an arm on his shoulder. Isaac wiped his tears on Mark's pinstriped blazer.

No one said a word.

Andy felt like crying too but held it inside.

Standing on the end and wearing a Dodger cap, David curved his neck to check on Isaac.

"I ain't crying, fool," Isaac said, forcing a smile. "Dust got in my eyes."

David turned away and muttered: "He should have been up there. They screwed him."

Isaac took a deep breath. Together the boys chanted: "1,2,3, Polo!"

The class president approached the podium and welcomed everyone. "Would we be graduating if our parents didn't encourage us to go and actually stay in school?" she said.

Mark stared at the ground.

She continued: "Dream as if you will live forever, and live as if you will die today."

Andy blinked fast, shook his head and said: "I like that quote."

James got chills. "I can't believe I'm not up there," he said. "It's crazy. This is my class."

David seemed unmoved. He tapped his hands against the fence as if he held drumsticks.

The seniors made their way across the field. The announcer called the names of Outsiders Eric Monge, Polo Morales and Javier "Pancakes" Vallejo, the only three to graduate.

The announcer also called Juan "Pepe" Diaz. An older Outsider, he was graduating a year late.

Polo strutted like a football all-star.

The class of 2005 tossed caps in the air. Polo spiked his into the ground as if he were scoring a touchdown and pointed to the six Outsiders on the other side of the fence.

A voice over the loudspeaker warned the audience: "Do not jump over the fence."

David, Mark and Isaac jumped.

They tackled and hugged Polo, until police officers pulled them away.

Outsiders got a story to tell

school is over

you heard the sound of that bell

gotta say goodbye

to everyone else

teachers tried to change me

but it didn't help.

-- Rap lyrics by the Outsiders


In the months since the commencement, four of the eight Outsiders who dropped out have taken steps to get their diplomas or the equivalent.

Frustrated that her son was wasting his life, Isaac Castillo's mother briefly kicked him out of the house. Soon after, he returned to school. Now he and Rene Rangel are finishing their last courses at West Valley Occupational Center; they expect to graduate this year.

Andy Hurtarte is on track to graduate in June from Independence High.

Steve Larios, whose pregnant girlfriend miscarried after he dropped out, earned a diploma at Options for Youth, an independent study program. He is studying to be a medical assistant.

Andy, Mark Cevallos, James Moreno and David Parraz are working at a mortgage company. David still hopes to earn a diploma so he can join the Navy and play on its baseball team.

Three of the boys who graduated are enrolled in community college or trade schools.

Polo Morales is taking classes at Pierce College and will transfer in the spring to Glendale Community College, where he plans to play football. Three months after graduation, the tension that had been bubbling between him and the other Outsiders ruptured. One afternoon, after nearly getting into a fistfight with Isaac and Andy the night before, Polo declared: "I'm not an Outsider anymore. I don't belong."

He decided he had outgrown old habits and old friends.

"It's not the same," Polo said. "I doubt it ever will be."


About This Series

Students drastically limit their prospects by dropping out. To understand why so many do, The Times spent eight months studying Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. The first two installments ran Sunday and Monday.

Saturday: The dropout industry.

On TV Tonight

"Class of 2005," a segment of the news magazine "California Connected" produced in partnership with The Times, will air at 8:30 tonight on KCET in Los Angeles and at varying times tonight on other PBS stations. For a complete broadcast schedule, go to www.californiaconnected.org.

On the Web

For a rap recording by the Outsiders, a video report and other multimedia features, as well as previous articles in this series, go to latimes.com/dropouts. Use the Graduation Tracker to explore graduation rates and demographics for Los Angeles public high schools.

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