Students find a reason to be optimistic

The graduating class didn't even fill the front row.

Martwaunn Thornton -- who entered high school defiant and difficult -- fiddled with the gold tassel dangling from his mortarboard.

Near him was Alfred Stern III, who arrived reading at the seventh-grade level two years ago fresh from Juvenile Hall.

Augustine Magana, on his third high school, showed up to support his friends even though he didn't make the front row because he won't graduate until August.

If ever there was a group of people who would seem to have few reasons to be optimistic, it would be Optimist High School's class of 2009.

"Our population tends to be the tough, difficult kid with emotional problems who's also had problems with the law," said Alan Eskot, the school's director of education.

Collectively, the class of 2009 has battled behavior problems, learning disorders and the baggage of criminal pasts.

Five got diplomas earlier this week. Six need more credits to make it to graduation in August. One has plans to enroll in community college in the fall. Some of the others hope to go to college -- one day.

Thornton, 17, says he plans to enlist in the military. "If I don't go into the Army," he said, clutching his diploma, "I might go to jail."

The school opened in 1990 under the umbrella of the decades-old nonprofit agency called Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services. It provides special-education services to the Los Angeles Unified School District.

At Monday's graduation, in a gymnasium filled with so many white and purple balloons that it looked as if the chairs to which they were tethered might lift into the air, Silvio Orlando, the nonprofit's executive director, reminded the graduates that many of their L.A. public school peers do not graduate.

"But you have done it," he told them. "And you need to feel proud."

They do. If optimism is something like a faith, then the class members of 2009 are its newest converts. Even the ones not quite out the door.

"I just feel more confident about myself," Magana said Friday, on the final day of classes. "My best behavior was at this school."

The 17-year-old, who explained that he is bipolar, said he no longer is the loud, disruptive kid who "got in trouble for sexual harassment with guys."

He hopes to graduate in August and, in what may be the ultimate act of optimism, plans to become an actor. "I've already spoken with a talent agent," he said. "She said I was funny."

Conceived first as a place for juvenile offenders, mostly boys, Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services has evolved into an elaborate system of services.

Its upbeat name dates to the 1930s, when the Los Angeles Optimist Club was a significant financial supporter. Today, the agency's board is primarily composed of Optimist members.

The school draws from Optimist residential programs as well as the community, but only students who have learning or behavior problems can attend.

Although it gets L.A. Unified funds, it enrolls, at its own expense, students who are waiting to be qualified for special education.

It also provides art classes, auto shop, a tattoo removal program and free meals during the day. All the graduates are getting refurbished desktop computers, Eskot said, adding, "We do above and beyond any other school."

At Friday's lunch break, Erika Ventura, 18, could hardly be heard above the rowdy voices in the school's courtyard. It was the last day of school, but Ventura, who wore jeans and sparkly sandals, had other things on her mind.

Born a boy -- Eric -- she has been cross-dressing since she was 16. She has leukemia, and is undergoing chemotherapy.

She landed at Optimist High School four years ago with a history of learning disabilities, emotional problems and gender confusion -- and had spent two months at Juvenile Hall, she said, for sexually molesting her stepbrother.

When she started school -- as Eric -- she also was attending a program for sex offenders.

"At first I was very quiet," she recalled, peering out from under a thick fringe of bangs. "After a couple of months, I started talking to people."

In four years, her math skills went up six grade levels.

"In special education, you're lucky to go up one month for every year you're in school," Eskot said.

Ventura said she expects to graduate in August after summer school.

"I'm an optimist. It's just, like, a happy word," she said, a rare smile crossing her face. "They want you to succeed in the future here. I want to become a district attorney."

On Friday, Alfred Stern was dressed immaculately in shirt and tie and suit jacket, on his way to an interview for a spot in a transitional housing program.

Stern, who was reading far below his age level two years ago, is now testing at the 12th-grade level. He did well enough at Optimist to be dually enrolled at Eagle Rock High School, from which he also graduated.

Stern, too, spent time in Juvenile Hall. He won't say why. "I'm trying to let the past be the past."

Away from his Oakland home, he said, he began to concentrate on studies.

"I stopped acting like a little kid. I had to grow up. I started pushing myself to not be at the level I was at."

He's looking for a job. "The profession I really want to go into is magic," he said.

At Monday's ceremony, each graduate was given a chance to speak. Stern acknowledged his language arts teacher, Norma Gryde. Later, the two chatted as Stern dug into a slice of celebratory cake. "I had to give it to her," he said of his mention. "She gave me an 'A' all the time."

Gryde smiled at her now-former student. "I didn't give it to you," she said. "You earned it."

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carla.hall@latimes.com

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