Natalie Barrientos, 14, is among the many Los Angeles students who have stumbled academically — and among the 38,000 who spent much of the summer trying to catch up and set things right.
That aim led her to the summer school English class of James Carmicle at Hollywood High and to the word "scrupulous," which momentarily left his 25 students speechless when he asked them to demonstrate its use.
They were trying to get back on track toward graduation in 2017 or beyond. They'd gotten the message that a high school diploma has become a prerequisite for most jobs and essential for entry at four-year colleges.
Summer school has always been part of the formula for getting more students to graduate — and for several years, the Los Angeles Unified School District recorded steady, incremental gains, with its graduation rate rising to just over 72% in 2015. But such progress was threatened by the more rigorous graduation requirements that took effect this year, more than a decade after the L.A. school board approved them.
A calamity loomed last December, with half of all seniors seemingly off-track for graduation. The district immediately turned to various credit-recovery programs, some of them online courses. The triage worked, and the final graduation rate, which is not yet available, could surpass last year's. The result has prompted some critics to question the academic integrity of these efforts.
That big picture, however, was not really a concern at Hollywood High, where students worked to turn things around the old-fashioned way — in a traditional classroom with a teacher. The five-week session allowed them to make up two classes. Except for July 4, each class met 2½ hours a day, five days a week.
The summer program's teachers said they paid particular attention to rigor. They were even aided by an academic coach, who observed and helped them share their best approaches.
This summer was the first time since 2008, before the recession, that L.A. Unified also offered some enrichment classes, including theater arts. A wider variety of required academic courses also was available.
Natalie's backstory was typical. She hadn't been ready for 9th grade — when social promotion ends for many, and when teenagers can be derailed by inadequate preparation, insecurity, family issues or social distractions.
"In English I started off really bad. I was so low, I couldn't really get back up," she said. "And I was like low on self-esteem and I was like, 'Naw, I can't do it.'"
That wasn't her attitude in summer school even if she wasn't immediately ready to tackle "scrupulous" on a blazingly sunny day.
One row over, Jose Flores, soft-spoken and serious, gave the class the definition.
Jose also admitted to missteps in earlier years: "The summer before high school, I pretty much did nothing. It all just comes down to laziness or something. When I got to school, I still kind of had that mindset."
He'll be a senior in the fall, with precalculus behind him and a shot at graduating with honors, but that 9th-grade English credit brought him to summer school.
"I need a sentence," implored Carmicle, a teacher for 26 years. "Anybody, tell me what you know. You don't own a word until you speak it and write it."
Carmicle told his students that he fell in love with phonetics in college, nurses an ongoing infatuation with the schwa (or unstressed middle vowel) and will never forget the word "ameliorate."
"Getting 100% on a test means nothing, but if you use a word, that word is yours forever," he told the class. "I can wait you out. I see the wheels turning."
The desks were arranged around Carmicle, on three sides. A girl to his right gave it a go.
"When I try to make rice," she said. "I use scrupulously amount."
"That's a start," Carmicle said.
Down the hall from Carmicle's class was Algebra 2, another well-subscribed summer course — especially now that it's part of L.A. Unified's graduation requirements. Whereas state rules require only first-year algebra, L.A. Unified demands an additional year, because students need that second course for admission to a four-year state college.
Hakob Antonyan was having students graph and explain asymptotes, which are lines that continually approach a curve but do not meet it.
Michelle Lopez, 15, said she had wound up in summer math after issues at home derailed her.
She sometimes has to watch her new baby sister or help her younger brother with homework. Her elderly grandparents had started to live with the family for part of the year. And, she admitted, she'd been distracted by preparations for her quinceañera.
Her father collects recycling and her mother cleans houses. They want better for their daughter. So does she, even at the expense of vacation.
"I want to go to college," she said.
Back in Carmicle's class, Arrion Jacks was ready.
"The technician was scrupulous when installing the electrical system," offered the 16-year-old, who will enter 10th grade in the fall.
"Why was he scrupulous?" asked Carmicle.
"Because he didn't want to get hurt."
"I've learned so many words," Arrion said later. "And Mr. Carmicle also has taught me the difference between 'fewer' and 'less.' He taught me the proper ways to annotate my paper. I didn't know that before. And the proper way to write an essay. My essay skills were horrible."
That day, Arrion had handed in an essay about whether the U.S should have developed nuclear weapons in the 1940s: "Einstein believed having nuclear weapons would intimidate other countries into remaining peaceful," he wrote. "Einstein is without a doubt one of the brightest minds in the last 100 years, but this is preposterous."
After Arrion's scrupulous sentence, Natalie raised her hand: "The surgeon was very scrupulous during his surgery...because he has to be very careful."
As she spoke, she stumbled over the pronunciation twice, but she didn't give up.
"I feel like summer school is better in a way," she said, "because teachers are like, 'You messed up once, but we're here to give you a second chance.'"