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South L.A. High School Gives Dropouts Another Chance

Brianna Sacks |
January 25, 2013 | 12:19 a.m. PST


Classroom at Free L.A. High School/Brianna Sacks
Classroom at Free L.A. High School/Brianna Sacks
Jose Solis almost didn't graduate high school.

He decided to drop out of Crenshaw High in the 10th grade, finding friends and parties more appealing and important than going to class.

Solis, now 21, is a graduate of Free L.A. High School, a small continuation school straddling the border of South Central and Inglewood, a low-income area home to about five rival gangs, according to school administrators.

Free L.A. is a partnership between the John Muir Charter School, Youth Justice Coalition and the Work Investment Act. It was founded with the motto, "Escape the school-to-jail track."

Sixty students ranging from ages 16-24 are currently enrolled, though they are all considered seniors.

The two-story high school, tucked in between a few rundown buildings on El Segundo Boulevard in a residential area, acts as an alternative to detention and incarceration for juvenile delinquents. It's a school for youth returning home from juvenile detention centers, as well as an educational option for youth who have been suspended or expelled from traditional high schools.

But most importantly, the school provides another way for students like Solis who left, dropped out of, or were removed from traditional high schools in Los Angeles because they were too behind, felt discouraged or deemed at risk of not passing classes, to graduate.

Solis said that he could not connect to his teachers and felt unwelcome in class due to his substantial amount of absences.

"I felt that my teachers didn't understand me or didn't want me there [in class] since I hadn't been there in a while," he said. "When I showed up, they would be like, 'you haven't been here in weeks get out of my class.'"

But deep down, Solis explained, he knew he had to get his diploma to do something bigger with his life. But a traditional high school environment like Crenshaw was not for him, and he didn't know where else to go.

Kruti Parekh, the program coordinator for the Youth Justice Coalition, said that many struggling high school students in low-income neighborhoods feel the same way.They encounter difficult issues, like gangs, violence, drugs, alcohol and poverty in their homes and communities and often fall so behind in school they get discouraged.

So they drop out, a popular trend in L.A Unified, a district with one of the highest dropout rates--40 percent-- in the country.

Parekh said it was her Youth Justice Coalition members that asked for something different in terms of education.

"We started Free L.A. because our students asked for it," said Parekh. "So we started a school where young people didn't feel judged about all the mistakes they had made in their life and offered them an opportunity to break through learning barriers, no matter how it takes, and ultimately learn how to read, write and function in life."

A Different Take on Safety

Parekh reiterated that students wanted a school that was "safe," and that did not necessarily mean free of violence.

"A lot of urban schools are not safe because they have metal detectors and police officers," said Parekh.

When asked to explain how these security measures make students feel unsafe, Parekh explained that many students in Los Angeles encounter police in their community and in their homes on a regular basis, and encountering more police presence at school had a negative effect.
"And there's nothing safe about a gun, no matter who is holding it," she added.

Students at Free L.A. High School elaborated, telling stories about their experiences with school police and the kind of environment that created.

Jose Gallegos, a wiry, tattoo-covered 25 year-old, attended Manual Arts High School for a few years and eventually graduated from Free L.A. He now works for the Youth Justice Coalition and has a background in social work.

Gallegos said police stereotyped certain students at his school, and that police harassment was often prevalent.

"They stereotyped certain youth, like if they were wearing white T-shirts or were three in a group," he explained. "They would round up students who were 2-3 minutes late and give them truancy tickets, and those are about $250 not including court fees."

Police officers also had a permanent presence on Gallegos' former high school campus.

"They [LAPD] had their own office stationed there," he said. "And there was a probation office right next to the dean's office, along with the school police office."

Gallegos was born and raised in South Central L.A., a low-income area with high-gang activity. Youth growing up in that kind of environment become familiar with police at an early age, he explained, and recounted his own experiences with probation and incarceration. 

"There are a lot of gang problems and you have elementary school kids who come from generations of gang members," he said. "They are already traumatized by seeing shoot-outs, drugs in the house or their brother is in jail. They are already wary of the police. Maybe the police came to their house and took their dad to jail."

Anthony Smith, 19, dropped out of Fremont High School in the tenth grade and also received his high school diploma from Free L.A. He is currently at a community college but wants to graduate from USC.

Smith, more reserved and soft-spoken, shared experiences similar to Gallegos'.

"They [police officers] harassed some students," he said. "That's what they did to us. It wasn't for safety."

But Smith did say that police on campus gave students "the mind frame not to fight as much" and also helped prevent fights from breaking out.

"I don't understand why we need school security and police on campuses," said Smith. "If you are used to getting harassed by police in your neighborhood and then you get it at school, that creates a push-out environment."

Solis also said he saw about three cops on Crenshaw's campus daily.

South Los Angeles, known as District 7 of L.A. Unified, has an incredibly high suspension rate, population of African American and Latino students and on-campus police presence, according to a report published in 2010 by Community Asset Development Re-defining Education (CADRE), Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc., and Public Counsel.

The report also states that South Los Angeles schools are in need of a positive behavior support system to counter the area's high dropout rate.

Broadening Curriculum

Gallegos and Smith advocate for a social justice-based curriculum like Free L.A.'s that teaches students communication and self-expression to solve problems to be installed throughout public schools.

(Gym at Free L.A. High/Brianna Sacks)
(Gym at Free L.A. High/Brianna Sacks)
Free L.A. High is not your typical school when it comes to self-expression. Its rooms and walls are covered with elaborate graffiti-art and messages relaying hope, anger and inspiration, such as, "college prep not prison prep."

"Gang-affiliated tags are not allowed," said Solis, who is now the high school's building manager.

Solis lives across the street from the high school and said Free L.A.'s unusual demeanor caught his eye after it first opened in the fall of 2007. After two weeks as a high school dropout, Solis wandered over to investigate.

The school's unique educational program uses core academic classes like English, Algebra, and Science as springboards into social justice issues such as racism, sexism, globalization and human trafficking.

This approach, plus the small, receptive and non-judgmental atmosphere were enough to get Solis back in school. He enrolled and attended day and night classes to catch up on his bulk of missing credits.

Parekh, who also worked for the New York Public School District for seven years, explained that school districts need better youth development infrastructures that give students more counseling, problem solving resources and safety nets before putting them into the juvenile delinquent system.

New York's public school system has a better grasp on this, according to Parekh, though the district still has its struggles.

Free L.A.'s students are taught conflict resolution and participate in restorative justice circles to discuss issues. If there are incidents with neighbors, small acts of violence or other issues, Parekh said the school first goes through a series of conflict resolution steps before calling police.

"When young people mess up in school the structural layout of how they handle that should be supportive," said Parekh. "There should be behavior modification and positive language that changes the student's behavior versus criminalizing."

Schools should have coaches that go into schools and teach faculty and students positive, transformative conflict resolution practices and communication skills, according to Parekh.

"If they're already hiring police officers, why not use that money to try this out?" asked Parekh.

Parekh said that struggling, "at-risk" students connect to this type of approach and often succeed in school because they feel more confident and comfortable in a school environment.

The Reality of Los Angeles Continuation Schools

California continuation schools, however, are failing to provide the academic and critical support services that students need to succeed, according EdSource and a recent study published by UC Berkeley and Stanford.

"California is unique in providing these schools, and there is evidence that they can provide an effective pathway to a diploma for a large number of kids who need special and supplemental services.  But most are failing to do that," said Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, director of education at the Warren Institute at UC Berkeley School of Law and co-author of the report with Milbrey McLaughlin of Stanford's John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities.

The report did show that the successful continuation schools employ incredibly involved faculty who work closely with individual students as well as engaging the whole class, which helps connect socially isolated students and students with behavioral problems. 

"There is no quick fix for a broken school system," said Parekh. "But if staff members are taught to de-escalate conflict and become peace builders, that's a start."

Free L.A. also relies on former gang members to help students, who often hail from mutually hostile neighborhoods, work together and preserve a peaceful school environment.

"Some of these neighborhoods may have been at war for 20 years," Kim McGill, executive director of the Youth Justice Coalition and school founder, told New America Media. "And [these students] are now members at school together."

Former inmates also teach classes in martial arts and other academic programs, in addition to tutoring students.

And students tend to stick around, even after they graduated. Solis, Gallegos and Smith continue to work for the school and the Youth Justice Coalition as part of a team of community members committed to making sure the neighborhood's youth graduate high school.

"I was thinking about joining a gang at that time, when I dropped out," said Solis. "Who knows where I would have ended up."

See more photos of Free L.A. student graffiti art here.

Reach Editor-At-Large Brianna Sacks here.



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