Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Two students, two schools -- 20 miles and a world apart

By Mitchell Landsberg | LA Times
June 22, 2009

Henry Ramirez, meet Kyle Gosselin.

We thought you should be introduced, at least virtually, because you have some things in common. You're a couple of low-key, low-drama, low-maintenance 17-year-olds who have just navigated 11th grade at large public high schools. Both of you are planning to go to college. Both thinking about careers in medicine. Both willing to work hard (but not insanely hard). Both smart (but not gunning to be No. 1).

Yet how different two young lives can be.

In the 20 or so miles that separate Jefferson High School from La Cañada High, in the miles between inner city and suburb, there exists a social chasm so deep as to seem unbridgeable. It is possible that, growing up in the same metropolitan area, you have never been in the same place at the same time.

Twenty miles, as we'll see, can be farther than 1,500.

La Cañada High is about as good as public education gets in California. It is the reason why many people live in La Cañada Flintridge, where tasteful, multimillion-dollar homes sprawl at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. College is a given for almost everyone. The dropout rate is close to zero. Students don't qualify for free lunches, but they can buy sushi. Built in the 1960s and oddly evocative of the television show “The Jetsons,” the campus recalls a time when California schools didn't so much anticipate the future as embody it.

Jefferson, in hard-core South L.A. gang territory, is an improving school that nevertheless exemplifies all the challenges of urban education. It has an inspiring history, but its recent past has been troubled. Today it is a landing pad for the children of immigrants. Nearly half the students learn English as a second language. Free lunch is available to anyone willing to stand in line. About 800 freshmen arrive each year, most ill-prepared for high school. Four years later, about 200 pick up diplomas.


You began your junior years in September: Kyle at La Cañada, Henry at Jefferson.

Conventional wisdom says 11th grade is the toughest, most stressful year of high school for college-bound students: the hump, the back stretch, when students load up on Advanced Placement classes and take a slew of tests -- including the SAT -- while juggling a full-tilt social schedule. If the pressure got to either of you, you hid it well.


Kyle is 6 feet 4 and possibly still growing. Lean, fit, a little bit shaggy, he looks primed for either of his extracurricular passions, baseball and rock 'n' roll. Exceedingly polite to adults, he comes across as a consummate nice guy.

He has attended La Cañada schools since kindergarten. His family's home is modern and spacious, complete with pool and spa.

Kyle's parents, Janna and Craig, are lawyers who place paramount priority on the education of Kyle and his younger brother. Janna is a past president of the La Cañada Education Foundation, which has raised as much as $1.3 million a year for local schools. Craig worked as in-house counsel for Vans Shoes but refused an offer to move to Northern California, in large measure because of La Cañada's schools.

Henry might not stand out in a crowd. He's soft-spoken, average height, dresses modestly, doesn't cause trouble. But he has a killer smile and a quiet determination, and he can be a class leader. Girls seem drawn to him.

Born in L.A., Henry has spent his life on the move. Little hops, one neighborhood to the next. He attended four elementary schools, stayed in one middle school, then began Jefferson High -- only to be whisked off to Idaho and then a suburb of Houston for the first semester of 10th grade.

Upon returning to L.A., Henry, his parents, two younger brothers and a younger sister rented a single room in an apartment in Watts. As 11th grade began, Henry's mother, Irma, and stepfather, Raul Ramirez, worked at a convalescent hospital in La Habra. In Henry, they see hope for a success they were never able to achieve.

Irma, a high school graduate who had two years of college in El Salvador, never reached her goal of a nursing license. Raul, a native Californian, dropped out of Roosevelt High. Of Henry, he said: "He could be whatever he wants to be . . . We're pretty sure he's not interested in gangs or anything like that."
Superficially, your schools are more alike than different. Between classes, the hallways can seem crowded and chaotic, although you both navigate the maelstrom with calm assurance. Like most students, you eat lunch outdoors in the same spot every day, with the same friends. Your teachers are mostly seasoned and dedicated. By 11th grade, most students -- even at a school like Jefferson, which has been called a "dropout factory" -- are there to learn. Or at least to graduate.

Still, if you could trade places for a day, you'd also see vast differences.


On a warm October morning, Henry begins school with Life Skills, a required class. When it ends, he waits by the door for his friend Jessica Martinez, who greets him with a hug and then lays her head on his shoulder. Two other girls come to join her, and Henry leaves to go to French 3.

Class is conducted in a mix of English and elementary French, with almost all of the French coming from the teacher, Richard Jessel. The students go over an assignment in which they wrote two- and three-word sentences, such as "She walks" and "You are working." Henry -- known here as Henri -- seems among the more advanced, whispering prompts to a girl next to him when she is called on to speak. Jessel, a veteran teacher who grew up partly in France, is patient, never condescending, but clearly frustrated. "They're not really ready for French 3, but they're here," he said.

Where would they be in a standard French curriculum? "I'd place them in the middle of my second semester of French 1," he said. "There's not a lot of willingness to study at home, not a lot of motivation." The students are also shy, he said, fearful of sounding stupid. And there is almost no chance that any have traveled to French-speaking countries.

Henry spends lunch working with another student on a project for their English class.Afterward, he has Introduction to Sociology, a project-based class that seems impressively stimulating, and Geometry, which he is repeating. Since Jefferson is on a block schedule, his other classes are on alternate days: Honors U.S. History, Honors American Literature, Chemistry and Algebra 2. Henry takes no Advanced Placement classes, a disadvantage when he applies to college. But it's hardly a slacker's schedule.


Let's confront a hard truth. Any visitor to your two schools can't help but notice that the La Cañada students, while hardly perfect, seem more focused, more driven to succeed than the average student at Jefferson. It's something that deeply frustrates Juan Flecha, the Jefferson principal. "They're such nice kids," he said of his pupils, adding: "They're so unmotivated." Flecha understands where they're coming from. He grew up poor, 10 blocks from Jefferson.

Flecha makes no excuses. Although he has presided over a sharp increase in test scores, he volunteered that only 27% of his students graduate in four years and only 16% take a college prep curriculum. "That's terrible," he said. But he speaks compassionately about the challenges they face: failing elementary and middle schools. Collapsing families. Entrenched poverty. Epidemic violence. On the first day of class this year, at 10:30 a.m., a man with an AK-47 was spotted firing shots a half-block from campus.

At La Cañada, violence is scarcely a concern. Elementary schools and the one middle school are excellent. Students are highly motivated, highly competitive. "I don't have dress code violators. I don't have fights," said Principal Damon Dragos. "The kids all come very well prepared. The question is not whether they're going to college; it's whether it's the college of their choice."


Another October morning. Kyle starts his day in Advanced Placement English, where the topic is the Chaucer poem "Troilus and Criseyde." Then, it's SSR -- basically, homeroom, where students are given 15 minutes for "sustained silent reading."

German 3 is next. It begins with the young teacher, Melanie Sos, saying: "So, guten morgan. Wie geht's?" ("Good morning. How's it going?") Like Henry's French class, much of this class involves the teacher speaking the foreign language and the students responding, sometimes in German, sometimes in English. But the level is markedly higher. Kyle and a classmate pore over a story, taking turns reading the German and translating. Kyle reads with some ease. The day's homework is to write 15 sentences summarizing what they've read.

By now, Sos said, maybe half the students have traveled to Germany.

The rest of Kyle's day consists of Pre-Calculus, Honors Physics, Advanced Placement U.S. History and baseball.

Like most kids his age in La Cañada, Kyle has given a lot of thought to college. Asked at the beginning of the year if he'd thought about specific schools, he gave a detailed answer: "I've been thinking, like, Claremont-McKenna, USC, UCLA," he said. "Dartmouth is a great school. Then I've been looking at liberal arts schools: Amherst, Haverford, Georgetown, maybe Johns Hopkins. . . . Maybe I'd apply to UCSD because they have a good pre-med program."

By spring, he had taken an East Coast college tour with his parents, hitting eight schools in six days, and had met for 80 minutes with La Cañada's college counselor.

In his perfect world, Kyle would be offered a baseball scholarship or at least be admitted to one of his "reach" schools on the strength of his playing. He was on La Cañada's successful varsity team this year, but didn't start much. He knows that academics are his ticket. His grades are a mix of A's and Bs, but since AP classes are given extra weight, his grade point average is over 4.0.

He took the PSAT sophomore year, and the SAT and ACT this year. He didn't have to go far for his SAT prep classes, which were held in his living room by his mom, Janna, and a friend; they started a small SAT prep business after seeing what else was available.

Henry began his junior year without a clue where he might want to go to college. After talking to the school nurse, a UC Santa Barbara graduate, he decided it sounded like a good place, because he likes the beach.

On the day that Henry was scheduled to take the PSAT, Flecha led a visitor to the classroom where students were working on the test. Flecha didn't spot Henry. The teacher looked around. No Henry. Flecha returned to his office, crestfallen.

Reached at home, Henry explained that his family had out-of-town relatives. Flecha slumped into his chair. "Isn't that something?" he asked. "All in a day's work around here."

Later in the fall, UCLA sent mentors to Jefferson to help students prepare their college application essays. Henry, whose grades have mostly been A's and Bs, with some lapses, called his "The Rollercoaster," writing about family tensions and his frequent moves. "The major problem was, I could never get used to something. I would always think it would get snatched away."

Not long after, Henry's parents told him they were returning to Texas -- in less than a week. On Jan. 27, the family piled into a car attached to a rental trailer. They made the 1,500-mile drive in two days. About half an hour outside Houston, Henry began to cry. "It really got to me," he said.

Henry now has his own room in a new five-bedroom house owned by an aunt. It's in an ethnically diverse, middle-class subdivision in Spring, a bedroom community on Houston's northern fringes. Spring is not as affluent as La Cañada, but its upwardly mobile Sun Belt vibe feels light years from South L.A. Henry's new school, Klein Oak High, seems more La Cañada than Jefferson, with an airy suburban feel, a diverse student body of 3,400 and a tradition of academic success. Most students graduate, and of them, 85% to 90% will go to college, Assistant Principal Joyce Wells said.

"I think it's a nice school," said Raul Ramirez. He thought it was a big improvement over Jefferson.

Henry didn't much care. He liked the new house but wished it were in L.A. He thought the school was fine, but his friends weren't there. He seized on something that most teenagers would see as a plus -- the laptop he was assigned -- and decided that he hated it. "Work sheets are easier," he said.

Still, there were students who remembered him from his previous sojourn in Texas. Walking out of class one day not long after arriving, he was greeted by a girl who threw her arms around him in a hug. He smiled, shyly.


The school year's ending. You probably won't run into each other this summer -- although Henry, who seems to be feeling OK about Texas, is hoping to come to L.A. to hang with his old friends. Kyle will be at baseball camp and community college, fulfilling a high school arts requirement. Same city, different circles. Different boys, similar dreams.

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