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Cover story

School offers last chance to troubled youth from South Central’s mean streets

Los Angeles

South Central is one tough area of Los Angeles. But it boasts a highly successful alternative school where gang members, those in trouble with the juvenile courts, young people on probation, and those whose high schools don’t want them, have a final chance at a high school diploma. A diploma -- not a general equivalency diploma.

How tough?

One afternoon last year a male student was shot in the nearby street. It was gang-related. His “homeys” fled, but not his friends from the school, who stayed with him in the street until the ambulance arrived.

Two weeks later he was back in the classroom, done with gangs forever.

“You’re my new homeys now,” he told his classmates.

The Soledad Enrichment Action Charter School (SEA) on East 34th Street occupies a small house opposite St. Patrick’s Church. The building and surrounding property are as neat as a pin.

“There’s no graffiti, not even in the bathrooms,” said Hao Nguyen proudly. “There’s no disrespect for the staff” -- in part possibly because teacher’s aide Nguyen walks the same neighborhood as the students, but he can also still hold his own on the basketball court that takes up most of the rear yard.

South Central SEA’s students know this is their last chance. They know that most of the teachers and aides -- people like Nguyen -- are, like them, off Los Angeles’ mean streets. “I know what they’re thinking before they do,” Nguyen said, laughing.

So does Claretian Br. Modesto Leon who, modest by name and nature, tries to let his staff and students do the talking. SEA executive director Leon, who worked with César Chávez and with migrants in Washington state, has been “on loan” to SEA for 30 years; the independent network was a Claretian-sponsored operation only in its earliest days.

There are 18 satellite SEA schools from Los Angeles to Pasadena to Long Beach operating under one state charter. The schools have their origins in two bursts of gang warfare gunfire in East Los Angeles in the 1970s. The shootings left two young men dead. The mother of one young man told Modesto, at that time working in Our Lady of Solitude parish, she wanted to meet the mother of the other.

Out of that grew a “Concerned Mothers” group, and most of the mothers are still active in it. Sr. Inez Telles, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, has traveled to cities from Portland to Chicago to help establish similar programs.

Thirty years ago, Leon was concerned that an active mothers’ group wasn’t enough to touch the underlying problems of gang violence.

One dilemma -- commonplace perhaps in some inner cities, if bizarre to the affluent suburbanite -- was that teens couldn’t walk a half dozen blocks to high school without getting shot. To do so they’d have to step on another gang’s turf. Br. Modesto’s solution: an alternative high school.

Today in his 60s, the soft-spoken Leon gently, quietly but oh-so-persistently has developed lobbying skills professionals envy. Today SEA is the only major California state-chartered school system. “It’s the best use of the charter school idea,” said Leon, “making sure those about to fail can succeed.”

And succeed they do.

The program works with the students to get them back into their original high schools. Eight hundred a year graduate that way. A further 120 or so, for a variety of reasons, don’t want to or can’t return to their high schools, and graduate out of SEA. More than two-thirds of all students going through SEA’s program go on to college.

Claudia Chavez and her sisters -- and their mother, Teresa -- are a SEA success story. There are four daughters in the immigrant Chavez family. Claudia is the third to go through the SEA program. Today she directs the day-to-day operations of the Manchester SEA school in Los Angeles.

Manchester is in a former Catholic high school. A large, determined St. Michael the Archangel stands in high relief over the front door. He’s white.

Not so the young men and women who enter under his gaze five days a week. They’re a range of attractive hues across the people-of-color spectrum. These students are present to learn, and they know it. It’s their last chance. Their parents are an integral part of the program: They have to show up for consultations and classes.

In the library, Claudia and her mother talked about SEA in their lives. Teresa Chavez admitted she had much to learn about parenting when her first daughters entered the program. She learned so much that these days she helps teach the parent classes. Claudia spoke of the attraction of gang life to teens who are not respected at school by teachers who tell them they’re never going to amount to anything. These same young people often face chaotic home lives as their parents struggle to survive financially. And it is a struggle: Los Angeles has the highest percentage of people living in poverty of any major U.S. metropolitan region.

Claudia Chavez is an exemplar of SEA in another way. Leon has built into the program a system that takes bright students, like Nguyen at South Central, and offers them jobs as teachers’ aides. If, like Claudia, they continue to do well and apply themselves, SEA next helps them get into college. Leon is a vigorous fundraiser for college monies. With a degree in hand, people like Chavez often find their place in the SEA network, as teachers or administrators.

It plays out well in the classrooms, said Leon. The students know the aides and teachers have the same gang-risk or juvenile hall backgrounds they do.

Leon has another problem to juggle: SEA school neighbors. They don’t always want an alternative school on their street, a school populated with teens trying to avoid gangs, drugs and violence.

In the early days, Leon sweet-talked churches and other agencies into renting premises. But sooner or later he said, they’d be asked to move on. That’s why South Central SEA moved from classrooms across the road into its little house. A woman had given Leon the house for his work. Businesses have donated premises, too. SEA now owns a third of its 18 school premises.

The undeterred Leon persists in gently trying to get more.

Head cocked as he looked at the wire gate to SEA South Central, he said, “The kids are so proud of this place. They keep it immaculate. They’ve got a stake in something. It’s theirs.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003