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School's Success Is Rooted in Reading

October 31, 1985|MICHELE L. NORRIS | Times Staff Writer

GARDENA — Alex Haley stopped by Junipero Serra High School last week to kick off its annual fund-raising campaign, but teachers say the Pulitzer Prize-winning author provided something worth more than money.

Speaking to an assembly in the gymnasium, the author of "Roots" told the students how he had worked to become an accomplished writer, and he issued a challenge for them to succeed.

His message was simple but firm: "Be aware of the personal investment it takes to become a writer or anything else."

Haley's words brought applause from the 500 students and gratitude from the faculty, because to them his message was a reaffirmation of the school's mission.

"Alex reinforced what I have been doing all along," said Craig Mitchell, assistant principal and head of the school's reading and writing programs.

Vast Improvement

A predominantly black, all-boy Roman Catholic school, Serra emphasizes reading and writing in its rigorous academic program because its principal, Father Patrick Philbin, believes lack of verbal skills has long prevented blacks and other minorities from succeeding.

Serra students often improve their test scores in reading and writing by as much as 400% during their four-year stint, Mitchell said.

"What was most gratifying to me as an English teacher was watching the students ask several questions on how to become a writer," he said.

But Serra's faculty did not need Alex Haley to tell them that hard work pays off. They already believe in it.

Whether students begin in the remedial reading program or jump straight into the accelerated tract, all must read between 15 and 18 books a year and are encouraged to spend at least one hour each day writing--letters, journals, fiction, anything.

Plenty of Homework

The average student spends about two hours each night reading, writing and preparing for the next day's class, in addition to doing work required for his five other classes, Mitchell and other teachers said.

Serra, which draws most of its students from South-Central Los Angeles, sends 88% of its students on to two-year or four-year colleges and universities, school records show. Of these, 60% earn college degrees. Each year the school hosts college recruiters from such respected institutions as Harvard, Yale and Stanford.

The school, named for the 18th-Century Spanish Franciscan priest who founded 21 California missions, has received top ratings from the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges.

Although Serra is owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and is run by the Marianists religious order, fewer than half its students are Catholic. "Catholics and non-Catholics alike send their students to this school because they know we give them a quality education," Philbin said.

Serra's minority and disadvantaged population has doubled in the past 10 years, he said. About 8% of the students receive scholarships that cover half of the $1,150 annual tuition.

Removed From Crime Areas

Philbin describes the campus as an oasis for the many students who live in a wasteland of drugs and crime.

Indeed, the 24-acre campus at Compton Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue at times does look and sound more like an aviary than a high school campus. The main courtyard is lined with large rectangular cages filled with a variety of tropical birds, and Father Philbin's pet peacock and peahen roam freely around the open campus.

The halls are filled with straight-backed young men in ties, sporting closely cropped haircuts. Most shy from what they call "the California casual look," opting for Ivy League clothing, cardigan sweaters, penny loafers and pegged pants.

But not all of Serra's students would be considered "college material" upon entering the school.

Remedial Classes Necessary

Almost half of each freshman class must go through the remedial reading program because entrance exams show they read two or three steps below their grade level. The students begin with second-grade assignments and work up to the freshman level, using special textbooks and working in classes of 25 students or fewer in which they receive a good deal of attention.

What has surprised the faculty since they began offering the remedial program in 1982 is that most of the students' reading skills surpass their grade levels before they leave the program. The average remedial reading student's skills jump three grade levels within the first three months.

Rona Thompson, 15, is an example of the program's success. He entered the program last year as a freshman because his test scores showed he had the reading skills of someone two years younger. Now a sophomore, Thompson is reading at the 11th-grade level, according to his teacher, Charles Bunker.

"I like to read now," he said.

Bunker said Thompson's real forte is in writing, in which he often reveals pleasure in his new skills.

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