SAN DIEGO — The question had obviously struck a nerve. Even though the young man had made a dramatic change in his life and was no longer associated with gangs or drugs, his brown eyes welled with tears at the thought of his incarceration two years ago.
"I don't talk about it with shame or pride," Nathan Lampkin, 18, said a few minutes later. "It's just a fact in my life."
For Lampkin, there were no dreams two years ago. A high school diploma seemed out of the question, for he had already dropped out of two schools. Success at anything was rare.
Today, Lampkin is a high school graduate who has big plans for the future--a future, he says, which would not exist were it not for one teacher.
"Joe has been an important factor in my life," Lampkin said.
Joe Mattera is one of 40 teachers in the county who work at 20 storefront satellite campuses known as Summit Schools. Run under the Juvenile Court school program, Summit Schools each year educate more than 600 teen-agers "the normal school system does not want to deal with," Mattera said.
These youths have dropped out of high school and have been kicked out of continuation school. A lot of them are convicted felons, have served time in Juvenile Hall and remain on probation. And 95% of them come from single-parent families, according to Chuck Lee, the Juvenile Court school coordinator.
It wasn't until 1981 that the county even had a program for these teen-agers. Mattera, then a teacher at Rancho de Campo boys camp in Campo, along with a colleague, John Helmantoler, helped establish the predecessor to Summit Schools, a transition school for boys after they were released from the camp.
Now the satellite campuses, located from Escondido to San Ysidro, serve as an effective way to help these 13- to 18-year-olds complete their high school education.
Perhaps even more important is the unique role that Mattera plays within the program.
As an independent study teacher with the Summit Schools, Mattera guides about 100 students a year through a study course that includes on-the-job training in a variety of fields including auto mechanics and body repair, clerical work, printing and welding.
Not only does the 38-year-old Mattera--who was one of four finalists in 1985 for the coveted California Teacher of the Year award--teach the kids about history but he teaches them how to fill out a job application, how to get a driver's license--how to survive in a society that never has accepted them.
"Joe is really a good teacher," Lee said. "He shows them how not to be losers. He gets so involved he doesn't let them fail."
Every weekday morning at 6:30 Nathan Lampkin boards a bus in Southeast San Diego for the hour-long ride to his job in the print shop at the county Office of Education in Linda Vista. As a helper in the shop, Lampkin is paid $4.41 an hour.
This is the first legitimate job Lampkin has ever had, and he hopes it will serve as a springboard to a career in lithography.
"I'd like to have a print shop, a big one," said the soft-spoken young man. "It's just a dream, but if everything goes according to plan I'd like to have a four-year degree and learn more about reproduction and graphic arts."
Looking on from a distance as Lampkin stacked forms in the shop, Mattera sounded more like a proud father than a teacher.
"Isn't he great?" he said. "He takes the bus every day. You should have seen him when he first came in here nine months ago; he wouldn't look at anyone in the face. Now look at the confidence he has."
Dropout Rate Is Small
Since their inception four years ago, the Summit Schools and Mattera's independent study program have been very successful. Only about 1% or 2% of the students drop out of the program, Lee said. The low dropout rate, although attributable to the one-on-one attention, is probably more the result of a policy that forbids flunking any student out of the program.
Students can "max out" on the program and drop out, Mattera said, but after some encouragement and prodding by instructors those students can usually be coaxed back into the school.
"We don't concern ourselves with their background," Mattera said. "We want to plant positive seeds in their lives. These kids haven't been successful in anything. We give them a lot of strokes."
When one of his students completes the high school courses, Mattera usually rents a cap and gown and throws a party, complete with a cake, for the student. When his students need driving lessons, Mattera usually obliges.
Recently, while visiting one of his students on the job at a North Park auto body shop, Mattera discovered it was the young man's 18th birthday. Mattera excused himself and surreptitiously slipped away and appeared minutes later with a card for the student.
"Joe is real trusting," said Karen Caldwell, 18, a former student of Mattera's who is training to be a mechanic and aspires to be a youth counselor. "He gives you a certain amount of trust right at the beginning. I never had that before from anyone.
"A lot of people think of court school kids as voodoo . . . you're bad. We've just run into more difficulties than the rest."
While Mattera and his colleague Helmantoler believe the Summit system is a "good system for that small percentage of kids that function better in an informal situation," they recognize it is not a panacea for chronic offenders. Jeffrey Inglett, the 17-year-old youth who pleaded guilty to murdering Anna Weerts, an 86-year-old Normal Heights woman, in April, 1982, had been one of Mattera's students.
But Mattera points to his successes.
"He opens doors for you," Caldwell said as she worked on a car. "He makes you want to do your work.
"I didn't realize anyone cared."