Two years ago, Julio Garcia was hanging around gang members and earning D's at Ulysses S. Grant High School in Van Nuys.
Today, the 17-year-old Garcia is not only a B student, he's an ace on a printing press.
"He's sharp, he's quick, he works his behind off," said Martin Mercy, chairman of Grant's graphic arts department and founder of the program that Garcia feels has turned his life around.
For Garcia--and the 24 other students in Mercy's Joint Vocational Apprenticeship Program--the incentive to do well is more than just a good grade; it's a good job.
Now in its second year at Grant, the program had a first-year success rate of nearly 95% in helping its students find jobs, mostly in print shops and paper companies in the San Fernando Valley.
Mercy, a Grant graduate and 20-year veteran of the printing business, made employer contacts himself and has written agreements with some 50 or 60 Valley businesses to give his students first crack at employment openings.
Mercy started the program in the belief that the emphasis on college preparation at most high schools leaves some students out in the cold.
"If you're not college material," he said, "maybe you drop out in frustration, or you flunk your way through and then have nothing to fall back on."
So Mercy's advanced graphic design classes have a simple goal: give students marketable skills and get them into the market.
Room 401 at Grant High resembles nothing so much as a busy printing company. Only one small corner, where students gather at linked desks for roll call, belies this impression. Otherwise, machinery dominates.
One afternoon, the day before Grant's homecoming game, Mercy's advanced production class had several jobs going. Amid the whir and knock of a letter press, the thrum of two multilith duplicators and the drone of an industrial paper cutter, students boxed raffle tickets they had printed for a local synagogue. They pasted up a letterhead for Grant's career counseling center. They created a homecoming booklet for distribution at the game.
As student body secretary Rochelle Levy looked in periodically on the booklet's progress, deadline pressure mounted. Rene Sanchez, a serious boy wearing wire glasses and a thin black tie, stripped the film negative for each page, covering spots so they wouldn't appear on printing plates. Victoria Betancourt, a self-possessed 14-year-old, made plates from Rene's negatives, then developed them with a solution called One-Step.
"Success," she said as she handed a finished plate to Julio Garcia, who, wearing a printer's overall, steadily worked the offset press.
Mercy, like the shop boss he once was, moved around overseeing. A handsome man with a squashed fighter's nose and a penetrating gaze, he tends to say "Tell me what you did wrong" before correcting students' mistakes. He also says, "Don't let yourself down. You're the one you're gonna hurt."
Opened Own Shop
Mercy should know. In the mid-1960s, after squeaking through Grant and flunking out of Valley College in Van Nuys, he joined the Navy and, only then, learning printing skills, began to find himself professionally. After discharge, he returned to Valley College, made the Dean's List and eventually opened his own print shop.
Students listen to him, Mercy says, because "I don't put myself on high. I let them learn from my mistakes."
While students often describe Mercy as "more of a friend than a teacher," his criticisms can be gruff.
"Tell me," he demanded of Rene Sanchez, slapping a film negative on a light table, "what went wrong here?"
"I didn't get the whole image," Rene answered.
Mercy softened. "It's not all your fault. But you should have called me before you finished."
Other students gathered to discuss the problem and advise Rene. The cleanup bell rang; the final bell rang. Work continued, even though most of Mercy's students face a long bus ride home, to downtown or East Los Angeles neighborhoods (80% of his students are bused into the school).
"We'll all stay," said Victoria, "till it's done. That's our duty."
Throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District, vocational training is hardly new. Industrial arts classes are available at most high schools. Regional Occupation Programs--state-sponsored instruction in a range of job skills--are ongoing at job sites, occupation centers and some campuses.
Nor is Mercy's employment connection a first. Ben Briscoe, chairman of the industrial arts department, for example, has had sporadic calls from employers for student workers during most of his 25 years at Chatsworth High School. The hitch is that "we don't have the time or manpower to recruit employers," he said. And, thus, the effort remains small.
Mercy, on the other hand, arrived at Grant with a network of print-world contacts. He has extended these contacts by "hitting the pavement," visiting old friends and new businesses, "telling people about the kids."