If Peterson Santos or Darin French walked the halls of a typical high school, many students would feel uncomfortable and possibly avert their eyes. Some of the friendlier ones might offer them a smile, and, if no one were looking, perhaps even say hello.
Santos, 18, and French, 20, are special students who attend a special school--Esperanza School.
Established in 1973, Esperanza--Spanish for hope --educates 117 trainable mentally handicapped students--from preschoolers to adults. The school, up the hill from Mission Viejo High, is part of the Saddleback Valley Unified district.
Within Esperanza's curriculum is the high school program, in which 48 students from ages 15 to 21 learn academics and job skills.
Esperanza's principal, Ruby Edman, said her school's students would have difficulty at other high schools because of problems with concentration, language skills and articulation. Many of them speak in only three- or four-word phrases.
"We have a more intensive educational program for them," Edman said. "More specialists, a smaller class size and we offer more support."
At a regular high school, Edman said, "they get confused because there are so many people and there's so much going on.
"Socially, they do things that are unacceptable, that make them stand out. They are less isolated in a school like this. It's their school, and they can go anywhere they want to here."
Edman said the greatest challenge for mentally handicapped students who attend regular high schools is making friends. Anyone who has tried not to notice the special education students sitting by themselves at lunch would agree.
Some teen-agers are friendly toward the mentally handicapped, but acknowledgment is usually as far as it goes. "Sometimes the hardest thing to get (mentally handicapped) people to understand is that somebody being nice to you is not the same thing as being your friend," Edman said.
"Here, they have wonderful friends. They go to the movies on weekends, they talk on the phone, they go to the dances. They have boyfriends and girlfriends and love triangles--absolutely the same thing here as at other schools, but at their level."
To enhance its students' social lives, Esperanza holds four dances a year, including a Christmas dance sponsored by the Elks Club.
In many ways, Esperanza is similar to any high school. Students attend classes, study and hold down jobs. The school day runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2:20 p.m.
Esperanza students start each day in homerooms, where they meet in groups of 10, based on their abilities and age. Groups go from room to room, changing teachers for each 40-minute lesson. Subjects include reading, handwriting, social studies, science, math, physical education, arts and crafts, and music, as well as a broad range of vocational skills. Each classroom is staffed by a full-time teacher and aide.
"We're really preparing them for jobs," said Pat Haberfield, instructor in charge of Esperanza's high school program. "We try to have a balance between the academic and the vocational."
The school's vocational program serves as a training ground for a productive adulthood. As part of the restaurant program, for example, the school has a commercial kitchen where students prepare lunch three times a week. Lunch-making is divided into three crews: food preparation, serving and cleanup. A rotating schedule allows students a chance at each job.
While some teen-agers find fast-food restaurant work mundane, Esperanza's students view such jobs as the crowning achievement of their culinary skills. They strive to land fast-food jobs.
"They'll come back in their uniform with their Coke and fries and eat in the hall where everyone can see," Haberfield said. "They're very proud of it."
Mike Stuetz, 18, said his goal is to get a job at Wienerschnitzel. Another Esperanza student, Paul Harrington, 20, echoed the feeling: "I'm going to get a job this year. I'd like to work at Sizzler."
Said Haberfield: "It (a job) provides wonderful motivation. It provides a goal our students can work for."
As another part of the food preparation program, students learn to use a special machine to package cookies baked the night before by Esperanza's adult school students. The cookies are sold during snack and lunch at nearby Mission Viejo and Silverado high schools.
Other job training helps to develop assembly-type skills. The school asks local businesses to supply easy, repetitive tasks that students can perform for experience, not pay. One travel agency sent Esperanza stickers and brochures, and students spent a class period learning to affix address labels.
Twice weekly, students spend time working in the school's vegetable and flower gardens, and taking care of the chickens. They collect the eggs and sell them to faculty members. Students learn responsibility by caring for the plants and chickens, and math skills by making change for the eggs they sell.