In a bright little classroom on the second floor of an old, dilapidated Highland Park Episcopal church, 15 tough-looking young men and women are fighting for their lives.
Each one is a reject, a failure in some way--a hard-core "gang-banger," an addict fresh out of detox, a graduate of juvenile hall, a school arsonist, a single mother who dropped out of school two pregnancies ago.
All 15 stumbled before finishing high school. Now, they have been taken in by a man who makes a career out of giving second chances.
Alberto Valdivia, 40, is principal, clerk, disciplinarian and teacher of all subjects at the one-room Central High School branch at All Saints Episcopal Church on Avenue 56.
Central High School, contradicting its name, is spread out in some 30 branches throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District. It is a continuation school--its purpose is to provide educational opportunities to youths who are either too undisciplined, too unmotivated or too old to go to other schools. The branches are located in churches and community centers that agree to donate the space free of charge.
Valdivia's branch goes one step further: It welcomes students who are turned down or get in trouble in other continuation schools.
The students are sent to him by counselors from other high schools, or they hear about the school at All Saints by word of mouth. Valdivia admits them when nobody else would. He makes sure the drug offenders are tested every month. He calls their parents when they miss school. He takes time to talk to probation officers. He works on his students' self-esteem. He graduates them.
All Saints, the third continuation school in which Valdivia has worked, opened in September. This week, Marco Martinez, 20, became the school's first graduate.
The graduation ceremony Friday will be a celebration. A PTA meeting has been called to get all the parents involved. Though the church can barely make ends meet, the pastor, the Rev. Bill Leeson, has promised cake, sandwiches, chips and soft drinks for everybody.
Jackie Goldberg, Board of Education president, will attend, as will representatives of Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre and Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles).
Marco Martinez, the man who will be in the spotlight, lost his way at Franklin High School two years ago, he said, because he "started drinking, ditching school and hanging out with the wrong crowd." After five years in high school, he was still three courses short of graduation and the principal told Martinez he was tired of giving him second chances. Martinez wasn't allowed to return to Franklin.
So, he found All Saints. Like several other classmates, Martinez works full time, but Valdivia allows students to study at their own pace. Some take four courses, others take one. There are no deadlines to meet. Valdivia said he wants his students to just get the job done.
Martinez completed four courses, one more than he needed to graduate.
In doing so, he earned the right to have his name engraved next to other graduates on a bronze plaque that Valdivia has carried around ever since he began working at continuation schools five years ago. The first column is filled with about a dozen names. Martinez will top the second row.
More important, Martinez has regained his self-esteem.
The turning point in his life came two summers ago after an old friend picked him up to go to a party, said Martinez, a soft-spoken hospital worker with short, black hair greased back and an earring clinging to his left earlobe.
When police stopped them for "driving crazy," Martinez said, he found out his friend was an escapee from Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall and that the car was stolen. He barely avoided being thrown into jail, and the whole episode made him rethink the direction his life was taking.
"I took a good look at myself," he recalled in an interview Tuesday. "And I realized I was going nowhere." So he stopped seeing his troubled friends and he stopped shoplifting half-pints of liquor from convenience stores. He got engaged, concentrated on his work and eventually made his way back into the classroom.
Other All Saints students are farther behind on their road to recovery.
Jess Montoya, 14, said he isn't sure why he's going to All Saints. His father is in jail; his mother is an intravenous drug user, and he lives with his aunt and uncle who wouldn't let him stay home all day to watch cartoons on television, he said.
"This is the only school that would take me and I guess that going to school is what I'm supposed to do," he said.
He didn't last long at his previous high school. They kicked him out, he said, for being a gang member. His black leather jacket, white T-shirt and jeans, and his hair neatly sprayed back make up the textbook gang uniform. He still hangs out with his "home boys," he said. He still flashes gang signs.