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Keeping 'At-Risk' Kids on Track


FULLERTON — Some kids in this special eighth-grade class at Parks Junior High School come from broken homes or from neighborhoods where gang violence is a fact of life. Others are children of affluence who just haven't learned the meaning of responsibility. But they all have one thing in common: They are not doing well in school.

"Their problems range from immaturity and falling asleep in class to too much socializing," says teacher Jean Lahey. "They run the gamut."

Educators define these youngsters as "at-risk"--at risk for dropping out of school, for getting into trouble, for going through life never living up to their potential. Such children have the ability to succeed, but because of other factors--lack of self-confidence, financial conditions, isolation, family problems--they have not been.

"Every kid in here has the ability to do a lot better," Lahey says.

Helping them to do just that is the goal of this new class, created by Lahey and her teaching partner, Irene Strauss.

The class is called Advanced 8th, and it is designed to identify and change the paths of at-risk students at Parks. The daily class, taught by Lahey and Strauss, began this fall, and the two teachers say they can already see changes in the 20 youngsters accepted into the program.

"They used to feel like outsiders, but this class makes them feel like they belong," Strauss says. "They not only are beginning to care about themselves, but about the community and each other."


Caring about themselves is the first step toward success, Strauss says. "They have to care enough about themselves to see education as important."

Ultimately, the goal of the program, according to Lahey, is to help the children see that education is the key to success. To help them understand that, the two women recently put together a Vocation Day that included trips to 12 Fullerton businesses.

"We said, 'Please talk to them about the importance of staying in school and being a responsible person,' " Strauss says. "The business community was wonderful. The kids came back so excited."

During the visits, workers at various businesses served as mentors, meeting with the children, letting them sit in on conferences and taking them out to lunch. Throughout the day, each mentor talked about the importance of education.

"It was a beautiful example of the cooperation between the schools and business," Lahey says.

Vocation Day is just one of several field trips offered to Advanced 8th students. Others include visits to a museum, a community college, the Orange County Performing Arts Center and the county courthouse.

"We took them to the courts to see bail being set to let them see what could happen," Lahey says. "It put a cast of reality to it."

In addition to taking field trips, the teens also listen to guest speakers, among them representatives from the California Youth Authority, who brought along gang members whose message was "Stay in school." Such messages are important ones for these kids to hear, Lahey says. "This is definitely a crossroads for them in growing up."

Parks Principal Larry Beaver agrees. "Kids this age are sometimes unfortunately very naive, and they get themselves in situations and don't understand how things work," he says. "We are trying to get them to think and open themselves up to what they do in school, and how it is related to situations they find themselves in in the not-too-distant future."


Beaver says the class is designed to help the students see that their work habits today can affect their performance in the job market tomorrow. "The intent is to give them a lot of information about something that is pretty nebulous to them now and show them their future and its connection to their education."

One person who presented a graphic demonstration of that idea was Roger Martinsen, director of human resources at Johnson Controls, a Fullerton company that has provided a $3,000 grant to help pay for the Advanced 8th class.

During a recent visit to the class, Martinsen brought job applications and helped the students fill them out. Afterward, he wadded up an application and had a student stand at the farthest corner of the room and try to toss the wadded-up form into a wastebasket. He told them that for a person without a high school diploma, that was how difficult it would be for him or her to get a job.

He then had students try to "shoot a basket" from spots closer to the container, demonstrating how much easier it is for high school and college graduates to succeed.


Martinsen says he dreamed up the wastebasket demonstration in the shower that morning and was pleased to see how well it went over with the kids.

"It really held their interest, and bringing in real employment applications from the world of business--there was something magic about that," he said.

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