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Living and Learning : Dorm Life Gives High School Kids a Chance to Succeed

January 06, 1994|MICHELE FUETSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH AREA — With her divorced mother working full time, 17-year-old Shalana McGhee had to do the washing, ironing, cleaning, cooking and baby-sitting at home when child-care arrangements fell through.

She was so anxious to keep up with her studies, however, that one day she dressed her 6- and 8-year-old sisters and took them with her on the school bus to her classes at the California Academy of Mathematics and Science.

"I had a project due . . . I had to come to school," says the lanky teen-ager, a senior at the academy, a high school on the Carson campus of Cal State University, Dominguez Hills.

Because the academy is not insured to transport younger children, Shalana's trip with her sisters caused a ruckus. But

it also brought home to academy officials why her grades were dropping dramatically.

Shalana was moved into a university dorm with 11 other academy students, who, like her, had home lives that threatened to sink them academically. The dorm program, begun in 1992, is working for Shalana. Today, the would-be pharmacist is pulling A's and Bs.

"Shalana's problem was so bad she used to fall asleep in school," says Sandra Elliott, who helped set up the program. She and two other teachers live in the dorms.

Founded four years ago by eight area school districts, including Long Beach Unified and Compton Unified, the academy seeks to increase the number of women and minorities headed for math and science careers. Eighty-three percent of the 481 students this school year are minorities.

The dorm program, underwritten by two foundations, is a graphic illustration of what it takes to accommodate largely low-income students who are bright but find it hard to balance school with the burdens of home life.

Before he moved into the dorm, 17-year-old Alex Caro shared a three-bedroom house in Huntington Park with his parents and four younger siblings. He had no quiet place to study.

"There's a lot of distractions," he says. "Mostly there's a lot of kids."

Exhaustion drove some of the students into the dorms--in some cases because they lived so far away. They had to rise before dawn and ride two hours by bus to get to the academy each morning. They got home so late at night, they often labored past midnight trying to keep up with the rigorous curriculum, which includes college science and math courses.

"It got to the point," recalls Jess Farias, who lives with his mother and younger sister in Los Angeles at Vermont Avenue and 23rd Street, "where my mother would drive me a lot so I could sleep more. But, then, she was late for her job. . . . I'm doing this to make it easier on her."

For other of the students, home life became too painful for them to cope, with or without heavy academic demands.

"My parents have, like, an unstable marriage," says Irma Hernandez, 17. "I'd be going back and forth to my brother's a lot. Now, my brother takes care of me."

Irma's older brother, a truck driver, pays the $30 a week she needs to cover food costs in the dorm because their father, she says, refused to pay it.

"The only thing I miss about home," Irma says, "is my little sister (age 10). She calls all the time. She called tonight because she needed help with her homework."

What Irma likes best about dorm living, she says, is that when she has trouble with her studies she can ask other students or a teacher for help or go to the nearby college library. "And I don't have to listen to my parents fight or anything like that," she adds.

For Jessica Morales, also 17, the dorms provided an escape from a situation that had become so painful her grades were near failing. She had to baby-sit for two younger half-siblings and did not get along with her stepfather. Her parents refused to pay the $30 a week for food, she says, so a grandfather stepped in to pay it.

"(My parents) made me feel I was being selfish because I wanted to live here and go to school," she says.

Andre Farmer, 17, doesn't talk much about his family except to say that he doesn't communicate with his father and that his mother and sisters don't value education as he does. "I've been told the only thing you have in life is your education," Andre says.

When his mother and sisters moved to Northern California, Andre found a family who took him in, so he has a place to go on weekends.

Some of the students want to live in a dorm because their neighborhoods are simply too hazardous. One is Jermaine Augustus, who is 17 and the youngest of 10 children, and hopes to study chemistry or biomedicine in college. He lives with his mother in an apartment near the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Not only did Jermaine have a long bus ride each day to school, but his neighbors were noisy and destroyed his science project. Andre was cultivating bean sprouts, measuring the progress of each container crop as it related to the different amounts of light it received.

He used to put the sprouts on the apartment house balcony for part of the day, with Jermaine's mother watching over them. Then, one day, "when I got home, they were all crushed," Jermaine recalls.

Zalika Davis refers to her home as a place where there was always a "lot of fussing going on." Her parents at one point had a family of 13. "My mom had all these foster children and most of them were drug babies and everything," Zalika says.

The students live four to each dorm apartment, with the academy and the university paying for everything but food. All the students go home on weekends but several said they can't wait to return on Sunday night, even though the routine is strict. They have to be in by 9:30 p.m. and they must share cleaning and cooking chores.

"It's like a family away from home," says 17-year-old Justin Reid. "Andre and Jermaine are like my brothers."

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