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Gabrielino Freshmen in a Class by Themselves : Education: Teachers and administrators at new high school also welcome challenges. First-year students start their own traditions.

October 13, 1994|TALLY GOLDSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When word got around Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra that social studies teacher Sharron Heinrich had applied for a new job, some of her colleagues called her a traitor and an opportunist.

Heinrich did not plan to leave Mark Keppel for just any school. She wanted to join forces with Alhambra's rival, the new Gabrielino High School in neighboring San Gabriel, which had broken away from the Alhambra district to open its own high school.

"People were saying, 'How could she do this? That school is never going to make it. I hope she'll be stuck there,' " Heinrich remembered. The school's chances for long-term survival were uncertain at best; San Gabriel had lost its first rounds on the issue in court. But Heinrich was determined to take the risk, for the chance to create a high school curriculum from the ground up.

Being the first ones in has its joys for students too.

This is perhaps the only high school where the freshmen are at the top of the heap--because there are no upperclassmen. And after all, how often do freshmen become student government president and vice president, as Mae Castro and Gerome Guerrero already have done? That won't look too shabby on college applications.

While younger students at established high schools might be too intimidated to get involved in school activities, Gabrielino's freshmen are the elected officials, lead thespians and team captains.

These students do not have to worry about feeling unnoticed or being teased by older students. "It's better this way because no one here picks on you," said Jessica Lieu, 14.

Vince Lopez, Gabrielino's football coach, said there were 45 students on the freshman team, while most schools have 30 to 35 players.

"Some of the kids may not have made the cut at another school," he said. "But we've got enough coaches to have a big team."

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The students play against other freshman football teams and have won two of four games so far.

It's high-school culture with a twist. The only band is beginning band and there is no marching band. The school yearbook will have no section on graduating seniors until 1998.

"But that will all come with time," Principal Dan Mooney said.

There also are no longstanding school jokes or annual traditions. If there are no upperclassmen to put the freshmen down, there also are no older students to serve as examples for the future.

"There's no tradition and no history," Lopez said. "They have to rely on our experiences."

There is, of course, no guarantee that Gabrielino will exist next year, let alone in 1998.

The Alhambra City and High School District has already won its first battle in Superior Court against the State Board of Education, which permitted San Gabriel to exclude Alhambra residents in their vote for a unified school district in 1992.

San Gabriel had its own district for kindergarten through eighth grade, but sent its teen-agers to Alhambra for high school. Gabrielino was opened in September, pending the state board's appeal. The case is scheduled to be heard in appeals court this spring.

Gabrielino's students and teachers, however, are not dwelling on the what ifs .

"We're making history," said Michael Valdez, 14. "That feels good."

If Alhambra wins the board's appeal this spring and Gabrielino is closed, Heinrich said she will not regret her move.

"We took a risk to be here and we may fall flat on our faces," she said. "But if we don't, it's all been worth it."

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