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PARENTING : School Winning the Battle

October 21, 1994|JAMES E. FOWLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back in the mid-1980s, Gary Guttenberg was a troubled 16-year-old.

He had been a drug user who was arrested three times and expelled from the Los Angeles Unified School District twice. He had gone to six high schools, and he was two years behind in his studies. He never thought of himself as a truant because he never went to school.

"I had a lot of problems," Guttenberg says. "I was an angry kid."

Last spring, Guttenberg, now 24, graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in legal studies. He plans to attend law school. Although he cannot pinpoint a single cause of his turnaround, he knows it started about the time he enrolled at Miguel Leonis High School in Woodland Hills.

Leonis High School is one of 43 continuation schools in the LAUSD. Although associated with El Camino Real High School, it has its own distinct campus and a student body of approximately 120 students, most between the ages of 14 and 20. All were unsuccessful in regular high school.

About 10% of Leonis students have been identified as gifted and about 35% are in special education classes. The school graduates about 35 to 40 young people each year--students like Guttenberg, who were previously considered at high risk of dropping out. Approximately 15 of these graduates eventually go on to a four-year college. All of them receive the same California high school diploma awarded to students in regular high school.

According to Odus Caldwell, the school's principal since 1986, 90% of the student body arrives at Leonis with a history of truancy problems, yet the school has a 95% attendance average.

"Truancy is a reaction to something else; (the students) don't choose to be truant," Caldwell says. "At 14, 15, 16, they don't have the experience to deal with the real issue. Leonis is an alternative program, not a penalty."

Its success in combatting truancy, however, may lie in the non-traditional approaches it offers students who have been unable to cope with the rigors and rules of other high schools.

"We take the pressure off the kid," Caldwell says. "We're student-driven. They make the decisions."

Leonis students work at their own pace and are given control of their work schedule. They are allowed to sit where they want and decide what subjects they are going to tackle and when. Truancy is tolerated at the school but not for long. Those with more than three unexcused absences in any of each semester's six three-week sessions are expelled from the program.

Most, however, succeed. And, says Caldwell, "as they start to feel some success, they feel better about themselves. They regain their self-confidence and self-esteem."

Guttenberg, a Leonis success story, appreciated his teachers' recognition of his potential, rather than his "self-proclaimed and society-placed limitations." While he acknowledges that there's no perfect solution to the truancy problem, in his view, "Leonis is a viable option."

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