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Tender Mercies

They traded their humanity for a life of crime. Now the students at Rosewood school have a chance at redemption: working with disabled children.

June 21, 1996|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You think it's easy going to school?

Not when you're 15 and live in a crowded apartment with seven siblings, all younger than 6. Not when your mom has no job, is coming off drugs and belongs to the same gang that you, your drug-addicted dad and all your relatives belong to.

Not when you have to dress so carefully for the trip to class each day, because one mistake could kill you. Does Calvin Klein know his logo means "Crips Killer" in Southeast L.A.? Green means you deal drugs. The wrong belt buckle or shoelace knot is big trouble if you meet rival gangs on your way.

Maybe you'll take the long route, avoid enemy territory. It takes an extra hour, but you'll get there.

For Aldo, 15, it's automatic: He's going to school no matter what. For the first time in his life, he says, he likes his teachers, wants success, feels needed and, yes, smart.

The other morning he boasted that he'd learned to say no to his gang.

"After school I stay inside. I just tell my homies I gotta help out with my little sisters and brothers, and they don't bother me," he said with pride. That night, he was beaten so badly by his homies for ignoring the gang that he couldn't go to school the next day.

But the day after that, he was back.

*

"Don't worry about Aldo. He's gonna make it," say Cedric Anderson and Sandy Osborn in unison. They're the total staff of the Rosewood Community Education Center, the only teachers Aldo has ever liked.

And they like him, despite his arrest at 14 for grand theft auto and possession of methamphetamines-- probably not his most serious crimes, simply the ones for which he was caught.

Aldo is one of 34 students at Rosewood, a one-room, storefront public school in a pseudo-Spanish strip mall in Bellflower.

Some would call it a school of last resort, because almost every kid there has committed major crimes, is on probation, belongs to a gang and has been rejected by all the regular public high schools in his or her district.

There are those who believe that all kids like these, who've committed adult crimes, should be locked up just like adults.

But to Anderson and Osborn, who started teaching together at Rosewood when it opened eight years ago, these kids are society's buried treasure, the damaged raw material from which outstanding citizens can be made.

Rosewood is unique. It is the first public high school to connect kids like Aldo, never considered trustworthy or humane, with helpless and hopelessly disabled children who require constant care, gentleness and love.

Each day at 9:30 a.m., the Rosewood students pile into a bus and ride a few blocks to Lynn Pace Elementary School, where the area's most severely disabled youths, ages 6 to 22, are enrolled in special education classes.

And for the next two hours, Rosewood youths help to exercise, teach and play with their disabled peers, all of whom suffer major mental and / or physical damage.

Retardation, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and other conditions have left many of them unable to control their muscles. Many spend their days strapped into wheelchairs; some cannot move their limbs, their heads, or even swallow food.

The special ed students are weak and vulnerable, sitting targets for any act of cruelty or malice. But what they receive from their Rosewood helpers is nothing but aid, friendship and fun.

To watch an at-risk youth interact with one of his helpless charges is to see the tenderness of a parent toward a child, the competence of a physical therapist with a patient.

"Mikey moves his arms and legs much better in water, so he loves it in here," says Kenneth, 15, as he helps a boy with cerebral palsy in the Pace school pool. "But I've gotta watch him every second, cause he tips over and could drown."

At that moment, Mike, who is wearing a flotation vest, tilts upside down while trying to swim. Kenneth is there instantly, joking with Mike as he sets him right. Then he scours the pool to see if any other kids need his help. Invariably they do, and invariably he's there.

None of the disabled youths have any idea that the kids they trust and depend on are considered menaces to society.

And therein lies what many experts call the magic of the Rosewood school.

Tough guys and girls, who have buried their own humanity beneath hardened shells, who have camouflaged their hurts with aggression and crime, spend every morning helping and soothing kids who have even a more painful past, and less possibility of a future, than they do.

*

Sharon Roberts, an education director for the L.A. County Office of Education, conceived the idea of introducing at-risk youth to disabled children. After decades of dealing with both groups of students, she says, "I really know at-risk youth; I've worked with thousands of them. They need to be loved, to feel good about what they do in life. Sure, they have gotten in trouble and must pay the consequences. But that does not mean they are all throwaway kids. Most can be turned around."

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