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A Sense of Family Defines Continuation School's Spirit

Success: Oak View High uses small classes and caring faculty to foster a tight-knit community that works for its students. The approach has won state honors.

October 12, 1998|JENNIFER HAMM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OAK PARK — Amanda Barry couldn't have cared less about school when she started at Oak Park High. Flunking almost every class, Amanda couldn't stand the academic or social environment.

"I don't think I was thinking about anything, except sleeping through my classes," she said of her first semester of high school.

And her 0.08 grade-point average was proof that something desperately needed to change. She decided to transfer down the road to the district's continuation high school.

Today, after nearly three years at Oak View High School, Amanda maintains a 3.8 grade-point average, is on track to graduate with honors next spring and plans to study marine biology in college.

"My dream would be to go down in one of those submersibles and discover a new species," the 17-year-old said. "I'm the type of person who loves the Discovery Channel."

Amanda is not an exception--but rather the rule--at Oak View, say officials of the school, which recently won its second honor from the California Department of Education as a Model Continuation High School.

The secret, they believe, is the tight-knit community at the school on Conifer Street--a campus of about 50 students, a handful of staff members and several portable classrooms.

"I tell the kids when they come here, if you sneeze 54 people will say, 'God bless you,' " Principal Millie Andress said. "They spend so much time together, they almost become brothers and sisters."

Students, teachers and administrators agree Oak View is a second home.

Half a dozen poster-size collages of student pictures adorn the main office, making it feel more like a living room than a reception area. And on back-to-school nights this year, parents even watched a slide show set to music, with pictures of students playing baseball, studying in the lab and posing with friends.

The scrapbook images are no joke, students say.

"It's not really a continuation school," said Mike Verdick, who will graduate a year early next spring. "It becomes a family."

Students and faculty sit down for a Thanksgiving dinner two days before the holiday. During Christmas, they "adopt" special-education students in the San Fernando Valley and chip in to buy gifts.

The nurturing and supportive environment provided by the faculty makes learning easier and even welcomed, students say.

"Teachers will make sure that every person learns," senior Adam Firestone said. "They will make time for everyone and make sure they can get it."

Adam transferred from Oak Park because he had trouble learning and struggled to make Cs and Ds. But today his report cards are full of A's and Bs, and he feels confident about his studies.

"It's been a lifesaver for me," Adam said.

A Variety of Reasons to Attend the School

Because the school day is shorter and lets out at 1:45 p.m., Adam is also able to hold down a job at McDonald's.

Oak View students have chosen to transfer after falling behind in credits at Oak Park High, the district's comprehensive high school. When they arrive, most need to make up at least 20 credits to get caught up.

The reasons they decide to go to Oak View vary: from severe family problems to the pursuit of acting careers.

They are placed in classes that rarely have more than 15 students--a student-teacher ratio that is low even for continuation schools. The curriculum and textbooks are the same as those used by Oak Park students, with economics classes studying laws of supply and demand and English courses reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter."

Students complete a yearlong class in just a semester because the periods are 90 minutes each.

Once they graduate, half will go on to community colleges and a third will enroll in trade schools. The rest will either start working or join the military.

Splitting his time between Oak Park and Oak View, counselor Randy McLelland said he is able to develop strong, supportive relationships with the students. At Oak Park, he is usually only able to help piece together schedules. But at Oak View, he meets with each student several times throughout the semester.

Spending two days each week at the continuation school, McLelland usually arrives to find several notes on his office door that read, "Need to see you, Mr. McLelland."

"I get a chance to work [with the students] on a much more personal basis," he said.

Individual attention, small class sizes and high graduation rates are among the considerations in becoming a Model Continuation School, said Clara Chapala, a consultant in the state Education Options Office.

To earn the distinction as a model high school, continuation schools first had to complete a self-evaluation. Committee members visited the schools that scored high marks on the self-evaluations, and interviewed administrators, teachers and students. The award is given once every five years and was awarded to 16 schools this year.

At schools that deserve the honor, Chapala said: "The first things out of these kids' mouths is, 'These teachers really care and they go out of their way.' "

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