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Giving Girls a Second Chance

Ramona High School's mission is to take in troubled teenagers and provide a no-nonsense environment in which they can turn their lives around. But the campus needs help.


The dean's message for her newest high school students was couched in the cold, hard language of a prison intake center.

"We have students from 20 gangs here, but they don't flag it or flaunt it, and neither will you," Frances Vilaubi told the young women on their first day at Ramona High School, an all-girl campus four miles east of downtown.

Ramona's dress code allowed two colors, blue and white, she said. No polka dots, stripes, plaids or logos. No visible midriffs or tattoos--or shorts shorter than an arm extended downward. No photos of homies or babies on books or folders. No boyfriends on campus.

Being one minute late to class earns 30 minutes of detention. Each missed detention gets doubled, up to five hours. After that, a parent conference is called.

Easing into a smile, Vilaubi added, "We want you to feel good about yourself. We want you to finish high school and get a decent job."

Not exactly a warm welcome. But to its recipients, it amounted to a final opportunity to straighten out and, perhaps, graduate as one of "Ramona's Roses."

There are high schools for teenage mothers in Los Angeles, but Ramona is the only all-girl school specifically designed to rehabilitate students whose behavior seriously disrupted programs at their regular schools.

The campus, little noticed outside Boyle Heights, was founded in 1948 as a kind of rehabilitation center for troubled girls who needed special attention if they were to earn a diploma. Local mothers for decades have warned their most difficult daughters: "Keep it up, and you're going to Ramona!"

But over the past year, a new principal has been trying to raise the school's profile, and its students have been demanding that district officials provide them with a library and new textbooks.

Ramona is tiny by Los Angeles standards, with 150 students and 15 teachers who provide a minimal curriculum. About 800 students enroll at Ramona each year, but most transfer back to their regular high schools within a few months.

"They deserve more at that school," said Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education member David Tokofsky, whose mother-in-law and sister-in-law taught at Ramona. "It's always been considered a backwater campus that nobody listens to. People think of its students as las de bajo, girls at the very bottom."

Principal Sherry Breskin has stepped up efforts to solicit donations and sponsorships from the private sector.

A priority has been to raise the $20,000 needed to keep Ramona's infant center open during the summer schedule. "We're sending solicitations out to everyone from Hillary Clinton to boxer Oscar De La Hoya," said teacher Ruth Castro, who is in charge of Ramona's fund-raising campaign.

Last year, Ramona needed emergency funds from district officials to buy toilet paper. About the same time, then-Supt. Ruben Zacarias vowed to equip the school with a library. But Zacarias was forced into early retirement before he could make good on the promise.

Special education teacher Lisa Hildebrand said she personally spends about $2,500 a year on books and educational materials for her students. A few doors down the hall, teacher Rex Brook recently bought several cheap, plastic hand-held magnifiers for the students in his science class.

"We could really use a few good microscopes, and it would be nice to have a little money to buy a sea urchin embryology lab," Brook said while helping his students make "solar ovens" out of aluminum foil and cardboard boxes.

During a tour of Ramona, Breskin frankly acknowledged the limitations of her school, and the challenges facing her students.

"My girls were released from the California Youth Authority, or were dragged here by frustrated parents," she said. "They were awaiting expulsion, or suffering in bad foster homes. Some had lousy parents, or no parents at all. Some were abusing drugs. Some belong to gangs, or grew up in little ranchitos in Mexico and are now overwhelmed by Los Angeles."

Entering the infant center, which seemed busier than an ant farm as staffers tended to the urgent needs of 22 infants and toddlers, Breskin said, "two-thirds of our students are teen mothers, most of them referred from Roosevelt and Garfield high schools."

Some girls said they needed a break from the pressures of overcrowded inner-city campuses, and boys.

Sitting on a bench under a shade tree in the courtyard, student Vanessa Valzovinon said, "I like school better without boys around. Boys can distract you. They can be annoying."

Berlyn Castillo, 17, who transferred from Roosevelt High, attributed her improved grades and behavior to the little school's peaceful surroundings.

"Roosevelt is so overcrowded that teachers had no time for me; I just gave up and got straight fails in everything," said Castillo, Ramona's student body president. "I didn't realize what I could do until I came here."

Others were more troubled.

Hunched over a homework assignment with a dozen other girls on detention, a 15-year-old student sighed and muttered to a friend, "I want a baby. Then I won't be lonely all the time."

Her friend said, "Yeah, I want one too."

"Don't have babies, you guys!" chided 16-year-old Estella Rojas, who, with a 6-month-old daughter on her lap, was dealing with her own detention assignment. "Babies are not toys. They're difficult.

"Besides, you never know when a guy is going to leave you," she said. "You need to be able to depend on yourself. To do that you need a diploma."

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