Four years spent cleaning up the pen of a South American tapir helped Stephanie Perales decide that she would rather pursue a career working with criminals than animals.
But that doesn't mean her close daily contact with the hairy, piglike beast--or any other aspect of her tenure at North Hollywood High School's Animal Studies/Biological Sciences Zoo Magnet--has been without value. Far from it, she said.
"It wasn't a waste of time because everybody takes science in college," said Stephanie, who plans to study criminal psychology in college. "And the teachers expect more because they teach you more."
The 10-teacher, 285-student satellite school, housed in bungalows on the Los Angeles Zoo parking lot, is a model for a plan put forward last week by North Hollywood High Principal John Hyland for as many as a dozen mini-schools on and off campus.
Unlike magnet schools, which have entrance requirements and draw students from throughout the school district, a mini-school--or "academy"--enrolls students from within a particular high school and offers a specialized curriculum in a specific study area.
Hyland said that, for his school, the plan could mean only three years on year-round scheduling, which the district voted last month to impose on North Hollywood to ease overcrowding, over vehement objections from parents and students.
North Hollywood, with 3,500 students, is among what the district promises will be a dozen Los Angeles high schools pushed to give up the traditional schedule in the next three years. A rise in enrollment could force all district high schools to go year-round by 2006. Already, 17 of the 49 high schools operate year-round.
Under Hyland's plan, students would list their top three choices among such majors as social justice and urban transportation. Teachers and parents would make the final decision on which students would go where.
If the school can duplicate the successes of the Zoo Magnet, Hyland said, students would be spread out on satellite campuses. He hopes that all the mini-schools could be set up within three years, enabling North Hollywood to abandon year-round scheduling, which begins this July. So far, parents and school district officials have embraced the proposal.
"The main thing that people are concerned about is: How fast can we do it?" said Caprice Young, a school board member representing North Hollywood. "Because [parents and students at North Hollywood High] want it done yesterday."
Last month, when Hyland unveiled his plan, interim Supt. Ramon C. Cortines praised the proposal as "very realistic" for reducing the number of years the school would have to be on a year-round schedule.
The proposal is moving forward. Cortines has asked an architect to work with Hyland to flesh out the plan and determine needs and costs, Young said.
The 20-year-old Zoo Magnet offers North Hollywood lessons on the advantages and pitfalls of running a small campus of select students.
Zoo Magnet students as a group score in the 50th percentile statewide on standardized tests, compared with North Hollywood's overall scores in the 25th percentile--which include the prestigious Highly Gifted Magnet program on the campus.
Unlike the Highly Gifted Magnet, the zoo school's student body IQ range nearly mirrors that of the main campus, Zoo Magnet coordinator Linda Gill said.
Also, the Zoo Magnet has better attendance and graduation rates than its parent school.
The secret to the smaller school's academic success, Gill said, is an almost familial atmosphere in which teachers pay close attention to all the students and the faculty is excited about its mission.
Such individual attention would be impossible on the main campus, school officials said.
"All the teachers know all the students," said Gill, also a founding teacher. "So if a student is having trouble in English, it may be a math teacher who helps the student after talking to the English teacher. It's proven that students want to perform better when they think a teacher cares."
The same goes for discipline problems. Two girls were caught skipping class last week after two teachers discussed them at lunch. One teacher asked the other if she knew why the girls were absent. The other teacher said they weren't; they had been in class that morning.
The school's size "allows us to have a tighter rein on the students," Gill said.
Animal cleanup duties aside, Zoo Magnet students relate all their classes to the zoo or animal science. For instance, the school does not offer basic art; it offers biological illustration. One of Perales' math classes used geometry formulas to measure the area of the zoo.
Such crossover reinforces the teenagers' science knowledge, students and teachers say. Because the students had to apply to the program, most arrive with at least an interest in science.