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Leadership in the Making

Education: High school students learn personal and vocational skills through eight-week programs at Valley College academy.


In front of the California Army National Guard Armory in Van Nuys, Lilit Ojakhyan calls out the names of fellow teens who are getting a close-up look at guns, vehicles and equipment.

Her peers, divided into three platoons, stand at attention and await her commands.

A three-student color guard solemnly marches to the flagpole near a large rock garden where 1st Sgt. Ojakhyan is positioned. After the flags are raised, the nearly 80 high school students pledge allegiance.

It's Day 3 of Valley College's Leadership Academy, a program run in conjunction with the Los Angeles Unified School District and the California Army National Guard. The program aims to instill participants with loyalty, self-respect and discipline.

The leadership academy, which will have its graduation ceremony Saturday, is one of six such programs at Valley College. Last week, 66 students in Valley's wild-land firefighting academy and 48 students in its robotics academy graduated.

The college also offers special programs in emergency medical services and firefighting. Each program lasts about eight weeks.

The goal is to replicate these programs at all nine campuses in the Los Angeles Community College District, said John Burke, an accounting instructor and the director of School to Careers programs at Valley College.

"We're using the academies to improve academic achievement in high school, so when they come to us [as college students], they will be better prepared," he said.

Valley College was the first campus in the district to offer a weekend program for high school students when it founded the firefighting academy in 1999. The program has been duplicated at Harbor, West Los Angeles and East Los Angeles campuses.

"The whole point is to recruit high school students to our academic program and to get them connected to a career," said Rodger McGinness, dean of academic affairs at Valley College.

The leadership academy, the newest of the programs at Valley College, has the look and feel of a Junior ROTC program, with not so much marching.

The academy begins at "0900 hours" each Saturday. Adults are addressed as "sir" or ma'am" and students have to sign out to use the "latrine." Everyone wears a uniform: blue jeans, tennis shoes, black cap and a black T-shirt emblazoned with "Los Angeles Valley College Leadership Academy."

Half of the day is spent in college classrooms, where instructors from the National Guard teach military protocol and principles of leadership. The other half is spent at the armory, getting familiar with Humvees and the high-tech equipment used by the military.

"We don't run it as basic training. We just want to be good mentors to them," said Col. Philip Butch, a California Army National Guard commander. "When I was in the 10th grade, I didn't know what I wanted to do. Age 30 comes quick. We want them to realize a GPA does count, an SAT score does count."

Students say the Leadership Academy is having an effect on their lives.

Color guard member Amber Hirsch, one of 49 girls in the leadership academy, said the program has given her new pride in the U.S. and more confidence in herself.

"In the past, when somebody was doing something the same as me and only I got in trouble, I would get mad," said Hirsch, who lives in Highland Park and attends Van Nuys High School. "They've taught me I have to be the bigger person and not worry about it."

Jose Torres, a junior at Grant High School in Van Nuys, said he's a "better person" since enrolling in the academy.

"I'm learning how to take charge, but not to overpower my teammates," said Torres, who will graduate from the Leadership Academy this weekend. "It's teaching me to be a team player. You need those [skills] in everyday life. I'm getting more out of it than I thought I would."

The academies are taught by specialists in their fields.

"The instructors in the academies can inspire and motivate these young people and show them a whole new world," Burke said.

Members of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Assn. teach the Robotics Academy, an electronics course; U.S. Forest Service officials teach the Wildland Fire Academy; and paramedics teach the Emergency Medical Services Academy.

This summer, an advanced Fire Drill Tower Academy--to teach firefighting in tall buildings--will be offered in North Hollywood.

In October, a new Justice Academy, taught by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, will begin.

Depending on the academy, students receive high school credit and two or three units of college credit.

Valley College is offering its academies this year under a $289,000 state Department of Education grant, which also includes money for developing high school curriculum to coordinate with each program, Burke said.

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