It's before 8 a.m. and Larry Keegan, dressed in shorts and tennis shoes, drives into the parking lot of a dusty Santa Paula strip mall. He swings open the side door of the paint-peeled motor home.
And class is in session.
The teacher waits as, one by one, his students file in. They are teenage mothers, former gangbangers and other would-be dropouts who are getting one last chance at a high school diploma.
"It's way better than regular school," gushes student Alexandria Ramirez, who has been in and out of Juvenile Hall since she was 14. "Everyone has an opportunity here--it's just taking it."
The mobile classroom is part of Ventura County's Gateway School program, which aims to recapture kids who have fallen behind in classes or been expelled from mainstream middle and high schools.
Taking a Different
Approach to School
It reflects a growing effort by educators throughout Southern California to bring these alternative school programs to the communities that need them most. Whether they are in storefronts, churches or vehicles, the schools are attracting teenagers who might otherwise be out on the street.
"Rather than letting them drop out, we reach out, and serve them in the environment in which they're most comfortable," said Karen Medeiros, director of curriculum for alternative education in Orange County.
"That's where they can be the most successful."
In the satellite program that began in Santa Paula about 15 months ago, teachers believe the approach is working.
Keegan's students are on independent study, which means they complete assignments at their own pace. For one reason or another, they couldn't survive either academically or socially at the town's comprehensive school, Santa Paula High.
Alexandria, 17, said the tension with some other girls at the high school was so bad, she couldn't walk across campus without getting in fights.
C.B. Vasquez, 17, was lost in many of his classes and said his teachers were always too busy to help.
Now, they come to the motor home for 90 minutes twice a week, where they turn in work, meet with the teacher and update the weekly "contracts" that spell out their next list of assignments.
"Larry goes through everything with me, and it really helps," said C.B., who hopes to earn his diploma next year and join the Marines.
Alexandria said being with Keegan in the mobile school has taught her how to control her impulses to fight.
"Here, it's a nicer atmosphere, and everyone knows each other," she said. "I've learned it's all about the way you present yourself."
Keegan's 1992 Chevy Chaparral, which Ventura County leases for $1 a year from an Orange County program, is a converted classroom with eight workstations.
At four makeshift desks that face windows, there is space for two students each. Lawn chairs are stashed behind the seats in case more show up.
There is no bathroom, but students use nearby public restrooms available at each of Keegan's three daily stops, which include a sheriff's substation, a library and the shopping center parking lot.
With oldies radio humming in the background, students hunch over workbooks as Keegan sits facing them in the passenger seat, monitoring their behavior and grading their assignments. Every couple of minutes, one of them has a question for him.
His route, which is about 12 miles a day, begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m.
"It's just worked great up here," Keegan said. "It's perfect for the environment we're in."
The motor home is one aspect of the satellite, which also includes a daily classroom run by teacher Judy Dobbins out of a Baptist church. That program also includes a day care center for teenage mothers.
Students are moved around between the two venues to meet their specific needs, Keegan said.
Ten Santa Paula teenagers will graduate from the community school on June 13, among them 16-year-old Candace Johnson.
She said she never got the attention she needed in mainstream high school.
She will be the first person on either side of her family to earn a high school diploma and plans to continue her education at Ventura Community College in the fall.
"I probably would've dropped out a long time ago," she said. "There's no way I would've made it there."
In Santa Paula, a working-class farm town where juvenile crime rates are among the highest in the county, the service was needed, Keegan said.
He taught in Ventura County court schools for 10 years before volunteering to create Gateway's first satellite school in Ventura in 1989.
Since then, he has helped create seven more, from Ojai to Simi Valley.
Before that, Gateway students had to travel to the main school site in Camarillo, which was very difficult for teenagers in places like Santa Paula, which is 30 miles away.
"We were asking kids who have had major problems with attendance and truancy to get on a bus for 45 minutes to go to school," he said. "Since we have located ourselves in the community, we have seen a lot more success."
Programs Face Cuts
in State Funding