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Required: School Prayer

At L.A.'s Washington Prep, it takes faith and hard work to keep college dreams alive -- and street smarts just to make it safely home.

December 14, 2004|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Micah Grant begins his day under a clock, its hands pointed at 6:41 a.m., his hands clasped in prayer.

The 17-year-old is joined by his mother.

"Send divine angels from heaven around him," his mother says. "Keep him in perfect peace and harmony. Keep his surroundings in peace and harmony.

"Lord remember his friends today, oh God," she continues, "remember Washington Prep today."

Micah is about to leave for school. He is a senior at Washington Preparatory High School, located between Inglewood and the Harbor Freeway in one of Los Angeles' poorest and most violent neighborhoods.

Today, as on all school days, Micah must strategize.

Will he get the education he is hungry for? And will he make it home?

He selects his clothes with precision: Royal blue sweatpants, a safe color in his Crips neighborhood where baby blue implies gang ties. He wears a white T-shirt, a gang-neutral color, with a sports emblem on the back.

He doesn't dare wear red, the color of the Bloods, the Crips' longtime rival. "I wouldn't come home," he says. "I wouldn't make it."

His mother, Sharon Grant, a post office worker, and her husband, Hervin, a minister, are raising three sons. They weave spirituality into every aspect of their children's lives. They find phrases from the Bible or from sermons or Jamaican proverbs to cover as many eventualities as possible. That, his mother says, is what keeps them safe.

She spritzes the back of Micah's neck with cologne and sends him off with a kiss on his cheek.

Trust in the Lord, and do good.

Micah walks with raised shoulders, his college applications stowed inside a book bag. He needs to traverse eight blocks to the bus stop. He passes an empty Heineken beer carton, a sickly stray dog and two men picking through Dumpsters. The sky is the color of pale stones.

He walks alone in the morning but never at night.

After school one day in July, his friend, Delano Pitts, took a different route, down some alleys and less-traveled streets. Micah stuck to his familiar sidewalks. Someone randomly shot Delano twice, in the arm and the leg. The wounds were not fatal.

At the corner of Florence and Western avenues, Micah boards a public bus, paying the $1.25 fare. Students crowd toward the back. He sits in front, near a woman wearing a blazer and a man reading the newspaper. The bus stops at 108th Street and Western Avenue, three blocks from Washington Prep.

A pack of students moves one way, to a side street. Micah moves the other way, taking a longer route to school.

Shortcuts bring blood; the long way brings sweat.

"I don't take cuts," he says.

Delano is the first to greet Micah inside Washington Prep. They meet at a concrete bench in the courtyard, with a plaque that reads: "Not For Self, But For All." They wear matching bracelets bearing the words: "One Mission John 14:6." Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. A surveillance camera points in their direction.

Delano is a basketball player. He shows one scar from the July bullet. It looks like a dark ribbon on his forearm. "They thought I was a gangbanger," he says.

Micah is a star track runner. Micah's friends say he is like a cheetah: He runs fast, talks fast, thinks fast.

The bell rings and Micah departs for his first-period art class, passing two more surveillance cameras. Outside his classroom, three uniformed security guards patrol a courtyard.


Two years ago, Washington Prep teachers filed a written complaint with their union saying the campus was "out of control." They said that students and outsiders regularly beat and robbed other students and that some students had sex and used drugs in hallways.

Then, last March, a riot broke out. Officials said a crowd of about 300 to 500 students threw rocks and bottles as two campus police officers tried to restrain a pair of students fighting in the open-air quad. Several students were injured and 11 were arrested.

Micah remembers watching the melee break out at lunch. One brawl started in front of him. Another behind him. He ran to his fourth-period teacher's classroom, but she had locked the door. He pounded on it, but she didn't open. "She was scared," he said.

Another time, a fight on campus began near him. Police pepper-sprayed the students. The spray burned Micah's eyes. Now, when a fight starts, he rushes as far away as possible.

Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away.

The district appointed a new principal, Herbert Jones. It doubled the number of armed police officers on campus to two and doubled the number of unarmed officers to four. It assigned six school district police to patrol within a half-mile radius. It spent $37,000 completing the iron perimeter fence. It increased the number of surveillance cameras on campus to 30, Jones said.

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