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It's a Top-Grade Achievement

Many graduates of charter high school never thought they'd receive their diplomas.

July 09, 2006|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

By the 10th grade, Mario Galindo said, he had begun to make bad choices -- following a path where he dropped out of school and got involved with drugs and in trouble with the law.

But on Saturday, Galindo, 18, was a star of his high school class, speaking at his graduation ceremony less than a year after a judge ordered him back to school.

"I started to get A's and Bs instead of straight Fs," a smiling Galindo told the seniors at Soledad Enrichment Action Charter High School, whose students are described as high-risk youths who had either dropped out or been expelled from traditional high schools, or were on probation for some criminal activity.

"I would never have thought I would finish school," said Galindo, of north Long Beach. He works as a clerk for the school, is the sole breadwinner for his family -- his mother and three younger brothers -- and is taking a class at Long Beach City College.

"People do deserve second chances," he said.

Nearly 100 other classmates reveled in the ceremony Saturday in a Monterey Park auditorium, gleeful that they were doing something many thought would never be possible.

"Well, this is a surprise," said salutatorian Wilber Hernandez, 18, of Huntington Park, waving a scholarship he received onstage. "I thought I'd be selling drugs," said the former dropout, who began hanging around drug dealers during his junior year. Now a student at Cerritos College, he added: "I have a future from now on, and I'll never give up."

The students took classes at the charter school's 18 sites throughout Los Angeles County, from Pacoima to Pomona, from Compton to Crenshaw.

The school was founded in 1972 by East L.A. mothers whose sons had been killed in gang violence, and who saw a need for an alternative high school program. At any given time, the school has about 1,200 students.

Cesar Calderon, Soledad's president, said many of the students may have lost a parent growing up, or begun falling behind in classes as early as the fifth grade. So Saturday was a major achievement for them.

"We're very proud," Calderon said.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell was among those who congratulated the students, calling the charter school a model that should be replicated around the state. He noted that this class was among the first that needed to pass California's high school exit exam to graduate.

"Your high school diploma is worth more today than any high school diploma ever granted in the state of California," O'Connell told the graduates.

Some students said it was difficult to learn in the large classes at traditional high schools, where teachers could rarely offer individual attention. Soledad's focus on smaller class sizes and one-on-one learning helped, Hernandez and others said.

As could be expected, Hernandez's mother was bursting with pride.

"He's one of my best sons," Maria Rosario Torres gushed, holding a gift basket for Wilber, who wants to become a lawyer. "I'm waiting for his next graduation, when he gets out of university."

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