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A Path From a `Dropout Factory' to UC Berkeley

June 29, 2006|Sandy Banks | Times Staff Writer

At Fremont High, the school motto is also a message: Find a path or make one.

For senior Luz Elena Gutierrez, that path wound through hallways crowded with dispirited peers, around inexperienced teachers and veterans disillusioned by experience, over economic obstacles seldom faced by middle-class children, to the spotlight on stage at tonight's graduation as Fremont's valedictorian for the Class of 2006.

Almost 500 students will cross the stage with her. But more than 100 of them will receive a certificate of completion instead of a diploma; they had the grades to graduate but could not pass the state exit exam. And 1,500 of her freshman classmates will not be present; they left Fremont during the four years leading to graduation.

Those statistics don't taint Luz Elena's success; nor, she says, do they make it remarkable. "There are a lot of kids at this school who are working hard," she said. "But South-Central is like a little box; it constrains you. We have to learn to look beyond that box."

This fall, Luz Elena will head for UC Berkeley on a full scholarship, armed with advice from her older sister Edith, a former Fremont valedictorian and cum laude graduate of UCLA; encouragement from her immigrant parents; and confidence that comes not from mastery of calculus nor from her 4.5 grade point average, but from transcending an environment that brews failure more easily than success.

"People have low expectations when you come from Fremont," said Luz Elena, 18. " 'Inner-city school. Low-income kid. Immigrant family.' They don't expect us to succeed. But look at me, where I am now. So anything is possible." Possible, maybe. But hardly easy.

Four years ago, when Luz Elena was a freshman, Fremont was labeled "a dropout factory" by a national study. Its dismal test scores have begun creeping up, but are still among the district's worst. The aging campus at 76th and San Pedro streets sits in one of South Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods. Almost 90% of students are Latino and more than one-third are new immigrants, still learning English.

"The biggest problem these kids have is socioeconomics," Fremont college counselor Aurora Martinez said. "Many of them come from homes where the parents hardly know how to write their names. A lot of them have after-school jobs. Others have to go home and take care of siblings, cook, clean the house.... They are like little adults. School is not all they do."

The school operates year-round, with more than 4,000 students attending on rotating schedules. "At Fremont, you're just a number," Luz Elena said. "You have to be really, really persistent.... Just to see a counselor, you have to fill out all this paperwork. It could take weeks to get an appointment."

From her older sister, Luz Elena learned not to wait -- to push her way into the toughest classes, to demand the most engaging teachers, to compete for every academic honor. And not to leave her classmates behind.

When she saw friends struggling in math, she started a tutoring club to help them keep up. When she grew frustrated with her school's weak academics, she joined protests at Los Angeles Unified School District board meetings, pleading for more demanding courses.

She didn't have much of a social life. No parties, no boyfriends -- and no regrets. "That wasn't on my agenda," she said, blushing slightly and casting her wide eyes down. "I knew from eighth grade what I wanted: to graduate at the top of my class."

She chose her friends as carefully as she picked her courses: like-minded girls who met under the big tree on the quad for lunch and to discuss calculus, college applications and leads on financial aid.

It is no coincidence, she says, that all 10 of Fremont's top seniors are girls. "At a school like this, guys get pressured to do a lot of things ... gangs, drugs. Boys make fun of you if you do your work. Girls don't have that kind of pressure."

But there are different kinds of pressures in a community where girls are typically expected to become wives and mothers, not to leave their families behind for college.

"I'm going to be the first person in my family to go away," Luz Elena said as proudly as if Berkeley were on the other side of the world. Her older brother graduated from Cal State Long Beach, her sister from UCLA. Luz Elena was accepted at UCLA too, "but I wanted a new environment. I want to know about the world outside L.A."

Her parents initially objected, but her brother lobbied her dad, and UC Berkeley flew mother and daughter up to visit.

"She looked around the campus, saw how happy I was and said 'If you want to go, mija, go ahead.' "

Luz Elena's parents emigrated from Mexico, met on the job at a hospital laundry, and, 27 years later, still work there -- her father, days; her mother, nights, so one parent can always be at home. They never went past elementary school and never learned to speak English.

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