Standing before about 40 teenagers who have braved bullets and brawls at other campuses to make it to their senior year at Duke Ellington Continuation School in Watts, Principal Cecil McLinn broke some sobering news Thursday.
"The Supreme Court overruled the lower court," McLinn told the seniors. "The California High School Exit Exam stands."
"Oh, no!" one student squeaked. Others scrunched their faces and groaned.
Wednesday's state Supreme Court ruling reinstating the exit exam, which was thrown out by a lower court earlier this month, cast a pall over thousands of struggling California high school seniors this week. Like those at Duke Ellington, many were hoping to graduate in June but have either failed or do not yet know if they passed the exam. The class of 2006 is the first required to pass the test, which measures competency in math and English.
At Duke Ellington, McLinn had ordered 35 caps and gowns for students he thought were going to graduate. But since the ruling, he now believes closer to 19 will earn diplomas by June.
When McLinn's students transferred from other Los Angeles campuses, they arrived at Duke Ellington scarred and dejected. Some were missing almost three years of coursework. Others came with third-grade reading skills. Six of his female students are young mothers. A few dozen students only meet teachers at night because they work during the day to support families.
Seventeen-year-old Jeanette Arvizu listened quietly Thursday as McLinn explained the consequences of the high court decision. Students who failed, he told them, will have to keep trying over the summer.
"Without a diploma, people aren't going to look at you for jobs or grants," McLinn said. "How many of you want that?"
No one raised their hands.
Arvizu sighed. She transferred to the 117-student Duke Ellington campus from Washington Preparatory High School four months ago. Although the two schools are on the same campus, the small move changed Arvizu's life. She takes classes at her own pace and enrolled in a job training program.
During her freshman year at Washington Prep, Arvizu dodged flying bottles and rocks during a riot on campus involving 300 to 500 students. At the year-round campus with more than 3,000 students, Arvizu couldn't avoid trouble that seemed to crowd every hallway. She got into fistfights on campus. She got Fs in almost every subject.
At Duke Ellington, Arvizu is a straight A student who is set to finish her 230 credits needed for graduation in time for the June ceremony. All she is waiting on now are her exit exam results. She has no idea what to expect.
"The kids that are here came here with no hope, thinking we weren't going to graduate ever," Arvizu said. "Here, they gave us hope."
On Thursday, Arvizu's hopes tumbled into uncertainty, again.
The mood at Duke Ellington mirrored other schools across California, as students grappled with the news.
At Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, best friends Dalia Escobar, 17, and Manuela Valazquez, 18, tried to cheer each other up. Neither girl passed the exam.
"You feel down because you're doing good in all your classes," Valazquez said. "You're getting enough credits. Actually, you're getting more credits. And just because of an exam, you don't graduate."
The exam, which students can take multiple times beginning in their sophomore year, tests students in eighth-grade math and ninth- and 10th-grade English.
Of the 46,700 seniors statewide who have failed, 20,600 have limited English skills and 28,300 come from low-income households.
Olga Duran, an administrator at Roosevelt High School who guides academically at-risk students, said the school has offered tutoring, but the students are discouraged. At least 67 Roosevelt seniors have fulfilled all of their graduation requirements except the exit exam, Duran said. But the number is probably higher.
"We have a series of flip-flopping, mixed messages," she said.
Claudia Barragan, 18, a senior at Century High School in Santa Ana, said she spent many Saturdays buried in books, studying. But she has failed the English portion of the exam four times in the last three years.
Barragan, who left Mexico for the United States 2 1/2 years ago, said she has a 3.5 GPA and has received a scholarship to attend Santa Ana College.
"Why don't they look at our school records and see that we're good students and we try hard?" she said. "How can they now tell us we can't graduate?"
At Duke Ellington, McLinn pushes high standards for his students. The main office is decorated with Cal Poly, Boise State and UCLA T-shirts. He gives them to students as gifts when they complete classes.
"I agree with [state Supt. of Public Instruction] Jack O'Connell," McLinn said. "We have to have accountability."
But he added that his students cope with unimaginable burdens. A week ago, one of his students witnessed a slaying. Two weeks ago, another watched her cousin get shot while they stood at a bus stop.