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A's and Bs -- and the CCC

A charter school uses firefighting to teach dropouts life lessons.

August 30, 2008|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

FRENCH GULCH, CALIF. — Alex Gowan leaned against the side of the White Rhino. The bleached workhorse of a bus had strained up a near-vertical fire road to carry him and his fellow members of the California Conservation Corps to this wide, bulldozed bluff in the smoke-shrouded mountains west of Redding.

Gowan was a high school dropout whose quest to finally get a diploma had led him here, to the edge of the Motion Fire, or what remained of it after weeks of firefighting. The same was true for most of the 18 other corps members with him, a weary, slap-happy bunch who had been pulling 16- and even 24-hour shifts working backup behind firefighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the U.S. Forest Service.

In addition to being members of the Cs, as they call the Conservation Corps, many of these young people were students or recent graduates of one of the most unusual schools in California: John Muir Charter, a program that offered a last chance to defy the odds and succeed.

"I got in trouble back in my wilder, younger days" said Gowan, 19, a lanky, laconic guy in dusty green pants. "I just never really liked the whole school situation." He ticked off the schools in the Redding area that he had attended and left: Foothill, New Tech, Foothill again, Pioneer, North State Adult Education, "and then I sort of dropped off the map."

Lete Sanchez, also 19, strolled by. Her grin threw dimples onto cheeks caked with dust and grime. Funny and self-assured, with a fondness for Led Zeppelin and chain saws, Sanchez had bounced around, too, until she wound up in "one of those continuation schools -- you know, [where] you can do what you want, they just give you a packet and send you in a corner."

"It was pretty lame," she said. So she quit.

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Valuable piece of paper

What brought both of them back was the Conservation Corps and Muir -- and the maturity to see that they were going nowhere without a high school diploma.

"Turns out," Gowan said, "that piece of paper will get you places."

John Muir was chartered in 1998, primarily to provide education to participants in the Conservation Corps. The corps had been established more than 20 years earlier by then-Gov. Jerry Brown to turn around wayward youth through projects that would benefit the state's environment. About half its members are high school dropouts.

Muir now serves about 1,200 students at 43 sites around the state. Most of its programs are associated with the California Conservation Corps, but Muir also works with local conservation corps in Los Angeles and Sacramento, as well as with some other community service programs.

Corps members, who can be 18 to 25, are paid for their work and encouraged to complete school. If they finish a one-year commitment, they can be eligible for scholarships to further their education, either in vocational school or college.

By some measures, Muir sounds like a losing proposition, a school whose own dropout rate actually exceeds its enrollment (a bit of statistical gymnastics made possible by the way the state calculates the rate). When, earlier this year, the California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara released a ranking of all of the state's schools by the number of dropouts, Muir was perched on top.

As is so often the case in education, the numbers don't really tell the story.

On average, students have dropped out of school 2 1/2 times before they enroll at Muir. And once there, many drop out again.

Dean Ravencroft, 21, joined the corps last September and began attending Muir. That ended in February, when he was kicked out of the corps -- and Muir -- for poor attendance. He was allowed back in July, just in time to join hundreds of corps members who were providing support services to firefighters battling the wildfires raging throughout Northern California.

That meant that Ravencroft had contributed to Muir's dropout rate, even though he was back in school and determined to stick it out. "I feel I've matured," he said, taking a break from his grueling work at a fire base camp in Anderson, just south of Redding. "I have a better head on my shoulders."

Ravencroft grew up in a foster home in Yreka and didn't have much use for school. He had a particularly hard time with math, especially algebra. But his teacher at Muir worked closely with him and taught him "little shortcuts that most teachers would never teach you," he said. Algebra began to make sense.

Still, he said, Muir isn't for everybody. "It works for people who have the will," he said. "You can't just sit there and expect your schoolwork to get done. You've got to move your pencil."

Or, as Elijah Oliver put it: "In order to be in this program, you've got to show up. If you don't show up, you'll be gone. I've seen lots of people go."

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