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Secure in their studies

An anti-violence effort at Markham Middle has opened a new chapter for the Watts school's students.

February 11, 2008|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

Salvaging this student would be a challenge, but at least his mother is an ally.

In contrast, some families have multi-generational gang ties. Officers have had to break up fights on school grounds between parents called in because their children were battling.

To break down territorialism, sports teams for the in-school activities are chosen by homeroom, forcing students from rival housing projects together as teammates.

McGinnis also organized a one-week day camp last year that included sessions at the Museum of Tolerance and a trust-building "adventure" in Culver City, in which students had to bridge racial divides to complete obstacle-course challenges.

Terrell Singleton, 13, said he feels safer.

"It's cool to have more support in school," he said. "We have more people coming to help."

He was thrilled to try on the new sneakers, distributed last month.

"You have dirty shoes and people will joke on you," Terrell said. "And now they can't joke on your shoes because they're new, and they got them on too."

McGinnis arranged for each student to get two free uniforms, and Stroud summoned the parents of those who didn't wear them. Some families resisted, saying it was hard to keep uniforms clean. That's what prompted McGinnis to bring in the washer and dryer.

"Michelle gets things done -- whether she has to use a boot or finesse," said school police Officer Carl Loos.

These days, Loos' modest, refurbished office features new windows and paint, a new computer, desks and refrigerator. It's become a magnet, he said, for officers looking for a place to write a report or for respite -- although Los Angeles police officials have committed to extra patrols, particularly in light of recent gang shootings in the area.

The sprucing up has extended to computer labs for students and to two teacher lounges.

"If you don't feed the teachers, they eat the students," McGinnis said matter-of-factly. In the lounges, she also hung a poster of faculty members who had accompanied her on a tour of the housing projects to get to know school families.

The mission resonates for McGinnis, an L.A. native. Her mother, Maxene McGinnis, ran the Jacqueline Home for Girls, raising 210 wayward youths in trouble for using drugs or committing crimes.

"They came to her as neglected, mistreated children," McGinnis said. "She looked at them through the lens of whom they had the potential to be." Maxene McGinnis died in November at 81.

The Markham experience also takes Michelle McGinnis, 37, full circle to three years as a long-term substitute teacher paying her way through law school at the University of West Los Angeles after graduating from UCLA with a degree in political science.

She was prosecuting drunk drivers and vehicular manslaughter cases when headquarters unexpectedly summoned her because of her background and teaching credential.

"This effort for me brings together two careers," McGinnis said.

Like her mother, she said, she has difficulty giving up on a child. Perhaps half the troubled youth targeted are now on a better track, according to staff estimates. About 25 others departed Markham unchanged -- they graduated or disappeared or were transferred or arrested.

One troubled, insecure and sometimes belligerent special education student left campus early last year after being arrested, suspected of being the triggerman in a fatal drive-by shooting off campus.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Arline, a studious 13-year-old, said he isn't ready to let his guard down.

"I think someone's going to come from behind and hit me," he said.

"That's why I turn around every 30 seconds."

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