Perla Guzman didn't want to go to Locke High School after her older brother was beaten up on the way to his fifth period algebra class. She was even more doubtful her freshman year when she discovered a girl passed out in a bathroom stall who had tried to get high by inhaling air freshener.
"But then I thought, 'If my brother can go through this, then I can go through it,' " she said. "I can do what he did."
In some ways, Guzman may have done even more. Her brother Orlando graduated from Locke two years ago and earned a scholarship to Cal State Long Beach. Guzman graduated Thursday as Locke's valedictorian with a 4.38 grade point average. She plans to enroll at UCLA this fall.
Every campus has high achievers, but Guzman's accomplishments stand out partly because of Locke's tumultuous year. The school has long been plagued by fights and low academic achievement.
A majority of faculty members signed a petition last year asking that the school be turned over to a charter school company -- a move the Board of Education later approved.
This year, under a caretaker administration, the school suffered from increased ethnic tensions and vandalism. Last month, nearly 600 students, most of them bystanders, were involved in a melee that had to be broken up by police.
At Thursday's ceremony on the school's football field, where an ice cream truck's bells mingled with chatter from the bleachers, several speakers noted that it was Locke's last graduation as a Los Angeles Unified School District campus.
"It's very symbolic," said Cynthia Kimble Williams, a Locke career counselor and one of the sponsors of the graduating class.
The commencement ceremony also fulfilled a promise Guzman made to her mother almost six years ago at Orlando's middle school graduation. The girl couldn't see her brother in the crowd; the only student she could make out was the one sitting on stage who later gave a speech.
"Why does she get to talk?" Guzman recalled asking her mother, who replied that the girl was the valedictorian.
"When I graduate, I bet you I'll be the valedictorian," Guzman said. "I want you to see me."
Achieving her goal wasn't easy. Although she said media reports of violence at Locke were exaggerated -- "Not everyone in there is gang banging" -- she said it was sometimes difficult to resist temptation.
"A lot of people would come up and say 'C'mon, let's go, let's go. Let's ditch,' " she said.
On a typical day at Locke, district officials say, nearly 20% of students don't show up. Of the nearly 1,100 who began their freshman year with Guzman, only about 380 received diplomas Thursday.
But Guzman surrounded herself with other determined students, said Fernando Avila, her calculus teacher.
"If a student really wants to, they can find a support group," he said. "Perla surrounded herself with positive, hard-working students."
In addition to UCLA, Guzman was accepted by UC San Diego and UC Irvine. She also was admitted to UC Berkeley -- her first choice -- but her parents wanted her to stay closer to home. Although Guzman admits to being a bit of a rebel -- she wears a discreet nose ring that her father doesn't approve of -- she acquiesced and accepted a spot at UCLA.
Guzman said she felt guilty about turning down her offer from UC Berkeley because a friend who desperately wanted to go there was not admitted. "I felt like I took her spot," she said.
Guzman said she enjoyed her experience at Locke but thought the school would benefit by becoming a charter. Green Dot Public Schools will take over, starting next month.
In many of her classes, the young woman said, there weren't enough books or seats for the students; her Advanced Placement English teacher had to buy novels for the class to read.
"You look at other schools and see what they have, and you think that they're treated differently than we are," Guzman said.
Wiping away tears at one point during the ceremony, Guzman was dry-eyed when she addressed her classmates.
"No matter where you are going or where you end up, keep a positive attitude; don't ever stop reaching for your goals, and have fun along the way," she told them.
"Congratulations, Saints. We did it!"