Heven Ambaye, 14, is guided by her teacher Sarah Bishop in yoga class at the… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
What impressed Joel Argueta first about Harvard-Westlake School was his locker -- a wide, ample affair that holds his backpack and all of his books. There's also a student lounge with comfortable couches, where he does homework and meets with new friends. "Overall," he said, "it is spectacular."
Heven Ambaye admits to being a bit overwhelmed with homework at Brentwood School. She is often up until 11 p.m. reading and studying for the next day's quizzes after taking two bus rides to get home. Still, she wants to join the soccer team, maybe lacrosse too, and already has joined a school book club.
Francisco Sanchez was unsure of himself when he entered Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences last month, afraid he wouldn't be able to adjust. But the school's Santa Monica complex of old and new buildings -- it is bisected by an alley -- is like a little community, and already it feels like a second home.
Even for the best of students, the transition from middle school to high school can be trying. But Joel, Heven and Francisco are embarked on a bigger challenge. Children of low-income, immigrant families, they entered three of Los Angeles' most prestigious private campuses this fall on full scholarships. Many of their classmates went to top-rated public schools or private middle schools with vastly more resources than the one they attended, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School, a struggling Los Angeles Unified School District campus in Mid-City.
A team of Cochran teachers led by first-year instructor Sara Hernandez decided these three had a shot at making it at private schools, where they would receive a more rigorous college-prep experience.
The teachers worked after-school hours, weekends and summer vacations mentoring them, helping navigate school choices, filling out applications and studying for the crucial Independent School Entrance Examination, which is required by most private schools.
The teachers connected the trio with the Independent School Alliance for Minority Affairs, a nonprofit placement and support group that offered summer math and English classes mimicking the pace and homework demands of their new schools.
There they met counselors such as Christopher Price, 19, a former Alliance participant and a 2007 graduate of Windward School, who could address sensitive cultural challenges, like the classmates who receive cars for their birthdays and spend vacations in Europe.
Price, from Gardena, said that at Windward, on the Westside, he initially judged students who seemed to flaunt their wealth and possessions as shallow, but found "you can have very much or very little -- money does not make the person."
"It wasn't so much the environment but how I handled it," said Price, now an animation major at Cal State Fullerton. "I try to tell students they are in the top tier of people in the U.S. and the world to receive an education like this, and they need to take every advantage," Price said.
Several Cochran teachers and community members started their own nonprofit group to raise money for textbooks, school supplies, field trips, lunch money and other expenses that the students' families can't fully cover. They are also advising a new group of students.
Cochran Principal Scott Schmerelson said he supports the teachers' efforts, despite what some might see as skimming the best students from public schools. "The LAUSD has great magnet high schools these kids can go to if they wish, and if their parents wish to send them to private schools it's OK with me too," he said. "It's a wonderful opportunity to go off to a prestigious school and to a wonderful college."
At 6:20 a.m., Joel is standing at a corner near his Crenshaw-area home taking a dry run on an MTA bus to Hancock Park, the closest pickup spot for Harvard-Westlake's shuttle, which will get him to the campus in Holmby Hills in time for his 8 a.m. class. By the end of classes at 3:15 p.m. and his reverse journey, he will have spent nearly 11 hours in school and getting there and back home.
On a bus packed mostly with poor workers, Joel, 14, said he has dreams of becoming an engineer, possibly one day working at NASA. He loves math and science, and in the fifth and sixth grades got perfect scores in math on the California standards test.
He has never been out of California, but Harvard-Westlake opens a world of possibilities. His mother, Delia, and father, Francisco, a construction worker, say they're ready to work extra hours to pay for his class trips and other activities. Joel is determined to succeed, even if it takes getting only an hour's sleep some nights to finish his homework.
"I'm well organized, and that's going to be really helpful doing homework on time and keeping on schedule," he said, listing what he sees as his strengths.
He recognizes the opportunity he's being given and is already thinking of what the future might hold. He said he wants to get a good job so he can buy a house for his parents and "help them like they've helped me."