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A last-chance school leaves South L.A.

Edged out by a new campus, Johnson must move to Hollywood.

September 29, 2008|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

For years, Johnson Community Day School has been the second, third or last chance for students kicked out of other middle and high schools. And many have thrived in a setting with small classes, counseling and close supervision to overcome truancy, drug use or brushes with the law.

But now Johnson itself is being booted.

Next month, the school must vacate its longtime South Los Angeles campus, pushing students already on the edge of failure into a cross-town commute.

To make room for a new Los Angeles Unified School District high school, Johnson is being moved to Hollywood.

Officials settled this month on the Hollywood site after faculty, parents and community members at two middle schools organized against hosting Johnson on their campuses. Johnson's staff members fear they'll lose students in the move. The nearest, most similar alternative for some of its students is Cooper Community Day School in San Pedro.

"These students have a lot of hoops to get through to get to school every day," said Shannon Nemzer, who runs a county-funded life skills class at Johnson for students in danger of dropping out. "This is one more hoop."

Offering grades seven through 12, Johnson is similar in operation to a regular school, but with classes of three to 17 students. Johnson will accept disabled students and those with minimal academic skills. Some attempt to return as soon as possible to a regular campus; others stay at Johnson.

For student body President Charlie Torres, 17, this is round two at Johnson. At various times, he attended Fremont, Locke, Dorsey and Soledad Enrichment Action Charter. Some moves were a result of changes in his foster care placements. He missed a month of school during one such period.

Over time, he began to hang out with friends who skipped class. And Fremont expelled him for carrying a pocketknife.

Separated from distracting influences, he took to Johnson immediately. One day, however, he arrived at school high on marijuana, and Principal Victorio Gutierrez required him to leave because, at the time, the school lacked access to a drug-abuse treatment program. It was a difficult moment, because Gutierrez was certain Charlie was responding to severe stresses at home.

The next school didn't click for Charlie and he stopped going, missing most of last year.

"I pretty much did give up," Charlie said. "I felt I would never catch up. I didn't think going back to Johnson was an option."

The Johnson staff tracked him down when they saw his name on a dropout list. He reenrolled at the start of summer. Since then, he's raced through his backlog of missing credits, officially becoming a senior this fall.

Named after pioneering Los Angeles administrator Dorothy Vena Johnson, the school sits in a mixed residential and industrial area east of the Harbor Freeway. The campus consists of a dozen or so portable buildings -- slate gray with blue trim -- slapped down on asphalt, entirely surrounded by an 8-foot fence, looking like a low-security prison.

But the grounds are clean, calm and secure. Last week, music wafted from a cooking class where students were making flan. The student who stayed after class to clean up -- without being asked -- was just out of juvenile hall.

The lunch shelter was spotless, graffiti-free. And during a break, the modest asphalt playground provided two full basketball courts, a mini-track, a wall for handball and three tetherball poles.

At Johnson, various support services, such as counseling, are more readily available for the 100 students. The school's 21 staff members include an assistant principal, a school police officer and 11 teachers. One goal is to have on hand as many adults as possible.

"Some students come from homes where the parents are working from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.," said math teacher David Esparza. "Their priority is to put a roof over their heads and food on the table. And a lot of students come from homes that are broken, completely."

Because the new South Los Angeles high school will include the old Johnson site, the district will save money and not have to demolish more than 100 residences, said Tom Calhoun, a development manager for the school district. And the new school, to serve 2,000 students, will relieve overcrowding elsewhere.

Still, Johnson's eviction is an unwelcome rerun of the early 1990s, when its previous campus became the site of a new elementary school. Johnson's staff gradually made a home out of its subsequent location, planting 16 trees that are beginning to offer patches of shade.

For the current move, the district first proposed class space at Markham Middle School in Watts. But that school community, still reeling from the arrest of an assistant principal on molestation charges, resisted with the help of the city attorney's office.

The next proposed site was Audubon Middle School in Leimert Park. But earlier this month leaders from that community spoke out in opposition at a school board meeting. They did not want troubled high schoolers near younger students.

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