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Cochran School grads making the most of private-school scholarships

Three students from less-privileged backgrounds overcome their fears, learn to fit in and soak up the academic opportunities at Los Angeles-area private schools.

June 19, 2009|Carla Rivera

Heven Ambaye remembers that moment of elation when the apprehension of being a ninth-grader at Brentwood School wore away, when she realized she had new friends to lean on, when the classes and teachers didn't intimidate her as much. It came at a volleyball game as she was cheering wildly for the home team and sharing the joy of school spirit.

"The kids are very athletic, and going to the games was so much fun -- and our team won," she said.

Heven is one of three students who landed at three top private campuses on full scholarships last fall after graduating from the Los Angeles Unified School District's Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School. Children of low-income, immigrant families, they have high aspirations and plenty of determination. By all accounts, the transition has been remarkably smooth.

They've made friends, joined clubs, earned good grades. Perhaps most important, they've found that the gulf they thought might divide them from their classmates, didn't.

Francisco Sanchez, 16, had seen enough television shows about the lives of entitled rich kids to be a bit anxious about his first year at Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences. He was relieved when several ninth-graders introduced themselves before the freshman retreat, and they all became friends.

"About halfway through the year I realized I'm at this private school, surrounded by rich kids, and I realized I didn't notice it," he said. "They don't really care about that. Everyone's encouraged to interact."

The students are not exactly sheltered, but they benefit from the ability of private schools to support the needs of individual students. Private campuses are usually smaller than public schools and have a structure including counselors, deans and human development offices, to guard against students getting lost.

At Westlake, two academic deans kept a close eye on the 293 ninth-graders.

They didn't need to worry about Joel Argueta, 15, who said one of the highlights of his first year there was the thrill of dissecting a fetal pig in a biology lab. He ended his school year with a GPA of 3.8.

"He has a quiet determination to take advantage of everything we have to offer," ninth-grade Dean Karen Wareham said. "He's been hugely successful and was near the top of his class all four quarters."

Joel said he was surprised that he didn't have to spend every waking hour studying.

"I was scared during midterms because I thought it was going to be so hard, but it wasn't," he said. "I had free periods at school, so I never had to bring home extra homework. That really helped. The dean was there to support students, and the teachers were always there to help me."

His biggest challenge was to do better in the one class he most disliked: English. Still, he learned the word "laconic" during the year and vowed to be less so himself. His father, Francisco , said he was amazed at Joel's dedication to succeeding in school, especially as the family has gone through a tough time with the souring economy.

Joel's mother Delia could not help but relate a story about another parent at an orientation for incoming sophomores.

"She said, 'My son is smart, but not like yours.' "

Heven's advisor at Brentwood said the student has adjusted well.

"One of the hardest things for students like Heven is that they can be at the top of their class at their old school and often they can be a little shell-shocked when they come to Brentwood," said Priya Nambiar, the associate director of admissions.

"But there was something really special about Heven right from the start, and she really had the drive."

Heven's ebullient personality rarely faltered, but when she was down, she called on her best friend, Shea Robinson, 15, who also came from a public school.

"We're public kids and don't have that entitlement thing going," said Shea, who stopped to chat with Heven after final exams. "Heven is someone you can trust with anything."

Heven came to this country from Ethiopia knowing little English and got extra help from her English teacher after school. She was thrilled with her physics class, which provided some memorable experiences, including a field trip to Knott's Berry Farm, where students used trigonometry to measure the heights and angles of the roller coasters.

"I really grew up in the last year, and I think I'm a stronger person," said Heven. "I learned that I can handle the pressure of a lot of work and manage stress and my time and still have fun. But I'm hoping it will be easier next year and that I can be better at some of the things that I was lacking."

Adam Behrman, director of human development at Crossroads and Francisco's counselor, said the life skills program that meets weekly helps students connect with one another and explore their own identities.

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