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Two students, two schools -- and a world of difference 20 miles apart

Meet Kyle Gosselin and Henry Ramirez. Kyle attends La Cañada High; Henry was at South L.A.'s Jefferson High before moving to Texas. Their backgrounds may be worlds apart, but their dreams are similar.

June 22, 2009|Mitchell Landsberg

Henry Ramirez, meet Kyle Gosselin.

We thought you should be introduced, at least virtually, because you have some things in common. You're a couple of low-key, low-drama, low-maintenance 17-year-olds who have just navigated 11th grade at large public high schools. Both of you are planning to go to college. Both thinking about careers in medicine. Both willing to work hard (but not insanely hard). Both smart (but not gunning to be No. 1).

Yet how different two young lives can be.

In the 20 or so miles that separate Jefferson High School from La Canada High, in the miles between inner city and suburb, there exists a social chasm so deep as to seem unbridgeable. It is possible that, growing up in the same metropolitan area, you have never been in the same place at the same time.

Twenty miles, as we'll see, can be farther than 1,500.


La CaƱada High is about as good as public education gets in California. It is the reason why many people live in La Canada Flintridge, where tasteful, multimillion-dollar homes sprawl at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. College is a given for almost everyone. The dropout rate is close to zero. Students don't qualify for free lunches, but they can buy sushi. Built in the 1960s and oddly evocative of the television show "The Jetsons," the campus recalls a time when California schools didn't so much anticipate the future as embody it.

Jefferson, in hard-core South L.A. gang territory, is an improving school that nevertheless exemplifies all the challenges of urban education. It has an inspiring history, but its recent past has been troubled. Today it is a landing pad for the children of immigrants. Nearly half the students learn English as a second language. Free lunch is available to anyone willing to stand in line. About 800 freshmen arrive each year, most ill-prepared for high school. Four years later, about 200 pick up diplomas.


You began your junior years in September: Kyle at La Canada, Henry at Jefferson.

Conventional wisdom says 11th grade is the toughest, most stressful year of high school for college-bound students: the hump, the back stretch, when students load up on Advanced Placement classes and take a slew of tests -- including the SAT -- while juggling a full-tilt social schedule. If the pressure got to either of you, you hid it well.


Kyle is 6 feet 4 and possibly still growing. Lean, fit, a little bit shaggy, he looks primed for either of his extracurricular passions, baseball and rock 'n' roll. Exceedingly polite to adults, he comes across as a consummate nice guy.

He has attended La Canada schools since kindergarten. His family's home is modern and spacious, complete with pool and spa.

Kyle's parents, Janna and Craig, are lawyers who place paramount priority on the education of Kyle and his younger brother. Janna is a past president of the La Canada Education Foundation, which has raised as much as $1.3 million a year for local schools. Craig worked as in-house counsel for Vans Shoes but refused an offer to move to Northern California, in large measure because of La Canada's schools.

Henry might not stand out in a crowd. He's soft-spoken, average height, dresses modestly, doesn't cause trouble. But he has a killer smile and a quiet determination, and he can be a class leader. Girls seem drawn to him.

Born in L.A., Henry has spent his life on the move. Little hops, one neighborhood to the next. He attended four elementary schools, stayed in one middle school, then began Jefferson High -- only to be whisked off to Idaho and then a suburb of Houston for the first semester of 10th grade.

Upon returning to L.A., Henry, his parents, two younger brothers and a younger sister rented a single room in an apartment in Watts. As 11th grade began, Henry's mother, Irma, and stepfather, Raul Ramirez, worked at a convalescent hospital in La Habra. In Henry, they see hope for a success they were never able to achieve.

Irma, a high school graduate who had two years of college in El Salvador, never reached her goal of a nursing license. Raul, a native Californian, dropped out of Roosevelt High. Of Henry, he said: "He could be whatever he wants to be . . . We're pretty sure he's not interested in gangs or anything like that."


Superficially, your schools are more alike than different. Between classes, the hallways can seem crowded and chaotic, although you both navigate the maelstrom with calm assurance. Like most students, you eat lunch outdoors in the same spot every day, with the same friends. Your teachers are mostly seasoned and dedicated. By 11th grade, most students -- even at a school like Jefferson, which has been called a "dropout factory" -- are there to learn. Or at least to graduate.

Still, if you could trade places for a day, you'd also see vast differences.


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