Daniel Bethencourt, a Palos Verdes High senior, provides tutoring help… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
Brandy Rice eyed the test question.
She thought of what her tutor directed her to do: Read the entire sentence. Read all the answers.
Instead of playing multiple-choice roulette with the answers as she had so many times before, she followed the directions.
Rice, 26, was one of 20 Compton Adult School students in a tutoring program for the California High School Exit Examination. The tutors weren't teachers, but teenagers from Palos Verdes High School.
The tutors carpooled from the green, laid-back beach community on a hill to Compton every Saturday for five weeks. Most had never before been to Compton and weren't used to getting up at 7 a.m. on a weekend.
But their students taught them a thing or two about hard work, commitment and life.
Senior Daniel Bethencourt, 18, who spearheaded the program, said tutoring adults broke down an assumption: It isn't easier to pass the exit exam when you're older.
"Your life accelerates once you get out of high school," said Bethencourt, who is headed to Yale University in the fall.
For the adults receiving tutoring, life has moved fast. Many have children and jobs. They are supporting family or taking care of ill relatives. But they all have the same regret: They didn't get a high school diploma.
Marlo Williams, a stand-up comedian who said she has worked with Martin Lawrence, stopped going to high school at 16. She would have graduated in 1986, well before the exit exam became mandatory. At 18, she started caring for relatives' five children. Williams said not finishing school is "something that will weigh on a person with a conscience."
She doesn't remember math being so complicated. "This math is totally different from the math when I was going to school," she said.
During one tutoring session, Williams sniffled and fought back tears as her tutor, John Powers, attempted to explain fractions.
She apologized for being absent-minded. She had two deaths in her family that week.
Powers, 18, tried to comfort her. If he had experienced the same thing, he said, he wouldn't have come to tutoring.
But Williams said: "I don't want to miss, because I know I need to do this."
Powers, who will be joining the Navy, said he would do whatever it took to help Williams pass the exam.
He said he had already seen some differences in the math portion. "She started realizing that it's a language and not some random numbers," he said.
Melinda Connor, the coordinator for the GED program at Compton Adult School, said students of all age ranges enroll to take care of what she calls "unfinished business."
The majority of those students will take the exam multiple times. Some miss the test by two points, some by 100. The exam, which became mandatory with the graduating class of 2006, is geared to eighth-grade level math and ninth- and 10th-grade level English.
At Compton Adult School, five out of 41 students last March passed the math portion and 12 of 24 passed the language arts portion.
At Palos Verdes High, nearly everyone passes.
Although Nick Stephany, assistant principal, calls the exit exam a "hurdle to get over," he said many students are more concerned about acing their Advanced Placement courses (the school offers 27 of them).
Tecia Barton, Bethencourt's teacher, said the Compton project was an eye-opener for many students. Barton said she believes that the education system has failed when young people commit a crime or don't finish high school. She said it might be idealistic, but she thinks that somewhere along the way, "someone has broken a spirit, called them stupid or just gave up on them."
Barton said another student will coordinate the program next year.
Rice said she had teachers who let her progress through school without mastering subjects such as math.
Through tutoring, Rice realized she had more to learn in the subject.
On Wednesday, she took the language arts portion of the exam. She said she was confident she passed. "Really, it's just common sense," she said. "If you sit down, open a book and read it, you should be fine."
A diploma, Rice said, might help her leave Compton, where helicopters flying above her home every night are a constant distraction. She had a troubled past and spent time in prison. She doesn't want to return to that life.
"It's harder to be in the world, but it's doable," she said.
Williams decided not to take the exam last week. She said she wants to work more with Powers on the math portion.
More than 20 students attended the first weekend of tutoring. By the fifth week, fewer than 10 were present. Ten students took the math or language arts tests last week.
Connor said that if a student doesn't take the test, it doesn't mean the program wasn't successful. It's still about learning.
Bethencourt said that although fewer and fewer students showed up each Saturday, it wasn't because they didn't care.
"These people are adults and they have other things to worry about," he said.
Bethencourt hoped he had helped Rice.
"In our last session," he said, "I don't think she was really guessing anymore."