Early last year, Jonathan Mayorga threw a punch that changed the course of his life. It happened during soccer practice at his charter school, Bright Star.
Mayorga, 14, said he stopped to get a drink of water when a student gave him a shove and tried to hit him. As it had many times before, rage flowed through him — Mayorga is no stranger to schoolyard fights — and he swung a fist.
"He went to the floor and I remember he got up, he was crying, he was bleeding," Mayorga said. "He was just like pure blood."
After the punch, he said, came handcuffs and a trip to the police station. The next day when he tried to go back to school, the principal told him he was kicked out.
Students like Mayorga — troubled youth who failed out or were kicked out of traditional schools — are funneled into "alternative" schools. In Los Angeles County alone there are more than 100. Some focus on job skills, some on dealing with teen pregnancy. Few focus on the arts.
Mayorga ended up at Hollywood Media Arts Academy. Many of the school's small student body of 50 students are teen parents, drug users or facing problems with the juvenile justice system.
This school is unique in how it tries to reach those kids: through the visual and performing arts.
"I found it to be better," said 11th grader Stephanie Delgado. She used to go to Fairfax high school and prefers the small class sizes at Hollywood Media Arts Academy. "It's easier, you know, when you need help you go to the teacher and they start explaining it to you and they put more dedication into helping you with what you need."
Students at the school spend 10 hours each week learning photography, video production, animation and other skills from teaching artists. Two weeks ago, teenagers were working in small groups on a silk screen poster project as a skateboarding video played on a laptop.
They learn their core subjects — math, science, English — from teachers employed by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which runs the school.
"I believe the arts boost their confidence," said social studies and English teacher Isabella Flores. "A lot of the kids here find some talent that they didn't know they had."
Mayorga is one of those students. He discovered he loves to draw and carries a thick, black sketchbook with him wherever he goes. Inside is page after page of intricate, expressive drawings — a frightened clown, an ink drawing of a young woman, a sketch in big block letters spelling out "hope."
"It has helped me actually a lot," he said. "You need to like have patience for drawing. It's just like you need to have patience for everything."
Since the school started three years ago, its retention rate is up by 40 percent and it now has a waiting list, said Cynthia Campoy Brophy, the founder and executive director of artworxLA, which runs arts programming at the school.
"This is a population of different thinkers," she said. "So teaching them in a very traditional, sit at your desk, read through this book is challenging, and to bring in an artist to ask them to think differently is effective."
Arts instruction at the school costs the Los Angeles County Office of Education $140,000 per year. ArtworxLA is also running smaller arts programs providing two hours of instruction per week at eight other schools run by the county office of education and about a dozen schools run by other districts.
For some students at Hollywood Arts, this is their last hope at a high school diploma. Many of the teenagers said the small school has helped them get back on track.
Mayorga said he came to the school with no hope of graduating high school. He has now gone more than a year without getting in a fight at school and has near perfect attendance.
But when he thinks about graduating, he's still not sure if he'll make it.
"I'm not that confident," he said. "But I'm pretty sure that I might."