In less than two years the Learning Works charter school in Pasadena has helped many chronic dropouts and minors on probation to finish their studies and earn high school diplomas.
Critics of crowded, impersonal public high schools often talk about the way they “warehouse” students. Dominic Correy, an academic coach at Learning Works, applies that term in the literal sense. "Where we are right now is what we call 'the warehouse.' This is pretty much the classroom base. This is a school for independent study. Students come in as they want to. We try to keep it like a small learning community. We try to keep it real small, real tight family here."
School founder Mikala Rahn said it’s a family whose members have been knocked around in life – and have made poor choices. The student body includes teenagers who’ve served time in juvenile hall for serious crimes, others who’ve sunk into heavy drug use, and female students who’ve dropped out of school after they got pregnant.
"The number one binding force though of dropouts is poverty," said Rahn. "We really see ourselves as a laboratory of poverty because every student that I look at is really living some condition of that. They’ve been living independently for years. Whether it’s that the parents don’t exist or in essence the parent lost control years ago."
Rahn, a PhD in education policy who runs a school district consulting firm, worked for Pasadena Unified in a dropout re-enrollment effort. She said it became too hard to tailor district practices to fit dropouts' needs, so she set out to create an independent school that would.
In the main room, math tutor Ruth Richardson helped 16-year-old Michael with a math lesson. He's more focused on finishing it than reflecting on its difficulty. They sat under a multi-colored graffiti mural at one of eight desks where tutors and instructors help a couple of students at time.
Students are required to come to campus at least one hour a week and attend a weekly field trip. They must turn in assignments, whether they work on them at school or at home. The 300-student school graduated 42 students last year.
That’s a big achievement given each student’s academic history, said founder Mikala Rahn. "These are kids who wouldn’t be in school. They are not kids who would be in school at all. So for me the number one success factor is they’re showing, they’re here, we have kids who do work."
Students learn the rules on the first day: the school is a safe haven from gangs, everybody deserves and earns respect, and everyone is given a second, even a third chance. Rahn said its charter status has allowed administrators flexibility in hiring staff and creating curricula.
Engaging students is key, Rahn said. That wouldn’t be possible at Learning Works without the young staffers she’s hired as the academic coaches she calls chasers. The first year, she said, chasers drove around the streets of Pasadena to round up truants. Now they carry out two important tasks: as academic gofers, delivering and picking up homework and urging students to come to class.
Chaser Dominic Correy said the other main task has nothing to do with academics. "I take them to Planned Parenthood if they have any parental needs, any type of sexual education or anything like that. I’ve been to hospitals with them, I’ve been to psychiatric hospitals, mental health, trying to get that together. We try to eliminate all obstacles just for the student to get their high school diploma."
Twenty-four-year-old Correy commands respect among the gang members. He was a football standout at Pasadena High School. His double life as a gangbanger caught up to him after he got caught stealing cars. He said it took the birth of his daughter three years ago to straighten him out. Now he’s close to finishing his associate’s degree.
Nineteen-year-old Paris Holloway arrived at Learning Works after he spent time in juvenile hall for assault and battery and grand theft auto. After he finishes one more class and passes the high school exit exam he’ll have his diploma.
He attributed part of that success to Correy, who he calls by nickname. "Domino, he’s kind of like the dude who has, if you come here and have a rough lifestyle that will be someone you can talk to. Instead of talking to someone who really don’t know much of what’s going on in the streets. So you could talk to him, he can relate to what you have going on, you know what I’m saying, so it’s kind of like, he kind of plays stepdad."
Dominic Correy still puts in a lot of miles driving around Pasadena chasing dropouts. Come along on a ride along with Correy and another chaser in tomorrow's report.