Pasadena charter school employs 'chasers' to help dropouts graduate

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Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Learning Works! charter school employs "chasers" to round up students and help them finish their studies.

Teenagers drop out of school for many reasons – social, psychological, family stresses and academic challenges. Learning Works charter school in Pasadena employs more than half a dozen young people, some only a couple of years out of high school, to chase down dropouts, check on their performance and help them keep a lid on the drama in their lives.

Learning Works hired Dominic Correy and Carlos Cruz almost three years ago as academic coaches. They don’t just sit on the sidelines. On a recent morning the men climbed into Correy’s 2007 black Chevy Impala to start their chasing for the day. They’re both enrolled at Pasadena City College.

Cruz said they’d run into each other about six years ago at Pasadena High School."When I was in high school, my freshman year, Dominic was the man. I’m talking about the best football player on the team, he was in the newspaper every week for talent in football, and his fashion, with his cereal box backpack."

And, Correy said, he led a double life. "When I really started gang banging, and stealing cars, I used to steal a car and ditch school and come pick up my friends from every other school, and we’ll go hang out in L.A. all day and go to different schools out there."

Correy spent time in juvenile hall. The birth of his daughter three years ago convinced him to straighten out his life. Cruz said administrators at Pasadena High expelled him for chronic truancy. He was smoking a lot of pot at the time.

Both know how mean the streets of Pasadena can be. The city’s contradictions still puzzle Dominic Correy. "It’s crazy how you can have some of the richest companies and stuff like that in a city like Pasadena and have one of the biggest parades and still have a failing school system, still have poverty, and homeless youth and stuff like that. To me that doesn’t make no type of sense."

Their first stop was to drop off homework for an 18-year-old who’d ignored her studies the last several months. Correy talks to her in a comfortable street tone. "Hi Lawanda, how are you doing today? You got a job? When do you get your first check? You taking us out to eat?"

That tone turned to one that balanced coercion and compassion. "Don’t use work as an excuse on why you not going to come in and why you going to finish your work. You know I love you and we’ve been through everything 'Wana."

Chasing involves picking up and dropping off homework, and taking students to court dates and mental health appointments. The idea is to help students overcome the obstacles to finishing high school.

At their next stop, the chasers found evidence that some students have given up trying to jump those hurdles. The student hadn’t shown up to school in a month. Cruz said the boy’s father is in jail and his grandfather was recently diagnosed with cancer. Correy knocks on the door with authority. "Chris, I know you’re in there, man, open up."

When Cruz called the teenager on his cell phone, the student said he was in Altadena. Cruz didn't spare any time holding the teen to account for not showing up to school. "I’ve been stalking you for a whole month straight, never answer your phone. You said you were going to have some work done, then when I text you, you don’t answer. What’s up with you, man?"

He urged the student to think about his long-term future. "You gotta step it up Chris, you gotta step it up. I know you’re going through some stuff bro, but you can’t let stuff get between your education, bro. Just imagine, I already had this conversation with you. What happens if your grandparents go? And you don’t have the skills to take care of their properties? What’s going to happen then?"

Cruz said many of his conversations with dropouts are about how money isn’t the be-all, end-all.

Their next target, as Cruz says, is a “rollercoaster kid” – someone who does well in school for a couple of months, then gets in trouble. Just before Thanksgiving, Cruz said 18-year-old Jamie Lewis came to the Learning Works campus to turn in his homework. Cruz said he was arrested later that day. "So then he calls me, because he has my number, and his mom wasn’t answering the 1-800 number. He calls me, and says, 'Can you like tell my mom I’m locked up right now? I need somebody to help me.' And I’m like coaching him through, 'OK, this is what you do, you gotta request the OR number, which is opportunity release if it’s your first arrest as an adult.'"

Cruz said his intervention convinced Lewis that someone was there to help if he slipped. That kind of person has been absent from Lewis' life. Lewis speaks with conviction when asked about a high school diploma. "[Cruz is] teaching me how to finish school without dropping out. I haven’t been doing my work and I gotta get all my work because I have to graduate this year."

As Learning Works charter school is poised to grow in the next couple of years, it’s trained half a dozen others – including a young woman – as new chasers. Dominic Correy said the job has changed him and Carlos Cruz for the better in many ways. "As a matter of fact he’s actually more serious now, he does get kind of serious now. As everybody matures, you have to grow up. For example, when I first started working there, I was wearing 3X shirts and 38 jeans when I’m really only an extra large shirt and size 34 jeans."

Both said they have plans to pursue university studies after they earn their associates degrees. They don’t plan to stray far from their native Pasadena because they got a second chance here – and they want to help others make the most of their opportunities.

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