LA Unified school for drop outs serves the most needy, but is threatened by cuts

City of Angels High School teacher Jeff Pott.
City of Angels High School teacher Jeff Pott.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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Among the many funding cuts approved recently by L.A. Unified, there’s an item that slashes some of the money for special campuses that serve students who are at risk — kids on the verge of dropping out and some who already have. Students and teachers alike praise these schools.

City of Angels High School enrolls 2,400 students, not at one large campus but in a constellation of 22 sites across the school district.

"We’re in the MacArthur Park neighborhood, not too far from the Pico Union and this is a leased site," says teacher Jeff Pott as he opens the door at the end of a long hallway in an office building just west of downtown Los Angeles. It looks like a clean office with bookshelves packed with novels and encyclopedias, and a bullpen area with half a dozen new Apple desktop computers. On this day there are about 10 students at any one time, several at a time come and go. Each has a unique path that’s led to this school.

"I wasn’t doing well with other students," student Taylor Papalagi said, "because I was always distracted by them instead of doing my own work. Instead of doing my homework I was off at the park or something graffitiying."

Yanil Mejia’s sister enrolled in independent study, "and then I saw how she would work at home and I just decided also enroll and work independently. It actually helped because a little after I enrolled, my father got imprisioned, he went to prison, and I actually didn’t want to be around people, I just wanted to be at home and Mr. Pott actually helped me because I kind of fell into this depression and I really didn’t want to go to school anymore."

"Once I got into 10th grade I decided that public school was not for me so dropped out," Luis Bonilla said about Canoga Park High School. He said indifferent teachers and “thug” students pushed him out.

"I didn’t feel comfortable at all plus I lost most of my friends, they moved on to a different school so I felt kind of alone," Bonilla said.

The goal for each one is to earn a high school diploma that’ll lead to college or career training.

"We get kids who are, have problems at regular campuses because of their poverty in their family, lack of parental support, lack of language skills. We get kids who are bullied. We get a fair number of gay and lesbian students who have been picked on at their local school, lots of teen parents come here because we can be flexible with our timing which allows kids to take care of their parental responsibilities," Pott said.

This is how City of Angels High School works: Students take three classes at a time and get assigned 20 to 30 hours of homework each week. They work at their own pace but have to meet a teacher once a week to show they’ve done the work.

That’s what’s happening in teacher Brent Russell’s office with student Taylor Papalagi as he uses a red dry erase marker to write out an algebra lesson.

"There was never that tough love that I needed and I got it here, City of Angels," Bonilla said about the rigor of teachers here compared to those at his previous, large, crowded campus.

Teacher Jeff Pott says some students can’t handle the independence of City of Angels High School and drop out. However, those who stick with it succeed.

"The work is rigorous, it’s complex and they’re doing a lot of it on their own, since its independent study but they have the benefit of having personal interaction with their teachers so any difficulty they can work with their teacher one on one," Pott said.

This is worth repeating. Pott says students here succeed because of the individualized attention from teachers. Under current L.A. Unified budget cuts City of Angels High School would have to cut enrollment by 400 students and would lose 15 teachers.

Student Yanil Mejia has a message for the district: "That they should also invest in this and they shouldn’t be cutting off budgets and a lot of kids benefit from this, they get the opportunity to succeed in life, they’re not just completely shut out," she said.

L.A. Unified administrators argue they’ve cut to the bone and carry out these reductions reluctantly.