Avalon Students Celebrate Hard-Won Graduation

Public school districts across the state are struggling to lower high school drop out rates. Administrators at one school in the L.A. Harbor area say their campus should serve as a model. Teachers say it's a place where students make the best of their second chances. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: The midday blacktop at Avalon High School sizzled yesterday. Students, parents and teachers put up with the heat to celebrate the graduates' accomplishments.

Graduation Announcer: Our next graduate is LeKrystle Cardenas.

Guzman-Lopez: Cardenas was one of four graduates in crimson caps and gowns. This Avalon High class doubled the school's success. Two students graduated last year.

Avalon is a continuation high school. Before they arrived here, each one of the 100 students enrolled was on the verge of dropping out. LeKrystle Cardenas said she began falling behind in 9th grade. Her story is typical.

LeKrystle Cardenas: I have a problem with consistency, with being persistent, I wasn't going to class, I would go to class when I wanted to, I would do the work, was able to do the work, but the next day I wouldn't come.

Guzman-Lopez: Cardenas skipped classes. Sometimes she'd wander the corridors at her old schools. Other times she'd go off campus without permission and get drunk with friends. Two years ago she was supposed to graduate, she realized she wasn't going to on time. That's when she says her mother kicked her out of the house.

Cardenas takes responsibility for her actions. But she says the adults at Compton and Carson High did little to help.

Cardenas: They'll see that you're doing something to hurt yourself and they won't help you and cut it off then, they'll just let it go on, like my mom did, she sees that I'm having problems and instead of her taking me in and opening her arms to me, you know, talking to me, she just said, well you're going to learn, you're going to learn the hard way.

Guzman-Lopez: Avalon High Principal Regina Awtry says her school's mission is the same as that of every other campus.

Regina Awtry: We are trying to give the kids an opportunity to be productive young adults, to have the skills to be life-long learners, we want them to be good citizens, we want them to have good communications skills and we want them to have some direction in their future.

Guzman-Lopez: Awtry says her school's smaller classes allow the one-on-one time teachers need to make sure students are learning, and to help guide kids when they're not.

Awtry: Every time they start to fall down, we help pick them up, we help them, either a pat on the back, or you know, I don't want to say, a bump on the rump, but we give them what they need to keep focused.

Guzman-Lopez: Every Avalon student starts the day in a so-called advisory period. During that hour teachers counsel students about careers, review study skills and explain why it's important to maintain respect and trust on and off campus.

Graduate LeKrystle Cardenas plans to open her own business, maybe as a realtor or a beautician. Down the line she also wants to open a teen center, to offer young people the straight talk she believes help her finish high school.

Cardenas: I feel like if they see a person that came from the ghetto that, I dropped out of school, I came back, I want to be the type of person that someone can say, yes she went through hard times but she prevailed, she came up out of it.

Guzman-Lopez: The school invited Tracy Branch to address the four graduates. She was an employee of a Wilmington refinery that donates money to the school.

Tracy Branch: Build on your past, always look forward and believe in yourself. See it. Plan it. Do it. Congratulations Avalon High School, class of 2007. Your blessings await you.

Guzman-Lopez: Avalon High School survives on a $30,000 yearly operating budget. It's a minuscule amount, says Avalon's principal, but it keeps the school running. Right now, this campus is the only hope for dozens of students struggling to make it.