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Los Angeles County has one of the highest dropout rates in the country—more than 20 percent of students leave school before graduating. But not everyone who is at risk ends up dropping out. One option for those students is a continuation school, where students go if they are short a lot of credits, they’ve been kicked out of school for disciplinary reasons or had very poor attendance. (Teen parents also can attend continuation schools.) We went to Cesar Chavez Continuation High School in Compton and talked to three students who had just graduated and one current student. They said smaller class sizes, more individual attention and teachers who care kept them on a path to graduate.

L.A. Youth: Why did you come here and what were your expectations?
Bianca Rodriguez, 17, formerly of Compton HS:
I came here because I got pregnant. I expected it to be better than a regular school because there was a teen mothers school [on the campus also]—so I expected them to give me leniency about coming to school and how I have to get my work done.

Riyanna Iverson, 17, formerly of Compton HS: I got here because I didn’t go to class [for long periods of ninth, 10th and 11th grades]. I came [here] second semester of 11th grade. I heard bad stuff about the school—all the students banged and the teachers weren’t good and you could just do whatever you want. But [Bianca] was here before I was. She was telling me that the school wasn’t like that so I had high expectations when I came here.

Patricia Chavarria, 18, formerly of Compton HS:
I came here because I used to ditch a lot. My cousin went here and he told me that it was a bad school—there was a lot of tagging and things like that. When I got here it was different. The teachers actually do care.

Shabrika Flemister, 19: My lack of commitment to my education.

L.A. Youth: Why do you think you struggled at your former schools?
Riyanna: Everyone had a clique. You had to be this way you, had to be that way. Seeing as how I’m anti-social … being around all the kids there just made me not want to be there at all, including being around the teachers.

L.A. Youth: How has it been better here than at Compton?
Bianca: Here if I tell some of my teachers that I have to take my daughter to an appointment, they’ll give me the work and be like “OK, just turn it in when you come back.” The classes are shorter (they’re only 45 minutes), so I can come to school, then go home, go to work, then pick up my daughter and actually spend time with her. I like the teachers here. I like how the school is small.

From left: Shabrika Flemister, Bianca Rodriguez (holding her daughter), Riyanna Iverson, Patricia Chavarria and Elena Cortez.

Photo by Jasper Nahid, 15, New Roads School

L.A. Youth: Did you feel like you got a lot of individual attention at Compton?
Riyanna: [There was] only one teacher that I talked to at my old school. Here I have a relationship with all of my teachers. And I talk to them on a personal level. If it wasn’t for Mr. Sinclair I would have not passed the CAHSEE (the California high school exit exam, which all students must pass to graduate). I love Mr. Sinclair; he’s my favorite math teacher. And I hate math, so that’s saying something.

L.A. Youth: How have the teachers been able to get through to you?
Riyanna: Mr. Castro—awesome teacher. He was my first period. I wanted to be at school early so me and him would have conversations about what was going on in America and about music. Chavez was the best thing that ever happened to me. I don’t think I would have been able to graduate if I would have stayed at Compton. The [teachers here] put so much faith in you. So you want to prove them right and let them know that it wasn’t wrong for them to believe in you.

Patricia: They really help you a lot and they’re really encouraging to go to college and to stay ahead.

Shabrika: I haven’t really gotten to know a lot of teachers on a personal level. There were two teachers I’ve had very interesting conversations with … there’s always somebody who thinks differently than you. I like to sit and listen to know where they’ve been and what they know about college and college life. And I like just to conversate with them about … what’s going on in the world, the news, music.

L.A. Youth: How has Chavez been more than what you expected?
Bianca: Coming here, I thought I wasn’t going to graduate on time. But the teachers made me want to come to school. I didn’t want to go to college, because I didn’t like school. Now I want to go to college. I want to better myself and do better for my daughter.

L.A. Youth: Why do you think kids drop out?
Riyanna: For me there were a lot of people telling me that I wasn’t going to graduate. And because of them telling me that, it just made me not want to do [well in school], because they were telling me I couldn’t.

Bianca: My brother dropped out. He was like, “Why should I go to school when I can hang out with friends?”

Patricia: They don’t believe in themselves.

Shabrika: I think a lot of people drop out of school because of peer pressure, drugs … and their home lives are very unstable.

L.A. Youth: What would improve the experiences for students here?
Riyanna: We need music programs and sports. A lot of the kids wanted that, me in particular with music. I play the guitar and I would have liked to bring my guitar and go to a music class. And a lot of boys play basketball and there was no place to play basketball.

Bianca: I think they should have child care on campus. I recently got cut off of child care and it was hard for me to come to school. Also, music programs. I like to play piano.

Patricia: They could have art. It’s a way to express yourself. I like drawing and painting.

Dr. Sophia Theoharopoulos, principal: It’s amazing how we’re all on the same track. We’re getting an outside agency to work with us to have a childcare program back on campus. Cesar Chavez will be getting $200,000 a year for the next five years and with that … we will be able to offer things like art, possibly music, possibly sports.

L.A. Youth: What are your plans after graduation? And has being at Cesar Chavez changed those plans?
Cesar Chavez hasn’t really changed my plans. It made me want to do them more. My plan is I am going to attend Cerritos College and then transfer over to Cal State Fullerton or UC Irvine and I’m going to study criminal justice and psychology.

Bianca: Chavez has changed me. I didn’t want to go to school and now I’m going to college. I’m going to Cerritos and then I’m transferring to UC Irvine and I really don’t know what I want to do but I’m going to do something in psychology and dealing with children.

Patricia: I’m thinking after next year I’ll go to Compton College and transfer to UCLA.

Shabrika: I would like to go to the military academy—either the Army or the Air Force. If I was to study something I would do anything from psychology to being a personal trainer or criminal justice. Those are my passions. Coming here helped shape those things.

Elena Cortez, 18, formerly of Dominguez HS (who showed up toward the end of the discussion): I think the school pretty much has done everything for me. Right now I want to cry because it’s my last day here. I didn’t picture myself [continuing] school after I was done here. But right now I want to major as a computer engineer. This was the perfect school for me. I don’t like a school where there’s too many people, because I wouldn’t have that much attention. When you have a class that has 30 people in there the teacher is not going to put that much attention on you, even if you need help. It helped me a lot coming to this school.
    When I came here they were like, if you do this and do that you’ll have plenty of time to get your credits. But you’re going to gain something more … that’s knowledge. You’re not just going to come here to get your credits. You’re going to come here and learn something.

L.A. Youth: What message do you have?
Shabrika: Since I’ve been here I had to take 10 classes a day from 7:30 to 4:15. Then after school I have to go clean, look for a job, shop for groceries. I just want to encourage anybody that they can do it, if you got the heart and you got the strength.

Patricia: Students shouldn’t give up. They should try to find help and people to encourage them.

Riyanna: Just because you have to go to continuation school doesn’t mean you won’t make it to a university. You could be the next Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

If I made it, anybody could make it. It means always pushing yourself to the hardest you can and always be pursuing your stuff. You will get there. It’s as simple as that. Everything is possible if you really want it to be.