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GETTING A FRESH START : TEENS CHANGE LIVES IN `LAST CHANCE' SCHOOL.

Byline: Laurence Darmiento Daily News Staff Writer

In a small, cramped room far in the rear of the Probation Department offices in Valencia, a 17-year-old girl is finding salvation from an academic career that had been marked with dismal failure.

By her own account, she was suspended 68 times from Saugus High School until administrators there simply had enough last year and wouldn't let her return.

``I got expelled for being suspended too many times. It was mostly for a lot of back-talk - talking back to teachers. They told me it was a record,'' the teen-ager said, with a slight ring of pride still in her voice. ``I had a lot of inside anger. I wasn't going to listen to anyone.''

Yet there she was, studiously reviewing a week of lessons assigned by teacher Therese Caler, lessons that required 30 solitary hours of paced hard work, as well as resistance to distractions of friends and MTV.

Since coming to a single-office school in April 1995, the teen-ager has managed to finish three semesters of high school and is nearing completion of a fourth. That will place her in 11th grade this month - at a pace that, if sustained, will let her graduate about the same time as her friends back at Saugus.

``Oh, she was something else when she first got here,'' said Caler, thinking back only 16 months. ``I couldn't tell her anything.''

Welcome to the Independent Study Program of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, an urban, modern version of the rural one-room schoolhouse.

Relying on a small cadre of teachers lodged in probation offices, community schools or wherever space is available, the county-operated program offers a final chance to students who do not fit in traditional schools.

Many have had more than just a brush with the law, are on probation or have just finished probation. If they don't get a diploma the Independent Study Program, it is on to the adult world without one. And teachers say chances are slim that many will buckle down later to earn a high school-equivalency certificate from an adult school.

``This is the school of last resort,'' said Frank McCabe, who has been teaching in Valencia for five years. ``They have no place else to go.''

The program has grown in five years from 15 offices to 50.

``We fill a niche. It is a limited one, but there is a great need for it,'' Lou Tabone, principal of the Valencia school, said few students ever see him. ``We don't offer everything, but the future looks bright.''

Caler considers 18-year-old Mike Garcia to be one of her success stories. He is among four of her students whom the Valencia school will graduate in August. That will be a record number at one time for her since she took the job three years ago.

Garcia left Saugus High School after he was accused of assault and put on probation - hard to believe for those who meet the courteous teen-ager with a soft voice. Sitting in the Valencia office, he clutches a piece of artwork he has brought in to show off.

``I didn't get kicked out of school, but I hated it. I always hated it,'' said Garcia, whose facial hair fails to hide his youth and soft eyes. ``I hated the social aspect of it. I always was the class clown. I got C's and D's. Here it's so different. I am getting A's.

For Caler, Mike is a prime example of how the program can turn kids around. She said he is very intelligent, but was hampered by slight dyslexia before it became irrelevant in a one-on-one setting.

``I have learned that if you work closely with kids, there is very little `special education' going on. You wouldn't believe the discussions I have with this kid. He is definitely college level,'' she said. ``But to pull these kids through, you have to be their mother, their father, their nurse, their doctors.

``People blame the schools, but they really have an impossible task. A teacher who has 50 kids in a classroom cannot possibly meet their needs. Mike might never have made it in a regular setting,'' she said.

Caler said another critical difference with the school is that it accepts students at all levels of achievement, and the work is simply adjusted to fit their needs until they catch up.

``We give them work they can do. It gives them a lot of self esteem,'' she said.

But not everyone can be reached. Caler remembers working hard but never getting through to two girls recently assigned to her. Both ended up getting pregnant and dropping out.

Some students are so far behind that Caler has to overcome her own doubts that they can catch up.

``Practically every probation kid I ever had has never read a complete book, not even a children's book. I recently tested a girl who was in high school, and she had a first-grade reading level. It's unbelievable how these kids are passed on,'' she says.

Caler began her teaching career in 1982 by working with delinquents at Sylmar Juvenile Hall. She has always loved the alternative-education setting. In the rigid structure of a juvenile hall, she says, academic and artistic talents are sometimes discovered in kids seemingly hopelessly lost to gangs.

While the Independent Study Program leaves the kids with a week off alone, McCabe says the ``last chance'' nature of the school imbues it with its own implicit rigor. That can more than compensate for lack of the type of structure found at schools in juvenile halls and probation camps. McCabe, a 30-year veteran of the county's alternative education system, finds that all these kids have a deep need for tough rules, which they seem to equate with care.

``In the camp schools, they all respond to discipline. Here, if they don't do their work, I threaten to drop them if they are not on probation. They usually come in the next week with it all done,'' McCabe said.

Those still on probation can't be dropped because they are attending school under a court order. But McCabe says he finds simply getting troubled kids away from their peers can make the critical difference, especially when gang membership has replaced weak family ties.

``Prior to coming here, I've had kids ask me to reduce their grades if they did well. When they get good grades, they hide it. They have to fit in. All their homeboys do poorly.''

But if the one-on-one schooling requires extra self discipline from the students, it also demands something extra from the teachers. McCabe, for example, is teaching one youth who works full-time at a service station to pay court-imposed restitution for an offense.

``I drive once a week to meet him. I have a small table and a chair in my car, so I can meet him behind the service station. He is going to graduate at the end of the semester. I am not going to let him go.''

One of Caler's former students said commitment from the teacher made the difference for her.

Several years ago, she says she was ready to drop out of school. Then she heard about the county's Independent Study Program and decided to check it out. A picture of her beaming at her recent graduation is tacked near Caler's desk. The young woman, 19, is now taking her first class at the College of the Canyons. She said Caler made her feel comfortable about getting an education.

``That doesn't happen in a regular school. No teacher is going to say `Hi' to every single student. She acknowledged my existence.''

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: (color in SAC edition only) Teacher Therese Caler li stens to Mike Garcia, 18, describe his work on a painting. He is one of four of her students who will soon get high school diplomas.

John Lazar/Special to the Daily News
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 15, 1996
Words:1325
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