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Crenshaw’s aspirations counter public perception


The stereotypes are all over Crenshaw High School: black and brown students in saggy britches talking smack to each other constantly and texting in class; teenaged mothers and fathers; young boys on house arrest sporting ankle bracelets that hug the outside of their white tube socks and nestle against their name brand sneakers like the latest fashion accessory.

They are among the masses that come to school late with McDonald’s in-hand and the ones that don’t come to school at all. And coming to school means crossing gang territories that rival Crenshaw High’s purported affiliation, a dangerous feat for all regardless of their involvement, said Crenshaw High Dean William Vanderberg.

These are the students you hear about on television and in news reports. These are the statistics. These are the casualties of the education system.

With a graduation rate of a mere 57 percent, Crenshaw High can seem like your stereotypical “urban” school. And in Alex Caputo-Pearl’s Social Justice and the Law Academy at Crenshaw High, Caputo-Pearl sees an even harsher reality: nearly two-thirds of his students may not be graduating in May, he said.

But some of his students, short on credits and often times even shorter on attention, in this newly-formed academy still have goals for after high school: community college, historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCU’s, big name schools, trade school and, yes, further along, they want careers in everything from law to being business owners, social work and maybe even real estate brokers.

But despite recent improvements of 6.5 and 5.4 percentage points since 2003 on standardized tests, Latino and black students respectively continue to lag behind whites and Asians in becoming academically eligible to enter California's two public university systems, according to a recently-released study by the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

Experts blame this state-wide statistic on students’ shortages of required courses and inadequate counseling at high schools, such as Crenshaw High, in low-income, high minority areas, according to a Los Angeles Times article.

So while the statistics may be counting them out, Caputo-Pearl and many of his students still dare to try to be counted in another kind of statistic: those who achieve the American Dream. They dare to hope for lives beyond the borders of South Los Angeles.

Furthering their education is their way out, they say.

Whether or not they’ll get there, well, that’s the struggle.

But just as many break the stereotypical mold as those who fit it.

* * *

Crenshaw High School senior Gregory Michael Williams pauses to reflect for a moment in Alex Caputo-Pearl's busy classroom.
Gregory and his group were brainstorming questions to ask interviewees for their group project concerning
students' apathy toward education.
“Chris, take off the earphones. Chris… Chris,” says lead teacher of Crenshaw High’s Social Justice and the Law Academy Alex Caputo-Pearl. The bell has rung and class is in session but the lanky young man is still bobbing his head. The white chord and ear buds of an iPod are clearly visible against his chocolate skin. The music, loud enough to be heard two rows over and all the way to the front of the class.

Head down, barely able to hear Caputo-Pearl, Chris Mitchell looks around at the stillness of the classroom and, finally, takes them out of his ears but keeps the music cranked up.

Another look and another request from Caputo-Pearl, and he turns it off.

Chris, 17, is a Crenshaw High senior with your average teenage dreams: money, power, fame. He makes the goals sound easy.

“I’m going overseas to play basketball after high school,” he says. “I know some people. I have connects.”

When asked about how realistic that might be, Chris, who plays point guard, gives a look that says, “I know I’ll make it.”

But like so many others with hoop dreams and basketball on the brain, there’s no guarantee and the odds are stacked against him. Fewer than one percent of college basketball players ever make it to the professional level. And his grades are admittedly coming up short. Perhaps though, they’re good enough to get him into the University of Connecticut’s business program—another lofty goal—before he heads overseas for self-predicted basketball superstardom.

“I want to build an empire like Jay-Z,” a music and apparel mogul, award-winning rapper and partial owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, Chris says about his career plans.

Ask him, and he’s already well on his way in some shape or form. “I already applied,” he says about the University of Connecticut. And a response letter has already come.

He hasn’t opened it yet. “I’m waiting for my birthday; April 21.”

* * *

“I ain’t gonna get into no four-year college.”

Seventeen-year-old Crenshaw High senior Brianna Irby speaks it like it’s Scripture.

“It’s true. For real,” she added.

Her reasons? “I didn’t take some classes that I’m supposed to take, like Algebra 2. I never took Algebra 2.”

But the cinnamon-skinned girl with glasses and braces is finding another way to make it out of Crenshaw High and onward to her goal of becoming a social worker like her mother.

“My plan? Well, I’m going to start at a two-year school or a community college. I’ll transfer my credits. I know I can do that. I’ll work it out,” she says.

Brianna’s mother Cerelia Bragg is earning a master’s degree at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work.

“She’s doing OK,” Bragg said about her daughter’s academic progress during a classroom visit on a recent Thursday. With a mix-matched head nod that seemed to convey both worry and hope, she stared at her daughter from across the room. Brianna smiled.

* * *

After class on a Monday, Caputo-Pearl calls a handful of students to stay after the bell.

Keilah Duren is one of them.

“Some of you have different things going on with the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Examination). Not all of you have super high GPAs. Not all of you have super low GPAs. You are exactly the kind of kids this can help,” he says urging them to attend a free SAT preparation class on the coming Saturday. There’s even a free breakfast he adds for extra bait. “And free lunch, but most of all, it’s food for your mind.”

Continuing the sell, Caputo-Pearl says, “This session could mean a bump of 40 or 60 extra points (on your SAT).”

The group stands in silence, but not for long.

“If we have a book, why we gotta come?” one asks.

“If you don’t know how to use it, it can hurt you,” he rebutts.

“But all you gotta do is just read it,” says another student.

The banter continues.

Caputo-Pearl tells them when and where the session will be held. “If you need a ride I’ll take you,” he says.

With 16 years of teaching experience in the elementary schools of Compton Unified School District and at the middle school and high school levels of Los Angeles Unified School District, Caputo-Pearl wants his students to be the ones that make it.

“For me, I've always been interested in public education because I see it as a social justice issue. And, I grew up in Maryland in very segregated schools and my parents were some of the few parents in my neighborhood who supported the bussing program to integrate schools.”

“Because of that experience I was exposed to pretty stark inequalities in the school system,” he said.

Keilah sees them too.

“Creanshaw High is, like, a very urban school. I don't want to say ghetto but it's pretty urban,” she says with a laugh.

The 17-year-old sees the gang affiliations throughout her school, and the drop out rate at Crensahw High is no secret, she said.

But in a way, she feels immune to it all.

“Crenshaw is not that bad,” she says and she’s girded by success stories outside of school --- success stories that started with college, stories she hopes to emulate. Her big brother goes to Morehouse College in Atlanta and her godmother and one of her aunts went to Spellman College, also in Atlanta.

So after graduation, her goal is to “go straight to an HBCU,” she said. She has her sights set on Spellman, an all girls’ historically black college.

“You're around your (own) kind, but it's not like I just want to be around them. I think you can learn more about the past than what they teach at school,” she said.

Even with her head down, texting on her cell phone more often than not, in class, she considers herself determined.

“I want to make a lot of money in the future for one, and college has been on my mind since I was younger and I always wanted to be a lawyer or somewhere in the politic world.”

Big goals.

She attributes some of it to having role models --- her big brother, aunt, godmother, as well as her parents; something that many in her class are lacking.

Even though her father is “always busy” she knows him fairly well. He’s a realtor. Her mother is a licensed practical nurse, or LPN, and is on her way to getting her registered nurse license.

Keilah’s circumstances are a stand-out among Caputo-Pearl’s class and he encourages her often.

While walking out of class on a recent school day he reminded her of the SAT prep class.

“I’ll be there,” she said.

“And did you convince that young man that you’re going to Spellman?” he asked about a back-and-forth she had with a classmate.

“I told him! I sure did,” she said.