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By Brandon Bridges
SOUTH GATE - Facing long odds, three South Gate high school seniors are preparing for a day many in their poor and working-class community never see: high school graduation. Mac, Santiago and Vivian, three disabled students attending South East High, will each receive a diploma this June.
That’s a significant accomplishment for the students who are attending school in South Gate where only 40 percent of the city’s population over the age of 25 graduated from high school. But the biggest roadblock in their path wasn’t their community, where 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line; rather, it was the California Department of Education and the state’s high school exit exam, just of three requirements for graduation in most districts across the state. Students must complete the required number of course credits, they must pass Algebra 1 and, as of the 2007-2008 academic year, they must also pass the exit exam. The three students also had a teacher, Sara Garcia, whose extraordinary efforts ultimately gave her students the lift they needed to walk across the stage next month for their diplomas. “These kids dream big, as big as anyone else in South Central or even Beverly Hills,” Garcia said. “But they’re learning the one lesson I try to ensure they never have to learn-- that disabled students are capable of less than others,” she said.
Eighteen-year-old Vivian has had a visual processing disorder as long as she can remember. But she said she never really understood how it impacted her learning until she reached high school.
“I always thought I was just stupid or slow. No one ever really sat me down to explain it. My mom just said, ‘You are different from other kids,’” she said.
Vivian has partial visual agnosia which interferes with her ability to consistently recognize letters and words. Because the condition is considered partial, she is better off than some with the disability, but progress can occur one day and disappear the next.
“It’s like the mind’s eye has amnesia,” Garcia said. It wasn’t until encountering the challenges presented by the California High School Exit Exam, or CAHSEE, that Vivian sought to overcome her disability, she said.
“I knew if I didn’t make this happen, no one was going to do it for me. It was the first time I felt like I had the power in my own hands,” Vivian said.
Students are allowed to take the exam once during their sophomore and junior years. If they pass either the math or English sections, they are exempt from taking that section during senior year, during which they have four opportunities to pass. Vivian passed the mathematics portion of the test her junior year. Despite her disorder, she has little trouble with numbers and has a high aptitude for mathematics, Garcia said.
But when Vivian began her senior year, Garcia said she knew she would have to work rigorously to get Vivian ready for the English-language arts section. By rigorous, Garcia means working after school three-days-a-week for an hour from August until mid-November when the first exam took place.
Garcia said the process, like Vivian’s disability, was often unpredictable.
It was the second week of September. The students were still in “summer mode,” Garcia said, they wiggled restlessly through class. Attention spans were that of a New York minute. Vivian arrived late for her session, as she often does. Garcia has seen her in the hallway flirting with a boy at her locker.
Vivian is five-foot-nothing, with curly brown hair peppered with red highlights. She is dressed in pink and red, as if Valentine’s Day were around the corner. She has caramel skin, which she has marked up with heavy eyeliner and eye shadow, no doubt to woo the boy she was just flirting with.
“I’m sorry Miss. I promise not to be late anymore,” Vivian said.
Garcia just smiles and quickly changes subject to the task at hand.
“Have you been studying your vocabulary words?” Garcia said. Vivian is staring out the window aimlessly. Garcia said she has noticed that Vivian has been distracted lately. At first, she thought it was just a matter of adjusting to school. But now, she suspects it’s something deeper-- possibly at home.
Vivian does not want to talk about it, but Garcia insists. Maybe it’s their proximity in age, Garcia being only 24 and Vivian being six years her junior. Maybe it’s because they’re both Latina. But Garcia said she has a knack with getting kids to open up.
Vivian broke down crying. She said her mom’s boyfriend told her not to bother studying for the exam because she was never going to make it out of South Gate.
“He said that people like us don’t have a future. He said I should be working and making money after school instead of studying for some stupid test,” she said, a tear rolling down her cheek.
Garcia said she tried to dissuade Vivian from believing him, but somehow he had gotten in her head. She began missing sessions; her work in class began to slip. Garcia said she knew she had to find something to inspire her, or she feared Vivian would squander her potential.
“Sometimes special needs students have low self-esteem because of their disability, so as teachers we have to go the extra mile to capture their attention and make them feel better about their chances in the world,” she said.
It was mid-October, Homecoming Week. Signs littered the school and the marching band played merrily through the hallways. Students were in generally good spirits and the test was a month away, so Garcia said it was the perfect time to encourage Vivian. Garcia decided Vivian should undergo the career counseling assessment. Garcia helps Vivian read the questions. They sound out complex words like “financial” “mathematical” and “scientific” because Vivian’s disorder doesn’t always allow her to recognize complex words, especially in small print on a computer screen. When they are finished, the assessment suggests Vivian pursue one of the following careers: child and youth worker, advertising copywriter, art and music therapist or mental health nurse.
Vivian doesn’t know what all of these careers entail, but after Garcia explains it to her, her face lights up in a way Garcia hasn’t seen in months.
“This is telling you that whatever you do, you need to work with people,” Garcia said.
“That’s what I like. I couldn’t be stuck in a stuffy room all day, I like to help people and work with others,” Vivian said, almost giddy, as if the assessment results were a kind of manifest destiny. Vivian gets up to leave and grabs her books, and Garcia walks with her to the door.
“Well, you can do all this. You’d be a natural at working with youth or talking with others about their problems. But you need your diploma; it can unlock a whole world for you. And in order to get your diploma, you have to pass the CAHSEE, which means you have to come in after school and study a lot on your own,” Garcia said.
And Garcia adds, “And you don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t make your dreams a reality.”
A month later, Vivian passed her English exam. When asked how she was able to make such gains in a short amount of time, Vivian said a sign in Ms. Garcia’s room motivated her. A bright yellow sign hanging above the chalkboard in green lettering reads: “If you think nobody cares, Think Again.”
“I knew Ms. Garcia believed in me, so I decided to believe in myself.”
Santiago, 18, brightens every classroom he walks into. Garcia describes him as a curious mixture of class clown and Lothario. He is a good-looking kid, with a noble chin that belies his goofy nature.
On this bright March day, Santiago is more upbeat than usual. He is supposed to be in study hall, but he is doing anything but studying. He buzzes around the room with a history study guide he hasn’t touched, instead preferring to flirt with two unassuming sophomore girls in the class.
Garcia has to remind him four times in the course of 20 minutes to sit down and study, but every time he sits, he bounces back up like a jack-in-the-box. Santiago is a tall boy, at almost six feet he towers over Garcia’s diminutive five-foot-three frame. But after a year-and-a-half, Garcia knows how to put him in check.
“Santiago, what is going on with you? You only have 15 minutes to finish your study guide, and you haven’t even touched your math homework,” Garcia said, with an authoritative hands-on-hip stance.
“I’m sorry Miss, my mom was going to come after school and we were going to tell you together, but I can’t wait. I passed my CAHSEE!” Santiago said, grinning like a Cheshire cat. The freckles on his cheeks bunch.
“Oh my God!” Garcia shrieks and runs over to give him a hug.
After the bell rings and the students spill out into the hallway, Garcia sits by herself in a corner of the classroom, her hand under her chin in a contemplative stare.
“When I think about where this kid was when I started here…this is a miracle,” she said.
When Garcia began teaching at South East High in August of 2006, Santiago was the first student she met. Garcia said she could sense a resistance to authority from the first day.
“In class, he would do whatever he pleased. It was like talking to a brick wall,” she said.
One reason is that Santiago has Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. Garcia said symptoms commonly associated with this disorder include difficulty sustaining attention, impulsivity, inability to focus and remain on task and difficulty with organization and completion of tasks.
“These are exactly the kinds of skills one needs to successfully complete an exam. And all the coping mechanisms in the world can’t solve his problems when he’s wired to behave this way,” she said.
To combat his organizational problems, Garcia made a daily list of the tasks Santiago was to complete to keep up with his studies. She gave positive reinforcement in the form of gift certificates when he consistently completed all his homework. In class, she often gives him a ball or a similar small object to keep his attention from wandering.
“Over the first semester of his junior year, I saw a lot of improvement. But he began to plateau around last January, and he wasn’t making fast enough progress to pass his CAHSEE. I needed his parents to help me bridge the learning gap,” she said.
Garcia brought his mother in to discuss Santiago going on medication, such as Adderall, to help him focus long enough to retain information.
“She was afraid that if he went on medication he would become hooked, that maybe he would turn into a different person and lose his spirit. She had heard a lot of horror stories and understandably was reluctant about it,” Garcia said.
Garcia said she told her that with careful monitoring at the right dosage, Santiago wouldn’t have to be adversely affected by the medication. Garcia did some research and found that symptoms were reduced by as much as 80 percent when those with ADD were medicated.
“While the risk of addiction is there, I promised his mother that if both of us talked with him and kept an eye on him, together we could mitigate that possibility,” she said.
Once on the medication, Santiago immediately improved on his schoolwork, Garcia said. He went from C’s to B’s in most of his academic subjects and exhibited more constructive behavioral patterns in class, she said. He finished his junior year with his highest grade point average, a 3.2.
“But he still wasn’t ready to pass the CAHSEE at that point. He was behind in his mathematics, and I couldn’t figure out why,” Garcia said.
At the end of his junior year, Garcia had Santiago re-tested for any learning disabilities that might explain his consistently poor performance in mathematics. The results were yet another setback in Santiago’s quest to graduate. He was found to have a mild case of dyscalculia, a learning disability affecting a person's ability to understand and manipulate numbers.
“I was angry when I found out…why hadn’t I noticed sooner? Why hadn’t he been tested more thoroughly before? The system so often just abnegates responsibility for our kids…he has ADD so that must explain everything and we’re not going to bother looking for more answers,” Garcia said.
But Santiago said he felt better after getting the diagnosis, for the most part.
“Things came into focus. It was like suddenly there was a reason for all the frustration I had felt for so long. A part of me did feel more stressed out about it because there was something else wrong with me, like I was diseased. I didn’t really know what would fix the problem,” Santiago said.
Garcia gave Santiago CAHSEE math material to work on over the summer to solidify his computational skills. She checked up on him every few weeks to make sure he was making progress.
“It was kind of weird to have Ms. Garcia keeping track of me even in the summer when I’m supposed to be free from school. But in a way it was nice cause I knew that she cared,” he said.
When Santiago arrived in the fall, he did much better on his practice tests. His English scores were quite good, but his math scores, while much improved, were still not high enough.
“All summer, I was trying to think of a way to encourage Santiago’s progress while providing an incentive for hard work and then it finally came to…Santiago needed a job,” Garcia said.
When she didn’t bring a lunch, Garcia frequented a small, family-owned grocery store down the street from the high school. It was a shack of a store with a decaying façade; the kind people pass by and don’t think twice about entering. One morning in late August, Garcia said she spotted a HELP WANTED sign in the window.
“I was friendly with the owner since I was somewhat of a regular and it’s not a busy store. So I asked him if he would be willing to hire a hard-working boy and give him an opportunity to learn some valuable skills. Luckily enough, he said, ‘Yes,’” Garcia said.
Santiago started the next week. His tasks include working the register, doing price adjustments and assisting with the accounting. All these involve using mathematics skills in a practical way, making them less abstract and more easily identifiable in a test situation, Garcia said.
“I think as important as the academic component is the fact that he is learning organizational skills and to be responsible, to be focused and to accomplish tasks,” Garcia said.
Within a month, Garcia said his scores improved dramatically. She didn’t know if it would be enough for a qualifying score, but the improvement in his work ethic and classroom behavior was well worth it.
Santiago wears this achievement like a badge of honor. Garcia occasionally hears him bragging to classmates and other teachers about the responsibilities he has been entrusted with.
“I think its kind of a big deal. Most of my friends don’t have jobs so I’m pretty proud. And I don’t want people to think I’m just a goof off, I have other sides to me,” he said.
The week before the January exam date, Garcia had most of her seniors coming in during their study hall or staying after school. It was just a regular school day, but the tension in this classroom was palpable as these students spend their study hall preparing for the exam that has consumed them over the past five months.
Santiago said he studied at least 15 hours a week over the holiday break and that he feels confident about the exam. Garcia, however, said she is still seeing him struggle with some of the more complex algebraic concepts. After a year and a half, she said she will hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
“I can’t take the test for him…so I just have to wait and see. If he doesn’t pass, I can at least feel comfort knowing we both did our absolute best,” she said.
Two months later, the results were in and the scores had been tallied. And it was not a miracle, but instead dedication and perseverance that led to that day. One in which Santiago’s mother hugs Garcia tight and proclaims that it is in indeed a miracle. And while she didn’t have the chance to graduate from high school, she was happy that he reached a milestone she couldn’t, the kind of life she dreamed for herself.
Eighteen-year-old Mac doesn’t resist speaking his mind. Regardless of the topic, Mac undoubtedly has something to contribute to the discussion. He is the kind of student, Garcia said, who makes sharp, even profound comments causally, as if he were grabbing them out of thin air.
“I don’t know if it’s a defense mechanism because of his learning disability, or if he’s trying to assert himself because he’s physically smaller than most of the students, but he has this unwillingness to be ignored, an uncompromising integrity that’s sometimes too grand for his own good,” Garcia said.
One day in early October, Mac pounded furiously on Garcia’s classroom door during her planning period. She let him in, but cannot get a word in edgewise before he starts yelling.
“I got kicked out of class and sent to the principal again, this is bullshit!” he yells. His entire 5 feet and 3 inches smoldered with fury.
He told Garcia that his history teacher sent him to the principal after being late for the fifth time and then refusing to participate in the class discussion.
“This isn’t my history. This is just what the white man wants us to learn…like we’re machines just to control us. I ain’t no machine, I can think for myself,” Mac said.
After the principal wrote him up for insubordination, he sought refuge in Garcia’s classroom. After giving him a few minutes to cool down, Garcia decided to inquire why he’s stopped studying for the exam.
“Mac, why haven’t you been doing your CAHSEE practice work? The test is next month and I can’t help you if you don’t meet me halfway,” she said.
Mac explodes again. “Why should I spend time memorizing things for a test I don’t care about? Whether they pass me or not, it doesn’t mean anything…it doesn’t make me stupid.”
“No, you’re not stupid. But if you don’t pass, you don’t graduate. They have control over what you can do with your future. You have to play their game,” Garcia said. “If you don’t, you’re only hurting yourself,” she added.
Garcia said she wasn’t very worried about Mac’s ability to pass. He has an auditory processing disorder which affects his ability to store and recall information given verbally. But on a written test, Garcia said, the effects of his disorder would be minimized if he completed practice tests that familiarize him with the process.
“Mac is one of my brightest students, he’s just so self-destructive,” she said.
A week later, Mac came to see Garcia after school. With a solemn look on his face, he told her he needed a favor from her. Mac said that he had recently received a letter from the city attorney’s office alleging his role in vandalism associated with gang activity.
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said.
“Well, they didn’t make this up out of nowhere Mac…Did you do this?” Garcia said.
He looks down sheepishly…speechless for the first time. He then says that he had been hanging out with some guys in his neighborhood that may be in a gang.
“But I didn’t vandalize nothing, and I’m not in a gang,” he said.
Garcia said she searched his eyes for truth, and despite the bravado he often displays, in that moment she saw a little boy asking for help. Garcia told him to bring her the letter and she would look it over.
“It was the first time I had seen him vulnerable and willing to seek help. I had to give him the benefit of the doubt,” she said.
Mac asked Garcia not to tell his mother. She knew his mother didn’t speak or read English well and probably wouldn’t know how to navigate the law enforcement system.
“I told him I would help him and that it wasn’t my place to tell his mother. But keeping secrets is the fastest way to ruin trust between a parent and child, so I suggested he find a way to be honest with her,” she said.
Garcia said she ended up having to call the police and show the letter to an attorney so that she didn’t give Mac bad advice. Garcia told him to meet with the city attorney, and she would go with him if he wanted. And in the meantime, she suggested he stay away from his new friends and concentrate on passing the upcoming exam.
“I was so nervous for him. Here is one student I know is capable of doing big things, and now I had to worry about him getting arrested instead of graduating from high school,” Garcia said.
The next day, Mac began coming in for CAHSEE tutoring. Garcia said that while Mac knew most of the concepts tested, he was not moving fast enough through the test. Even though Mac’s disability has to do with information that is heard, his reading ability is still affected because students learn to spell and read through sounds the ear takes in, Garcia said.
“You can’t make a student read faster, and any effort to do so just creates undue tension and stress for the student,” Garcia said, “I explained how reading comprehension passages are set up, the topic sentence and where to find secondary details and a thesis if there is one, so that he could avoid reading the entire passage. But that’s sophisticated stuff a lot of high school students cannot really master in a test-taking situation.”
With the test in just over a month, Garcia said, she was willing to do anything to help Mac get through the test faster.
“I gave him an egg timer and told him to use that when simulating the test environment at home. It was worth a shot,” Garcia said.
Taking a teacher’s words to heart
The week before the test, Garcia went with Mac to the police. She explained to them that Mac was merely acquaintances with the alleged gang members. She told them what a strong student he was and what a bright future he had.
“I was trying to impress upon them the gravity of the situation. This wasn’t just another hoodlum from South Gate, but instead a smart young man who had to overcome immense challenges to succeed. I couldn’t stand for this to be another unnecessary challenge in this kid’s life,” she said.
A week after their police visit, Mac took the CAHSEE exam. Afterward, he said he didn’t know if he passed or not, but that he hoped for Garcia’s sake that he did well.
“Ms. Garcia has tried to show me that I can really be somebody. In four years, I’ve never had that from a teacher before. She’s been willing to go to bat for me with other teachers, the administration, even the cops,” Mac said, “So if she can do all that for me, I can try to do this for her. But I know it doesn’t make me smart or stupid if I pass. It means someone else thinks I have what it takes. But I don’t care what they think, it matters more that I believe in myself,” he said.
Mac found out a month later that, due to a lack of evidence, he was no longer under suspicion of being involved with gang activity. A month after that, he found out that he passed the exam. Garcia said that he is one of the lucky ones in South Gate.