Sunday, June 20, 2010

‘PRESENT!’ FOR THIRTEEN YEARS: 10 South Gate Senior High School students have unblemished records.

By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times


June 20, 2010 -- They fought through fevers, colds, torn ligaments, dislocated shoulders and lazy mornings when their parents had to drag them out of bed.

Still, they showed up — every school day, from kindergarten to senior year.

Ten students from South Gate Senior High School will graduate this week with 13 years of perfect attendance. That's rare, both locally and nationally. Most schools have only one or two by senior year.

The classmates recognized this week for their flawless records began grade school in 1997. They managed to avoid two hazards that can take down even the most committed: chicken pox and lice. They never missed a day — through the aftermath of Sept. 11, through budget-cut protests, through immigration walkouts and swine flu scares.

The final big test came a few months ago on senior ditch day, when the senior class organizes via text messages, e-mails and word of mouth to skip school en masse.

"Really?" asked Rocio Plascencia, 18. "I must have been kept out of the circle or something."

Those who did know resisted and stuck to their daily routine of classes. Luckily for them, the traditional escapade was spoiled by rain. And on a second attempt, few in the class participated.

Los Angeles Unified School District spokeswoman Lydia Ramos said never missing a day of school is "like trying to pitch a perfect game." One bad throw and it's all over.

Still, most of the honorees said being present for more than 2,000 days of school wasn't something they set out to do. Some didn't find out they were inches away until they were called into the attendance counselor's office this month. (They hadn't been recognized for it since junior high.)

"If I stayed home, I was going to have to do chores or be bored," said Jimmy Castillo, 18, whose older sister also had perfect attendance for 13 years.

Castillo, who is heading to UC Irvine, remembers he once fell off the couch and dislocated his shoulder. He tried to get his mother to let him stay home.

"But she told me, 'It's your left shoulder, not your right. You can still write so you're going to school.' "

Parents, of course, played a major role, setting an example by going to work each day. They didn't take the kids out of school for vacations or family emergencies. And they were diligent about their children's vaccines and doctor visits.

On years when colds and stomach flu crept in, the students fought it off with medicine and wads of tissue paper.

If they were later sent home — and they often were — they weren't marked absent for the day.

Melanie Barrios first got lured in by the statues they used to give out for perfect attendance in elementary school. Now the 17-year-old headed to Cal State Long Beach hopes her consistency will pay off in bigger ways, when she's looking for a job.

"It shows that nothing ever stopped me," she said. "Nothing got in the way of my commitment."

Like other districts that count on attendance to bring in state dollars, Los Angeles Unified used to offer a bit more than shiny statues to motivate students to make it to class. Some states have offered grocery money, mortgage payments, even cars. Record setters in L.A. used to earn iPods and restaurant gift certificates.

On Thursday, the South Gate students got plaques, certificates from the board of education, cords to hang around their necks at graduation and some praise from the mayor.

"They had perfect attendance not just one year or four years but 13 years," Mayor Gregory Martinez told the audience before he called each student's name during the senior awards ceremony. "Now that's an impressive dedication to your education."

Marlen Uribe walked off the stage satisfied with her reward. The 18-year-old who once insisted on going to school a day after a water heater exploded in her face, causing first-and second-degree burns, said she had no idea anyone was keeping track.

As she heads to UCLA to study psychology, she plans to continue her perfect record.

"If I did it when my education was free," she said, "why would I miss school when I'm paying for it?"

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