Monday, July 25, 2011

ENCOURAGED IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY: Teen moms, gang members and dropouts trade bleak futures for the hope of a better life at Ramona High.

For Genesis Diaz, a struggling young mother, graduating at the top of her class is only the beginning.

Kurt Streeter 

By Kurt Streeter | LA Times |


Genesis Diaz

Genesis Diaz, 17, and her daughter Amanda, 18 months, took three bus trips every morning to Ramona High. (Mariah Tauger, Los Angeles Times / July 20, 2011)

July 20, 2011 - What will become of Genesis?

There she is, at her school graduation, standing in the sun-stroked courtyard of Ramona Opportunity High School, a beige campus on a dead-end street in East Los Angeles.

It's a bare-bones affair but freighted with meaning. A string of balloons lollygags beside a stage. A few families watch from plastic chairs. On a wall someone has taped a piece of paper and scrawled a message: Congrats Ladies.

Moonfaced, 17 and, right now, teary, Genesis Diaz is the student body president. In her right hand she holds a diploma. In her arms she clutches a baby — her baby — mop-topped Amanda, 18 months. No one bats an eye.

Ramona High, you see, is as unusual a public school as exists in Los Angeles. For over five decades, it has been an all-girls school. It caters exclusively to dropouts, stragglers and struggling teenage moms.

VIDEO: Genesis tells her story VIDEO: Genesis tells her story

Unwed mothers suffer long-term health woes, study finds Unwed mothers suffer long-term health woes, study finds

AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Genesis tells her story

Ramona High has about 150 students. They are mostly Latina, mostly poor. Many are in gangs. Some are homeless. Several have been scarred by abuse. Six of the seniors have babies.

Making it this far has been monumental. Still, watching the small, sweet ceremony unfold on a recent day, it was hard to ignore a painful truth. If history is any guide, things won't be getting easier for these girls. College, career and a settled life? All of this will be a longshot — even for the brightest, most ambitious, and feistiest of the bunch.

Even for Genesis.

She is the youngest of seven children born to Eliza Mena, a maid at a Westside hotel who came to America from El Salvador in the 1980s and raised her family in a small house on a gang-battered street at the edge of downtown.

Mena never had much time on her hands; she worked too many long hours. But she managed to push her kids, warning them that if they did not make something of their lives, they, too, might end up changing sheets and cleaning toilets for strangers.

Genesis was supposed to be the one who always listened to her mother. In grade school she was identified as gifted — a kid who took to words and numbers as if they were cotton candy.

Trouble started, as it does for so many kids, when she entered junior high. She ditched classes, talked back, got in scrapes. Then came high school and a boyfriend, and one day there she was, standing before Mena, eyes glued to the floor. "Mom, I'm pregnant."

Genesis was 15, depressed and confused. She couldn't imagine her future, how she would finish her freshman year, how she would deal with the stigma, how she would care for her child.

Ramona High was three MTA bus trips from home. Gang girls were known to challenge newcomers at the school. Some kids didn't last even a single day. But when Genesis transferred from sprawling Jefferson High School, Ramona High was her last hope. It offered day care for Amanda, small classes, a year-round schedule and teachers who excelled at steering lost teenagers to clear paths.

Wary and scared, Genesis didn't talk much at first, didn't tell anyone she was pregnant. In December of 2009, Amanda was born. Nine weeks later, Genesis was back at school, only now with her little girl.

It wasn't easy. She woke up at 5 a.m., bundled up Amanda, and headed off — just the two of them on jam-packed, break-of-dawn bus rides through downtown's trouble spots. Every day, she thought of quitting. And every day, her instructors kept telling her firmly to come back.

"We couldn't let her stop," says Cathleen Jenkins, an instructor who had been a teen mom herself. "She was so incredibly bright. All it took was convincing her of her potential."

Last December, Genesis turned 17, and Amanda turned 1. By then Genesis had finally found solid footing. She was getting nearly straight A's and was racing through her coursework with a rare ease. That wasn't all. The once-wary kid had become so vocal, so forceful and well-liked that she had been voted student president.

Then news arrived that shook Ramona High. The school district had decided to fill a vacant corner of the campus by leasing it to a co-ed charter school. Ramona High had always been a sanctuary for girls. Now it would have boys — and the social pressure that comes with them.

Genesis and other student leaders gathered a group of her schoolmates and preached action. Ramona High, Genesis reminded them, was a place that had given them a second chance and for some of them, a third and even a fourth. "We have to fight back," she said.

So it was that one day in late March, just after the first-period bell, Genesis rose from her chair and proudly walked out of the school. Just as she had asked them to, the other girls followed her to a nearby street, first a few dozen, then 50, then 100, then more.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, they strode through the neighborhoods of East L.A., defying the school, disobeying the district, voices and fists piercing the air. "Save our school!" they shouted, including girls so stigmatized that they often believe they don't have a right to stand up for much of anything at all. "Save our school! Keep Ramona the way it is!"

Days passed. Genesis wrote petitions and spoke at school board meetings. When district brass urged an end to the protests, she responded coolly.

"You might be able to intimidate other kids, but not me," she told them. "I'm not here to negotiate. I want our demands met."

In the movie version of this tale, the kid wins. In reality, the district listened for a while and that was that, case closed. The charter school is coming — moving into five classrooms at Ramona High by next September.

But Genesis didn't really lose, nor did any of the girls who stood with her. Their fight helped seal a transformation.

"I started to see I have power," she said the other day. "I don't give up. And with that, I can make a better life, not just for me, but for Amanda."

What will become of Genesis?

This is the future she dreams of now: In the fall, she says, she'll start classes at a community college; in a year or so, she will transfer to either USC or UCLA and earn a bachelor's degree; she will go to medical school; she will become a pediatrician; she will live in a nice neighborhood.

I asked one of the teachers to draw a bead on these dreams.

"In all my years, we've had a few girls graduate here saying they were going to be pediatricians, lawyers, that sort of thing," says Rex Brooke.

Have any reached those goals?

"No, not one....

"But if I were to put my money on any of them doing it, I would bet on Genesis."

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