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Drop out or hang in there

For students on the edge, Bowman is their last, best shot

Posted: January 14, 2009 11:17 p.m.
Updated: January 15, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Geissler talks with student Maria Ibarram, 18, in U.S. History class Tuesday. Geissler was awarded High School Educator of the Year.

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There was a time when Monique Mendoza didn't care about her education.

"I wouldn't go to class," she said. "I would get a ‘C' and call it a day."

The 17-year-old spent her freshman year at Saugus High School and ended up at Valencia High School as a sophomore.

Mendoza transferred to Bowman High School, the William S. Hart Union High School District's only continuation high school, and enrolled in classes in fall 2008.

She immediately connected to the teachers and administrators, sources of confidence who pushed her to succeed.

For the first time in her life, she began to care about her education.

"I've never had a 4.0 in my life," she said. "It feels good."

Mendoza got involved in campus activities, ranging from ASB to yearbook, for the first time.

"They encourage you to follow your dream," she said.

Her dream is to design her own fashion line. She was recently accepted to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and is six credits away from graduation from Bowman.

When Mendoza transferred to Bowman, she was behind on credits.

"People who knew me never expected it from me," she said.

Her ambitions tore down stereotypes about the type of students who attend Bowman.

"It feels so good to prove people wrong," she said.

Mendoza is one example of students who turned their lives around at Bowman.

The students who attend Bowman represent teenagers who face the loss of a parent, substance-abuse problems and financial difficulties, said Principal Robin Geissler. Ten percent of the students are homeless or in a transitional living environment, she said.

"These are the kids that listen to the sound of a different drummer," Geissler said.

The high school maxes out at 500 students - 65 percent male - and 20 teachers, Geissler said.

Geissler remains uncertain about the implications of a state budget crisis, but knows that any cuts would run deep.

"Without this support, they would be headed for drop-out and possible incarceration," she said.

Bowman graduated 275 students at a 95.8 percent graduation rate in the 2006-07 school year, according to school data. Twelve students dropped out.

"It's the only place students have a fair chance," said student Charlotte Free, 16. "The teachers respect you. Bowman makes you feel like you can do something."

Geissler attributes the turnaround in students to "magic synergy" comprised of small class sizes, a passionate staff, shortened school days and the ability for kids to work at their own pace.

"I have to have the best teachers," she said.

The California League of High Schools recently named Geissler the High School Educator of the Year. The Association of California School Administrators named Geissler Educator of the Year in 2007.

The academics at the high school are rigorous and project-based, she said.

History students take part in warfare simulations and science students build a greenhouse, Geissler said. Writing, reading and speaking are daily tasks.

Working at Bowman inspired Sylvia Packer, a former instructional assistant, to return as a special education teacher after completing her degree.

"Everyone can be successful here," she said. "If you impact one, all the late nights have paid off."

Bowman's program works for 17-year-old Denny Ngo and 18-year-old Keith Echegaray, who before coming to Bowman, never thought they were going to graduate from high school.

Now, college is a real option.

"You get treated like a person here," Echegaray said.

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