Stereotypes suggest they're bad schools for bad kids from the wrong side of the tracks.
But Santana Alternative High School is exactly the opposite. In fact, the Rowland Unified campus was one of the 25 California schools recently named Model Continuation High Schools.
More than 69,000 students attended the state's 504 continuation schools last year. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said the local schools were honored for their programs designed to help struggling students stay in school.
"Every student comes to school with a different set of needs, and our job is to provide them with the best chance to succeed," said Torlakson. "That's why it's so important to provide students who are having trouble staying in school with great continuation high schools.
Alternative high schools serve students age 16 or older who are short credits. The students still have to go to school, even though they don't have enough credits to graduate.
These schools focus on school-to-career education, individualized instructional strategies, intensive guidance and counseling. They also have flexible schedules because many students have jobs because of family problems or other circumstances.
"They're not bad kids. That's what many people think," explained Guillermo Muñoz, the principal at Santana. "They're kids who have made bad decisions or have had something bad happen to them."
The tiny high school next to the railroad tracks on Otterbein Street serves 260 students. That includes 150 seniors, 100 juniors and 10 sophomores.
Students like 17-year-old Chris Ramirez, who found himself a year behind in credits after his family spent time in Mexico last year.
Dressed in a soft plaid shirt and baggy, loose jeans, Chris looks like a rapper. Visitors are surprised to learn the soft-spoken young man is learning to play the guitar. He recently performed in Santana's talent show.
And Chris has become an academic star, recovering more than 40 credits since August.
"Our students take the same courses they would in regular high schools. They have to pass the same tests," Muñoz said. "But we give them extra help to pass their courses with small classes and individual tutoring."
Chris wants to earn his high school diploma so he can go on to college and get a good job.
"Santana has good teachers, now I expect to graduate in June. Then I want to study at Mt. SAC," the proud senior said.
Principal Muñoz explained that the students take regular coursework during four class periods, then extra credit another two periods.
"They can test out of chapters by proving they know the content in a quiz. Otherwise they have to do all the assignments in that chapter before taking the test again," he related.
This helps students like Annette Martinez graduate.
"I'm low on credits because I didn't do my homework before," admitted the 18-year-old from La Puente. "I made a big mistake, now I'm working hard to earn enough credits."
Chris and Annette say Santana treats them like an extended family. Of course, families always look out for one another.
And so it is at the Rowland Unified high school, where each teacher has been drafted to watch over eight students.
"They're responsible for working with these students to plan their classes and solving any problems," Muñoz maintains. "Their goal is get each student to graduate."
Algebra teacher Sean Smith was walking by when the principal pulled him into the office. Muñoz wanted to know how Smith's students were doing.
"Six of my nine students have enough credits to graduate. I'm still working on the remaining three," Smith reported.
Enrollment is climbing at Santana. The principal says that's because the district is trying to intervene earlier whenever a student is falling behind.
"The earlier we can reach troubled students, the easier it will be for them to earn the credits they're missing," Muñoz pointed out.
He said the district wants to "plant the seed of success" early so the students can bloom in time to graduate.
They aren't bad seeds, they're just late bloomers.
Image: Author Jeremy Iversen speaks to students at Santana. (Photo by Gina Ward, Rowland Unified )