National Teachers Initiative
5:00 am
Sun June 24, 2012

Former Dropouts Push Others To Reach Finish Line

Originally published on Sun June 24, 2012 12:40 pm

In Pasadena, Calif., one teacher's devotion is helping kids graduate. Mikala Rahn is the founder of Learning Works, a charter school for kids who have dropped out of traditional schools.

Carlos Cruz is one of the first students she helped graduate. When he started senior year, Cruz realized he was two years behind.

"[I remember] you looking at me and telling me that everything was going to be OK," Cruz tells Rahn, "and me looking back at you, and I'm like, 'How the [expletive] do you think everything is going to be OK?' "

Rahn says it was optimism.

"That last year, I worked harder than I have ever, ever even thought of even working," Cruz says. "I have never really even felt in my lifetime that I had learned until those days when I was actually at your house and tutoring."

He says they would work sometimes until 2 a.m. Rahn's goal was to get her students a high school diploma.

"Until this day, I honestly have my diploma in my trunk. It goes with me everywhere I go," Cruz says. "For me, that was I think the biggest thing I have ever done."

Cruz now works at the school Rahn founded. He is one of several employees called "chasers." They basically do what Rahn did for Cruz: make sure the kids get to class, turn in their assignments and study for their tests. The chasers are each responsible for about 35 students.

Many chasers were dropouts themselves, and a few have been to prison, like Dominick Correy, who served time for burglary and often works alongside Cruz.

"The main goal of everything we do is to eliminate any and every excuse that they can imagine to why they are not attempting to achieve their high school diploma," Cruz says.

Chasers, Correy says, serve as mentors, parents and alarm clocks."Some people say a truant officer." Correy says he never thought he would be able to work at a school after going to jail.

"I never thought somebody would even give me a chance to work with human beings," Correy says. "It was like, I lost six years in jail altogether, and I terrorized the streets of Pasadena for so long. So, I think if I save one kid from getting shot, or if I save one kid for going to jail, I feel like my six years meant something."

Anthony Gonzales, one of Correy's students, was partially paralyzed when he was injured in a drive-by shooting.

"Four years ago, I got shot in the back of the head. And after the bullet hit, I felt like boiling hot water just go down my spinal cord, all the way down to my shoes," he says. "And I remember falling to the ground, my head bouncing off of the ground, and then blacking out for a little bit. And I guess that's when I died 'cause the doctor said I died for like 27 seconds."

He remembers the ambulance, the paramedic asking him questions. Then he went into a coma. He was out of school for two years. His first day at Learning Works, he was limping.

"I saw everybody staring at me, and I was like, 'I don't think I want to come here no more,' " Gonzales says.

But then he met Correy. Correy would pick up Gonzales early in the morning, knocking on the door when he wouldn't answer his phone.

"Can't even brush your teeth, can't even go to the bathroom. It's just, 'Hurry up. We're late already,' " Gonzales says.

But Gonzales doesn't hold that against his teacher.

"You've always been cool with me, straight up. You were one of us," he tells Correy. "I see you now as a brother."

What does he want Correy to do this year to help him graduate?

"Don't ease up now. Now is when I need you the most," Gonzales says.

Correy says he's up for the challenge.

"Because when you walk across that stage, I'm going to be the first one jumping for joy," he says.

Last Tuesday, Gonzales graduated.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by: Jasmyn Belcher, Jud Esty-Kendall, Anita Rao, Brian Reed and Katie Simon.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As another school year comes to an end, it's time for our final conversation from StoryCorps National Teachers Initiative.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Since September, we've been sharing stories about teachers and their students. And today, we hear how one teacher's devotion is helping kids graduate. Mikala Rahn is the founder for Learning Works. It's a charter school in Pasadena, California for kids who've dropped out of traditional schools. At StoryCorps, Mikala sat down with one of the first students she helped, Carlos Cruz.

CARLOS CRUZ: I remember walking into my senior year and then realizing I was two years behind and you looking at me and telling me everything's going to be OK and me looking back at you. I'm like, how the (bleep) do you think everything's going to be OK?

MIKALA RAHM: Optimism, hope, come on.

CRUZ: Yeah. That last year, I worked harder than I ever, ever have even thought of even working. I had never really ever felt in my lifetime that I learned until those days when I was actually at your house tutoring. And I think we were there sometimes until two in the morning. And I remember you telling us that, you know, your goal was to help us achieve our high school diploma. And till this day, I honestly have my diploma in my trunk. It goes with me everywhere I go.

(LAUGHTER)

RAHM: It does?

CRUZ: For me, that was I think the biggest thing I've ever done.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Carlos Cruz now works at the school Mikala Rahn founded. He's one of several employees called chasers. They basically do what Mikala did for Carlos - make sure that kids get to class, turn in assignments and study for their tests. Many chasers were dropouts themselves and a few have been to prison, like Dominick Correy, who served time for burglary. Dominick often works alongside Carlos, and here the two of them talk about their job.

CRUZ: Every chaser has a load of about 35 students. And the main goal of everything we do is to eliminate any and every excuse that they can imagine to why they're not attempting to achieve their high school diploma.

DOMINICK CORREY: A chaser, you're a mentor, you're a parent, you're an alarm clock, as some people say, a truant officer.

CRUZ: Did you ever in your mind think that helping kids finish school was going to be your job at any point?

CORREY: I've never thought going to jail I'd be able to come back and work at a school. I never thought somebody would even give me a chance to work with human beings. It was like I terrorized the streets of Pasadena for so long and I lost six years in jail all together. So, I think if I save one kid from getting shot or if I save one kid from going to jail, I feel like my six years meant something.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: That's Carlos Cruz with Dominick Correy at StoryCorps. Now, Dominick also spoke with one of his students, Anthony Gonzales. Anthony was partially paralyzed when he was injured in a drive-by shooting.

ANTHONY GONZALES: Four years ago, I got shot in the back of the head, and after the bullet hit I felt, like, boiling hot water just go down my spinal cord all the way down to my shoes. And I remember falling to the ground, my head bouncing off of the ground and then blacking out for a little bit. And I guess that's when I died. 'Cause the doctor I died for, like, 27 seconds. I remember being inside of the ambulance, you know, the paramedic pounding on my chest and asking my questions like where do I live? What's my house number? And then after that, I just fell into a coma.

CORREY: How long were you out of school?

GONZALES: Two years.

CORREY: Do you remember your first day here?

GONZALES: Yeah. I walked in, limping. I saw everybody staring at me and I was like, I don't think I want to come here no more. And then I met you.

CORREY: How many times that I came early in the morning to come pick you up? You don't answer your phone so I come knock on the door.

GONZALES: Can't even brush your teeth. Can't even go to the bathroom. It's just hurry up. We're late already.

CORREY: What do you think of me?

GONZALES: You're always been cool with me, straight-up. You were one of us. You went through the (bleep) that we went through. You know, and I see you now as a brother.

CORREY: What do you want for me to do this year to help you graduate?

GONZALES: Don't ease up now. Now, is when I need you the most.

CORREY: If I have to bug you all day and all night to get that work done, then I'm going to do it. 'Cause when you walk across that stage, I'm going to be the first one jumping for joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Anthony Gonzales with Dominick Correy in Pasadena. And we can tell you that earlier this week, Anthony did graduate. To see photos from that commencement and also to learn more about StoryCorps National Teachers Initiative, you can visit npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.