Back in her high school days in South Central L.A., LaToya Howlett seemed on the fast track to trouble. The feisty 1994 grad from David Starr Jordan High School cut classes, picked fights and often did more writing on walls than on term papers. Then one afternoon a director of Colors United, a corporate-funded, nonprofit performing arts group for troubled city kids, spotted Howlett writing graffiti on a school wall and invited her to one of the group's acting classes. Goodbye, graffiti-hello, Hollywood. Howlett proved to be a natural actress, and when the producers of ABC's Dangerous Minds (Mondays, 8 p.m.) approached the group last March on a casting search for their drama about an inner-city school, Howlett not only won an audition, she landed the role of street-savvy student Alvina Edwards.

How she auditioned for the show: "I walked into the network and said, 'I'm here to collect my job.' "

Why it worked: "It [was] a very businesslike room, with the top executives there in suits," says Dangerous Minds executive producer Andrew Schneider. "She knocked them out. She made up dialogue. She had them laughing.... She's fresh and doesn't have a typical TV look.... You don't see a LaToya on Beverly Hills, 90210."

Vitals: At 20, she is the baby in a family of six boys and six girls; lives in a residential corner of Watts in a one-floor home with mother Daisy, 60, a housewife, plus one older sister and two nieces. (Father Foster, a retired sanitation worker, died in 1994.)

First take: "LaToya was going in the wrong direction," says Daisy. "She'd use her fists, then ask questions later."

Second take: "LaToya's like a sponge when she's learning something," says Colors United codirector Kingston DuCoeur, who discovered her. "She almost never missed a class or a rehearsal, and often would be the first one there."

Early critics: "She was caught up in the whole [gang] milieu," notes DuCoeur. "She was in deep enough that when she did break away, some of her homies were angry."

Civic standing: "Some friends are happy for me," Howlett says. "Others say, 'She think she all that.' "

First ambition: "I always wanted to be a mortician."

Up next: "I see myself doing films, commercials and public speaking," says Howlett. "I've got so many things I want to do with my life."