It took tragedy for Paul White to rethink everything he'd done in 25 years of teaching. On Jan. 8, 2002, he'd just dismissed his class at the Canoga Park, Calif., alternative school he founded for at-risk kids when one of his students, 17-year-old Michael Urquidi, was shot in the chest in a gang-related drive-by shooting. The boy stumbled back into the building and collapsed at his teacher's feet. "He died in my arms," says White, "as I told him, 'We love you.'"
Love wasn't enough to help his students. "We needed to do more than just keep them from going wild in class," says White, 53. "We had to turn them around."
Now he's doing just that. Since the tragedy White has transformed the West Valley Leadership Academy – a single main classroom housed in a drab office building – into an educational success story. The tiny student body of 25 is drawn from what White calls "the worst of the worst" – chronic truants, juvenile offenders and ex-gang members. But under his supervision, the 14- to 18-year-olds – who are grouped together – thrive. More than 80 percent graduate, nearly one-third higher than mainstream public schools in Los Angeles.
In fact, for a school that students would typically be forced to attend, there is now a growing waiting list of applicants, most referred by teachers and probation officers. And while most alums do go on to some form of higher education or enter the workforce, White's goal isn't to get kids into Harvard. Instead, it's to turn juvenile delinquents into solid citizens.
"It's not broken kids I'm trying to fix," he says. "It's kids who are acting out in 10 different ways because they're too afraid to say, 'I'm lost.'"
For parents like Jennifer Patrick, that's more than enough. "He's a changed kid," she says of her son Jordan Pedigo, 14. "Something good is going on in that classroom."
Coral Von Zumwalt
"Our emphasis," he says, "is to get kids to care about somebody besides themselves."
It's working. West Valley is spotless and graffiti-free, and students, who wear a uniform of sweat pants and T-shirts, never give lip. "Drop a gum wrapper and he'll take away other privileges until the kid who dropped it confesses," says Chuck Mills, who runs a charity that provides equipment and solicits donations for the school. "Paul holds these kids accountable."
That's made all the difference for Ashley Jaramillo, 15, a ninth grader who skipped school to take crystal meth until a teacher confronted her. "He said, 'You won't amount to anything,'" she says. Instead, she applied to West Valley (to get in, kids must be interviewed with their parents and agree to abide by White's rules). Within three months her reading skills jumped from the 7th- to 10th-grade level.
Classmate Pedigo came after being arrested for writing gang graffiti. "I defied everybody; there were no consequences when I did anything bad," he says. "Here it's different."
The difference begins with having a teacher on 24-hour call. "They know they can count on me," White explains. "I'm family." That enthusiasm for teaching came from his parents, educators in the Detroit suburb of Farmington, Mich. After moving to California in 1974, White (who lives in nearby Ventura with wife and fellow teacher Valerie, 49) taught in schools throughout the state. In 2000, believing closer attention would help high-risk kids, he persuaded officials to approve his tough-love one-room school. White's biggest challenge was trying to change the students' attitude outside the classroom. After Urquidi's murder, he realized he had to do more. "We do everything together now," he says. "No one gets left behind."
Some go further than they ever dreamed. When Sarath Sok, 17, enrolled, he was part of a violent Asian-American gang. A week after graduating, he called a meeting of the gang's members, took off his bandanna and gang colors, and quit. "Mr. White," he says, "taught me courage."