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South Bay Alternative High School Graduates Look Forward To Next Chapter

Carlos Corona’s family brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was 16. He didn’t know a word of English.

“At first I was at school in Tijuana, so I really was new to this country. So my mother decided to give me a better life here in San Diego, so we moved here to San Diego,” Corona said.

Three years later, he’s graduating from high school in San Diego and fluent in English.

Corona and his classmates are graduating from the MAAC Community Charter School, an alternative high school open to anyone in San Diego County. It's part of a larger project called the Metropolitan Advisory Committee on Anti-Poverty, which began in 1965. The school's mission is to help families in need achieve self sufficiency.

Many students at MAAC are like Carlos: left out or left behind by the system. Many are English language learners or have other problems, such as behavioral issues or drug abuse, that set them back in a traditional school setting.

“Back in 2001, the MAAC Project decided to open up a community charter school for students who have been pushed out of the traditional system or slipped through the cracks of the traditional system, so it’s students who are not succeeding in a comprehensive high school,” said Tommy Valentino Ramirez, the school’s dean.

He says that the school’s location, just five miles from the border, plays a huge role in the school’s approach to its emphasis on community-based learning, whether they are language classes or anything else.

“We’re about six miles, maybe five miles away from the border. We’re really sad to see all the reality of border life, and how it affects not just the family, but the youth of today, and sadly, there’s not that many resources in the community if they want to further their education,” Ramirez said. “We really treat everyone as adults here, and just help guide them to be more critical and analyze their situation and their own actions.”

The school offers traditional high school core classes but with a heavy emphasis on art. Victor Ochoa is a Chicano Park muralist. He has been an art professor here since the school opened in 2001, but this school year was his last teaching there.

“Well, we’re here at our 2014 graduation, and I kind of feel like I’m graduating myself, as this is my retirement year here after 14 years here at the MAAC,” Ochoa said.

He said as someone who grew up between Mexico and the United States, he understands what many of the students at the MAAC are going through, and that has helped him teach them more effectively.

Jose Barajas is proud that his stepdaughter has graduated high school and will be going on to college in the fall. Photo by Brooke Binkowski, June 12, 2014.

About 40 people walked in this year’s graduation. Jose Barajas's stepdaughter Lorena Kellogg was one of them. Barajas said he has high hopes for her.

"I'm very proud of her," Barajas said. "She used to write me letters when I was incarcerated, I would write her back, trying to motivate her back myself to stay in school, finish school, don't drop out, don't be like me -- you know, be better."

Kellogg will start college in the fall.

Carlos Corona said the students all feel as though they have been given a second chance at proving their worth as scholars.

“I just heard [from] my leader, Tommy Ramirez. I’m getting a scholarship,” he said, smiling.

That money will go to pay part of Corona's tuition at City College. From there, he hopes to transfer to UC Los Angeles for a degree in filmmaking.

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