SAN JOSE -- After they veer off course, many of California's hundreds of thousands of dropouts end up unemployed, on the streets, in jail and worse. For those young people who are lucky and determined enough, the San Jose Conservation Corps Charter School has helped them get back on track.
Nearly all its 500 students had dropped out of high school. More than half have been arrested or jailed. But about 70 percent emerge from the Conservation Corps with a high school diploma, as well as job skills and often a job.
"We take tax-takers and turn them into tax-makers," founder and Executive Director Robert Hennessy is fond of saying.
In its 27 years, the school has served about 24,000 youths. Its twice-annual graduation is held at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds to accommodate the crowd that gathers to celebrate the 200 or so graduates, many the first in their families to earn a diploma.
Success serves as the school's biggest recruitment tool, Hennessy said, the reason 250 youths are on its waiting list.
Conservation Corps, which became a charter school in 2002, fills a gap that has grown only wider as area high schools channel more students toward college and leave many behind.
A contrarian to the college-for-all push, Conservation Corps board member Jim Stoch asks, "What's there for them?" Instead, he advocates what the corps offers: a diploma, practical skills and training for careers with living wages. He points out that 25 percent of recent college grads are unemployed, and as many are underemployed. And for high school grads and dropouts, it's much worse.
"The gangs," he said, "are hiring all the time."
Recognizing the harsh realities that students face, the school offers counseling and other support, such as child care. Classes run year-round in eight-week sessions of high school core courses, plus computing, Spanish and practical life skills like budgeting, deciphering a pay check and safe online behavior. Students, nearly all 18 and older, enter with skills ranging from second-grade to high-school levels, meaning some may finish in six months, and others take two years or more.
Many also alternate weeks in paid training, learning how to install drywall, or driving trucks picking up recycling, operating bottle-crushing machinery -- valuable experiences that often lead to jobs.
Conservation Corps graduates "come in very motivated with some good basic working skills," said Stephanie Orosco, human resources manager at San Jose Water Co., which has hired corps alumni for summer and permanent work. She also sits on the corps' board.
The school makes allowances for working students. "These are young men and women taking care of an entire family and barely making it," Hennessy said. But the understanding is that the primary goal remains the diploma.
Not surprising for the high-risk population, some quit to work full time, take care of children or get lured back into gangs. But the school also offers a second chance for students who can persuasively explain that they've changed.
Daisy Barragan, 20, was dropped for poor attendance and grades. But then she pulled herself together and re-enrolled. She now works full time and plans to graduate soon. She wants to continue on to college, major in women's studies and someday run a counseling clinic.
Raised by her grandmother, Barragan battled disparagement and disapproval from her family. At school, she's found the opposite. It's wonderful, she said, to hear a teacher say, "Good morning, I'm thankful you are here. How's everything at home?"
Her reaction: "Wow, they really care about me."
It's a requirement. Principal Gina Ortiz's priority in hiring is, "You have to be able to understand these kids."
Ortiz, 33, knows that well. She grew up in foster care and had her son at age 14, before finding her way to the Conservation Corps. She graduated, earned a bachelor's from San Jose State and is working on an online master's course in charter school administration.
The school demands students leave wayward ways behind. They must remove visible tattoos. "We want them to be able to sit before an employer and not be turned down because they have all these tattoos and piercings going on," Hennessy said. "That doesn't go well with most employers."
But removing tattoos could risk the potentially fatal consequences of leaving a gang. "It's a scary choice," said Pedro Valencia, 17, who was in a gang from fourth to 10th grade. For some, it's too high a barrier. "They don't realize they can move on."
And the school's rules on attendance and tardiness can be challenges.
"Your whole family is sleeping until 1, and you're the only one getting up in the morning," said Isabel Perez, 31, a school alumna who now works in its attendance office -- and knows well students' struggles just to get to school. She used to catch the first of three buses at 5:45 a.m., and would return home after dark.
Motivated by having a son, then 2, she persevered, starting with only 10 credits and earning enough to graduate from the conservation corps.
Barragan and Valencia said they would recommend the school to friends. "If I could have 100 slots, I'd fill them," Barragan said. "A lot of people want to change their lives."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.
©2013 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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Image credit: San Jose Conservation Corps Charter School