At home with the homeboys
A Pasadena school for kids in trouble finds a partner in Father Greg Boyle
By Joe Piasecki 11/12/2009
Celebrated for his successful gang intervention and youth rehabilitation efforts in LA’s inner city, Homeboy Industries founder Father Greg Boyle was in Pasadena Monday to announce a new education and job training partnership with Pasadena’s Learning Works charter high school.
Learning Works serves some of Pasadena’s toughest students. All have been expelled from or dropped out of the district’s traditional public high schools, and more than one third are on criminal probation from LA County juvenile halls and camps — kids who had otherwise exhausted their chances to earn a diploma and, in some cases, to start adulthood outside a jail cell.
Starting in January, Homeboy Industries will provide job training and placement for the nearly 300 students at Learning Works, each of which receive individualized classroom attention and crisis intervention. In return, the school will help operate Homeboy Industries’ downtown LA charter school, a recent addition to its longstanding social services network.
“This place stands at the margins with the poor, the powerless and the voiceless, with the easily despised and the readily left out,” said Boyle to a crowd of several dozen gathered at the East Walnut Street school. “I think we both occasionally stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop and with the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away, especially kids.”
The message resonated with state Sen. Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, who praised both programs for their efforts to rehabilitate formerly incarcerated youth.
“We know the juvenile justice system is broken and needs to be fixed, and with it the adult prison system. Spending on corrections [will in 2012] surpass spending on higher education in the state. We need to take another look at what we value,” she said.
Each year some 20,000 youth spend time in LA County’s 18 probation camps and three juvenile halls. The Children’s Council of Los Angeles County reports that incarcerated LA youth, most of whom are 14 to 17 years old, read on average at below fifth-grade level and do little better in math.
State Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, Pasadena City Councilwoman Jacque Robinson, Pasadena Unified School District Superintendent Edwin Diaz and Pasadena Star-News Public Editor Larry Wilson also attended the open-house event, as did Pasadena Board of Education members Bob Harrison, Elizabeth Pomeroy and Renatta Cooper.
“PUSD has a goal to cut our dropout rate in half this year, and a program like this is very helpful,” said Harrison. “Comprehensive high schools don’t work for every kid.”
Learning Works’ first graduating class last year numbered 42, but since then its student body has grown by 25 percent.
Portantino praised Learning Works and Homeboy Industries as part of the solution to the state’s growing prison population. Instead of letting people out of prison early, “We need to focus on cutting down the supply of inmates by making sure people have access to education and opportunity,” he said. “It’s not about letting people out of prison; it’s about keeping them out in the first place.”
Many in the crowd were simply star-struck with Boyle, who in the 1980s served as a Jesuit missionary in Bolivia and LA’s Boyle Heights neighborhood and for a brief time was a prison chaplain. Following the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Boyle founded his first of now five nonprofit businesses as both a job-training center and refuge from gang violence.
“He’s my hero,” said Learning Works Executive Director Mikala Rahn. “I remember someone asking him [during a forum at Pasadena’s All Saints Church], ‘So when do you give up on someone?’ His answer was you never give up. They may decide to check out or check in, but it’s not for us to give up.
“The kids are worth it.”
Contributing Editor Joe Piasecki is currently pursuing a master’s degree as an Annenberg Fellow with USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.