Nicholas Garcia, 15, said Madera Unified School District is offering him a “second chance.”
Bullied and with his grades slumping, the freshman was near expulsion at Madera South High School when he was given another option: Ripperdan Community Day School, set to open in January.
Nicholas has high hopes the new school will help him graduate so he can attend culinary arts school. Reaching goals isn’t so easy in his neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of violence in Madera. It’s pretty rough for a lot of the kids here … I’ve lost two friends already to the streets,” said Nicholas, referring to fatal shootings.
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Educators at Ripperdan say they plan to help curb that crime, one inspired student at a time.
Ripperdan — funded with state dollars provided by the Local Control Funding Formula — will incorporate some innovative programs to serve struggling students from grades seven through 12 in a refurbished 100-year-old school with seven classrooms, said Michael Mueller, Madera Unified’s director of student services, who first envisioned the new community day school.
Located seven miles south of Madera at Avenue 7 and Road 26, Ripperdan was closed 41/2years ago after serving as a continuation school for a short time, Mueller said.
The school — to be known as “Ripperdan School of Opportunity,” Mueller said — will open with two classes of 15 students each, with hopes of increasing those numbers over time while keeping the student-to-teacher ratio low.
Planned programs include community service and chess playing, art and weekly counseling sessions. An extended school day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., will make it possible.
Nicholas said he is looking forward to chess — along with staying in school longer: “It’s something to do on my spare time instead of being out on the streets and getting into trouble.”
A deep understanding
Those in charge of Ripperdan say they understand the trouble Nicholas is facing — and at least a couple understand on a very personal level. Ripperdan’s new principal, Fermin Guzman Jr., was once a juvenile correctional officer. And the school’s new counselor, Daniel Longoria, was once a boy behind bars.
Guzman still vividly remembers standing outside a Fresno jail cell more than a decade ago, watching a 14-year-old boy cry for his grandma. A few months later, the boy was back behind bars, but this time he shed no tears. He had become a gang member, Guzman said, and now was “hard core.”
Watching the boy’s transformation was an epiphany for Guzman — the catalyst for choosing a new life path. “I wanted to help kids before they became criminals, to stop the revolving door, so I switched careers at that point and became an educator.”
Longoria, Ripperdan’s new counselor, was once swept up in those revolving doors — from age 12 to 30. Longoria said he was first jailed for robbing a closed diner in Porterville. That crime spiraled into others: More property crimes, shoplifting, and drug and alcohol abuse, he said.
As a counselor, Longoria is now committed to helping children stay out of jail and stay focused on their dreams.
Nicholas is among 17 future Ripperdan students who already have started attending counseling sessions with Longoria this semester, thanks to extra state funds under the new law.
“He’s a positive role model for me … because of the situation he was in when he was younger, and how he turned it around,” Nicholas said of Longoria.
Daniel Sackheim, who oversees the state’s 253 community day schools as an educational programs consultant for the California Department of Education, said he is impressed by a number of Ripperdan goals — most notably the broad range of careers students will be exposed to.
Ripperdan’s application states students eventually will be able to experience work in agriculture, building trades, law enforcement and other public service — such as volunteering to help senior citizens — Sackheim said.
Providing students such a broad range of career experiences at a community day school is “rare,” Sackheim said. That diversity is a “great strength” because it means all students will likely fit into one discipline comfortably, he said.
Sackheim also is impressed by the way school administrators described their goals for the chess program.
“It’s not a combative attitude,” Sackheim said. “It’s learning to sit down together. It’s learning to part at the end of the match on good terms. It’s learning to be aware that chess is a game of looking ahead and being aware of alternatives.”
Mueller said “restoring the humanity for these kids” is the ultimate aim of the daily chess playing. He hopes the practice will make students “more social” so they can heal and then excel in school. All have been through some kind of traumatic experience, he said.
“This is a school of caring adults,” Mueller said of Ripperdan. “We are going to work with these kids and they are going to slip and fall, and we are going to pick them up again. … Kids need a second chance — and sometimes a third, and sometimes a fourth — but they will come around.”
A dream becomes reality
Mueller said Ripperdan wouldn’t have been possible without the state’s adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula — a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in July 2013 that increased state funds for high-needs students, including those living in poverty or in the foster care system.
“This is the best move California schools have made in over 40 years,” Mueller said of the new funding formula. “I think the governor would be thrilled if he came out and saw Ripperdan. He’d say, ‘This is exactly what I had in mind.’ ”
Districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged students — at least 55% — get even more state dollars. Madera Unified is one of those districts because about 90% of its students fall into that category, Superintendent Edward Gonzalez said.
Madera Unified got more than $19 million extra for 2014-15 under the new funding law. Of that amount, $118,083 is going to Ripperdan for its spring semester, said Teri Bradshaw, director of fiscal services for the district.
Bradshaw said one-time expenditures — which include construction costs to open the school — totaled about $430,000, and total regular operating costs for the spring semester, including salaries for eight staff members, will be about $731,000.
Mueller said the new community day school means Madera Unified students who are struggling or expelled can stay within the district instead of being shipped off to county-run Enterprise Secondary School.
Gonzalez said parents and community members shared input about Ripperdan during public meetings about how to use the new state funds. Nicholas’ mother, Rosanna Garcia, is among Ripperdan’s supporters.
“I hope it changes his (Nicholas) train of thought about school and makes him want to stay in school,” she said. “ … He needs someone to open that door for him and tell him, ‘You know what? It’s going to be OK.’ ”