This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand. Back to school. California students used to enjoy some of the finest public schools in the country. Now, many of those schools are among the worst.

CHADWICK: In Los Angeles, one high school near downtown is trying to apply the state's hard lessons of the last years to inspire kids to dream again. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates introduces us to a couple of these students as a part of our California Dreaming series.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Unlike a lot of teens that are dreading the return to high school, Bullivar Ruiz (ph) is stoked.

Mr. BULLIVAR RUIZ (Student, West Adams Preparatory High School): I mean, this is a brand new school. Everything is brand new, new school, new faculties, new opportunities. I was glad that I came here the first year, and I'm going to be soon graduating. And I'm a graduate this year, and I'm going to be the first class 09, baby. That's how it is.

GRIGSBY BATES: His classmate, Saida Mitchell (ph), is a little more reserved but, like Bullivar, she's ready to tackle her final year.

Ms. SAIDA MITCHELL(Student, West Adams Preparatory High School): I felt a lot of pressure in a way. I mean, I know it's going to be hard work, and I feel like I'm ready for that.

GRIGSBY BATES: Saida and Bullivar are seniors at West Adams Preparatory High School, one of the newest schools in Los Angeles. Like most of the other L.A. schools here, West Adams has a population of thousands. Unlike other schools, though, students here are divided into a half a dozen smaller schools that reflect varying disciplines and career interests.

Ironically, in one of the most diverse cities in the world, L.A.'s school system remains one of the most segregated, and West Adams reflects that.

Mr. JOHN LYNCH (Assistant Administrator, School of Science and Technology, West Adams Preparatory High School): Demographics. Our school serves populations of about 89 percent Latino and about 10 percent African-American and a very small Korean and even smaller white population.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's John Lynch (ph). He helps administer the school of science and technology. The L.A. unified system has become nationally infamous for failing its students, literally. It has one of the highest dropout rates in the country. John Lynch says West Adams' school-within-a-school approach is a big help in giving all its students the attention they need.

Mr. LYNCH: Our small schools break down what is, for some kids, a really overwhelming place. 2,600 kids are this year coming up, but when you break it down to small schools, and there's about 400 kids in your small school, it makes it - it still makes it feel intimate.

GRIGSBY BATES: Bullivar's enrolled at the school of education and international studies. He's already got the global part down. With the aid of a fellowship, he spent the summer traveling through South America playing highly competitive soccer. That's his passion, his dream for himself.

Mr. RUIZ: When I grow up, I want to be a professional soccer player, so I'm assuming I graduate from here, go to any college that will give me a scholarship to play soccer, and after that, it all depends.

GRIGSBY BATES: If he makes it to the pros, great, but, if not, his backup plan is a career in technical engineering. Saida is in the school of performing arts and literature. She says her parents have talked to her about college for as long as she can remember.

Ms. MITCHELL: It was kind of like indoctrinated into me since I was little.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MITCHELL: And, I mean, now, like, it's my own personal dream.

GRIGSBY BATES: Sports medicine is Saida's goal, and she thinks this new school will help her get there.

Ms. MITCHELL: I feel there's something about this school is, there's a lot more opportunities to do things. There's a lot more programs here than I was getting at my other school.

GRIGSBY BATES: And there are expectations that, even though their economic circumstances may be limited, the students here have unlimited possibilities that they are expected to take seriously. Bullivar's keenly aware that how he does here could affect his whole family's future.

Mr. RUIZ: I'm going to be the first kid to go to college. So I have, like, a big old responsibility to go to college since I'm, like, the oldest one.

GRIGSBY BATES: Saida has her own motivation.

Ms. MITCHELL: It's always been brought home to me that, you know, you're going to make something of your life. You know, watching people that you love struggle is plenty inspiration to succeed in life and to want more for your life than what you've seen.

GRIGSBY BATES: The people who say the California dream is gone, that succeeding generations will have to make do with less aren't factoring in the determination of kids like Saida and Bullivar. They're redefining the dream for their own generation, and it starts here with this new school, chock full of opportunities and high standards. 09 baby, that's how it is. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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