Sylvia lifts a forkful of green beans halfway to her mouth, eyes it warily and drops the food back to her plate. "But I've never been to a bigger school," she says. "So I don't know."
"I like it up in here," says Amy Moyer, Sylvia's best friend. Amy sits on the other side of the table, working her way through a pile of packaged saltines. Like Sylvia, Amy is a sophomore, sixteen years old. Before Alta Vista, she attended Rosedale Middle School in the Kansas City, Kansas, School District. If she hadn't enrolled in this tiny charter school on the north end of Holly Street, atop the bluff overlooking Kemper Arena, she would have gone to J.C. Harmon High, a KCK public school with an enrollment of more than 1,200 students.
She's glad she didn't. "Here, it's more like a family," she says. "You can't just disappear here. The principal knows everyone."
Amy gestures at Sylvia. "She's the opposite," Amy says. "Yet we're friends."
At this, Sylvia seems to soften. She almost smiles as she casts her eyes again across the lunchroom, a windowless space barely as big as a two-car garage.
"As choices go," Sylvia admits, "this seems to be the best."
If Sylvia's mom hadn't sent her to Alta Vista, she'd be at Bishop Miege, a private Catholic school in Kansas, or, based on her address, Kansas City's Central High. "But I probably would have gotten kicked out of Bishop Miege," she says. "Plus, there's too many white people."
She doubts she would have lasted long at Central, either. "Too many black people," she says.
"You like black people," Amy corrects her.
"I like them," she concedes. "But they don't like me."
Sylvia pauses to stare down at her plate. "I don't know," she says. "I just like being around my own kind of people."
Last year, 22 Latino students graduated from Alta Vista. By the time Sylvia is ready to don a cap and gown two years from now, school officials hope to double that figure. Those are small numbers, until you consider the size of the school: 134 students. Roughly seven out of ten students who enroll in Alta Vista emerge with a diploma. They're often the first ones in their families to earn one. Many then go on to community college -- another first for their families.
This is good news in Kansas City's Latino community, which has struggled for decades with dropout rates hovering well above 50 percent.
In the Kansas City School District, Latinos appear to be disappearing after sixth grade. The district has no figures on the current dropout rates for Latinos in Kansas City. But last school year there were 2,288 Latino children attending district elementary schools -- but just 457 enrolled in middle schools and 451 in high schools. Leaders in the Latino community are mystified -- they don't know whether the students are transferring to other public and private schools or just quitting.
And at a time when Latinos are the fastest-growing minority population in the metro -- Hispanics will soon outnumber whites in the Kansas City School District -- Alta Vista offers a model for success. That also goes for the two dozen black or white students. Classes are smaller here, making it harder for students to hide in a corner and ignore the daily lessons. Students find positive role models in the teachers and administrators, who are almost all Latino. The school offers an array of social-support services to fend off negative forces -- gangs, drugs, unprotected sex -- that wield influence both inside and outside the classrooms.
As in any school, there's discord here. You can see it in the lunchroom, where recent immigrants to Kansas City's Historic Northeast neighborhood huddle at the tables near the walls, quietly chatting in Spanish while Westside Chicanos, second- and third-generation Americans of Mexican descent, hold court at the middle tables as if they own the place
"There are gangs here," Alta Vista Principal Cassandra Cole says candidly. "Anyone who tells you differently needs a dose of reality."
Yet the students at Alta Vista say the talk of gangs is overblown. It's just "neighborhood pride," one senior says. The factions tend to coexist peacefully -- no small feat considering the school's cramped hallways. Trouble erupts once or twice a year, says Cyndee Gusman, one of the school's counselors; most often it's instigated by girls, usually because of a boy. The faculty generally gets the situation under control quickly, but they sometimes must call police, as happened last year when a crew from Kansas City, Kansas, came brandishing guns and the melee spread from the school's front steps down the hill toward the restaurants on Southwest Boulevard.
Alta Vista is not an academic utopia. It's as if the students and teachers have been transported half a century back in time, to the days before Brown v. Board of Education. Alta Vista is separate and unequal by almost all standards. Its facilities are substandard. The building, a former print shop, sorely needs a coat of paint. The science teacher lacks Bunsen burners and beakers. History and English instructors often work from photocopies of textbooks. And the school's state-mandated test scores are among the lowest in the Kansas City system.
Yet something amazing is happening at Alta Vista. Scuffles aside, kids here claim they've found a community unlike any they've experienced in a school, public or private. Virtually every kid at the school was, at one time or another, heading toward dropping out. Now they thrive in the Latino vibe that permeates the place, from the images of Aztec gods painted on the walls to the sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club streaming out of the art room.
"Everything in a Mexican neighborhood, you try to keep Mexican," says Arturo Lopez, a friend of Sylvia and Amy. "It's better, dude, because you're learning with the people you want to chill with."
Alta Vista opened its doors in 1990, but its ideological birth had come more than a decade earlier, in the summer of 1978. That was when a handful of parents, led by Don Pecina, began scrutinizing West High School, a now-mothballed three-story brick schoolhouse near downtown on Summit Street.
They all hailed from Kansas City's Westside, a dense enclave of tiny, weathered ranches and creaky Victorians, brightly colored restaurants, light-industrial warehouses and small tiendas stretching from the hills west of Penn Valley Park to the rise shadowing Kemper Arena. Beginning in the 1920s, newcomers from Mexico and points farther south settled in the area, replacing the Irish immigrants who had lived there. They opened Mexican markets and music stores and took jobs on the railroad, building a tight community that has remained intact for several generations.
Good blue-collar jobs were plentiful in the early days. But by the late 1970s, work became harder to find. A new generation of Westsiders began making dangerous choices. Pecina was "appalled by the fact that young Westside men ended up either at the penitentiary or at McGilley's Funeral Home," according to a 1981 story in a community newsletter. Education, he surmised, was the key to reversing trends. So he gathered up some parents, and they roamed the halls of West High, which boasted the Kansas City School District's largest population of Latino students. They poked their heads into classrooms and found students talking, sleeping, watching television. In one class, they caught a teacher reading Playboy while the students looked on.
They formed the Coalition to Preserve Education on the Westside and, on August 7, 1980, took over the school in protest. After three days of tense negotiations, the school board unanimously agreed to develop a "community-sponsored experimental high school," which would open the following year in the West High building.
Plans for the West Community School proceeded fabulously at first. Hundreds of parents filed into the West High auditorium in January 1981 to hear about the new school. Some wore brown berets to signify their allegiance with the Chicano movement. Facing the glare of TV lights, members of the school-board-appointed Westside Community School Committee and consultants from Midwest Research Institute described a small school -- no more than 200 students -- that would stress basic reading, writing and math. "The emphasis is on each individual achieving his own potential," committee member Pecina told the crowd. "We're not going to try to force the kids to learn, since that doesn't work. But we're going to tap their motivation."
By that spring, parents were signing up their kids for fall classes. The committee was searching for a principal. But by the time they found one in April, school district administrators had pulled back on their commitment; on March 20, then-Assistant Superintendent Wayne Dotts had called a Westside Community School Committee member and said that the school plan would have to be scrapped because a drop in federal funds was predicted. According to a June 1981 article in the now-defunct newsletter Westside Weekly, "Since the West plan didn't rely on any federal funds, Dotts eventually admitted the real reason for killing the plan was certain unnamed 'political considerations.'"
"I think the school district just doesn't want to have a high school on the Westside," Pecina told the Weekly at the time.
More protests and sit-ins followed. The activist parents eventually filed a lawsuit against the Kansas City School District. At the end of a two-day trial in September 1981, a county judge scolded district officials for breaking their promise -- but ruled that the law allowed them to do so. District officials boarded up West High, adding it to a long list of Westside school closures. "The biggest villain back then was the school district," says Gilbert Guerrero, Alta Vista's director of education. "They always felt that if they had to close a school, it would be a Latino school."
Three years later, federal Judge Russell Clark found the Kansas City School Board guilty of violating the U.S. Constitution by maintaining a racially segregated school district. Lawyers began crafting what would become the most expensive desegregation remedy in American history -- an effort that would only stoke the feeling of disenfranchisement within the Latino community.
"Desegregation didn't really address the issues of Hispanic students," Guerrero says. "The desegregation plan, for us, was black and white. We were not a first thought. We were not a second thought. We were an afterthought."
"Latinos were not part of the violation findings," says Arthur A. Benson II, attorney for the plaintiff schoolchildren. In spite of the Westside Community School debacle, Benson says, "There was no system of discrimination against Latinos."
Yet Benson says the desegregation plan made space for Latinos. Shortly after the guilty verdict, he presented Judge Clark with case law indicating that desegregation efforts must consider all minorities. So Clark ordered that the plan -- which proposed creating state-of-the-art magnet schools to lure white students from the suburbs -- be directed toward "minority" and "nonminority" students rather than black kids and white kids. Each school was expected to reach and maintain a specific ratio of minority to nonminority students. Latinos were allowed to choose whether they were one or the other. This, Benson says, was an advantage because they could get into any magnet school they wanted.
Guerrero remembers it differently. As a young activist, he went on a promotional tour of the city's magnet schools in the late 1980s. A district marketer -- whose job it was to entice white families into sending their kids to the inner-city schools -- told him that "the great thing about being Hispanic is you can choose if you want to be black or white."
"It burned when I heard that," Guerrero says. "I was very, very angry."
Around the same time, in 1989, a national study on dropout rates proved that public schools had failed to engage Latino students. Officials at the Westside's Guadalupe Center (a community center offering job, health, anti-crime, education and recreation programs) reached out to administrators at the DeLaSalle Education Center, an alternative school operating on Kansas City's predominantly black east side. DeLaSalle had been educating potential dropouts since 1971. Officials there were eager to help young Latinos as well, but found that few of them were willing to venture so far across town. So, with a $50,000 grant from a private foundation, DeLaSalle and the Guadalupe Center partnered in 1990 to establish Alta Vista High School.
"It was a victory, a little victory," Guerrero says. "When I got the news that the school was going to be funded, I called some of the old radicals and told them we were finally going to have a school. I told them it was going to be small. But it was a moral victory."
The school started out in the basement of Alta Vista Christian Church, at the corner of Mercier and what's now called Avenida Cesar E. Chavez. They had funding for fifteen kids, but thirty showed up.
"We infused the school with the culture of the community," Guerrero says. "When we asked students what they wanted to learn, I remember one kid said, 'I don't want to know his story. I don't want to know her story. I want to know my story.'"
It worked. Year after year, dozens of kids who had been on the fast track to dropping out have put on caps and gowns and grabbed their diplomas. By 1996, the school enrolled 84 students and boasted a 91 percent graduation rate. Alta Vista held its first graduation at Guadalupe Shrine, a church with room for 300 people, but so many family members came to see the ceremony that officials had to search for a bigger facility the next year. They moved on to a lecture hall at Penn Valley Community College, but even there the audience spilled out into the aisles and blocked the doorways. Last year's celebration was held at the gym at Primativo Garcia Elementary, where more than 500 people watched two dozen students pick up their diplomas. With a graduating class of 44 predicted for this year, school officials aren't sure where they'll have the ceremony.
Alta Vista became a charter school in 1998, allowing kids from public schools to transfer there and have their education paid for by the state. The school's population has ballooned to nearly 150 kids, 80 percent of them Latino.
Amid growing pains, the graduation rates have slipped.
And along with the state money has come a new level of accountability, in the form of achievement tests. On these, Alta Vista students have not fared well, and the statistics threaten the school's future.
It's just after 8 on a mid-December morning when Sylvia and Amy walk into Ed Mendez's classroom, a narrow basement space with concrete floors and inexpensive dry-erase boards screwed into the walls -- Mendez bought the boards with his own money at Home Depot. He has also adorned the room with motivational posters, one of which reads "You can't choose your circumstances, but you can choose to overcome them."
The tardy bell rings. "All right," Mendez says, "we're going to play a game." He divides the class into teams of two and passes out dry-erase markers. The rules are simple. He asks questions, and the first team to jump up and write the correct answer on the board gets a point. The team with the most points wins.
Twelve kids sit on the edge of their seats, clutching markers. Mendez stands at the front of the class, idly massaging his goatee. "What is the first step in creating a law?" he asks.
Amy jumps up and scribbles "Introduce Idea" on the board.
"Introduce idea?" Mendez asks.
"Yeah, you know, like the mayor," she says, dropping into a slight curtsy. "Or a neighborhood person."
"OK," he says, walking over to the board to mark a point for Amy's team. "A law starts as an idea. Then it becomes a bill. And then the City Council votes it into law."
He tosses out another question. Amy leaps up and scores a second point. A minute later, she's got three points and a strong lead. She does a dance as she returns to her seat.
Sylvia rolls her eyes. "Teacher's pet," she scoffs.
Jealousy aside, Sylvia is enthralled by the game, as are the other kids in the class. Yet there's nothing special about it. Mendez has them play a game like this whenever he wants them to review for a test that is looming on the horizon. Caught up in the adrenaline of a game, they don't seem to notice that they're studying for a test. It beats boring old worksheets, Mendez says. Competition gets his students into what he calls the "anticipatory set," where they're hanging on every word the teacher says. "I try to get them more motivated," he says.
Mendez has dedicated his life to motivating kids. Four years ago, he gave up a job as a project manager with GE Capital, taking a pay cut of almost 50 percent to become a teacher. He was part of the first wave of new hires when Alta Vista became a charter school in fall 1998. To accommodate the influx of new students that year, Alta Vista held its freshman classes in the basement of Sacred Heart gym at 26th and Belleview, across the neighborhood from the Holly hillside. Portable partitions divided the basement into makeshift classrooms. On Fridays, the teachers took down the walls to make room for weekend activities; on Mondays, they arrived early to put up the partitions again. Midsemester, they moved one block up Belleview to the basement of the Plaza del Niños day care, where they once again had to shuffle the walls every week. By spring semester, they were finally able to move into the current site on Holly.
Mendez has never regretted his decision to leave the corporate world. He sees it as an opportunity to serve as a positive role model for kids like the ones with whom he grew up. With his brown skin, boyish face and neatly trimmed, combed-back hair, he looks like a lot of the kids at Alta Vista. But unlike the students, who tend to wear their shirts untucked and their baggy khakis cinched below their hips, Mendez sports freshly creased slacks and clean guayaberras, the ornately stitched short-sleeved shirts favored by men in Central America.
He also embodies a different future than his students have imagined for themselves. Mendez rose out of the Argentine neighborhood, a predominately Latino enclave just south of the Kansas River in Kansas City, Kansas. His father had immigrated to the area from Mexico in the mid-1960s, taking a railroad job. Then as now, few from his neighborhood entered adulthood with high-school diplomas. Though the elder Mendez never graduated from high school, he made financial sacrifices to send his son to the private Bishop Ward High School. Mendez made good on his family's investment, going on to earn a degree in business from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He has a stock portfolio and is studying for a master's degree.
Even Sylvia likes him, which is no small accomplishment, considering her disdain for school.
"What's one way we can get a law passed in the community?" he asks. Sylvia starts for the board, but Amy beats her. She writes "petition."
"Good," Mendez says, marking another point on the board.
"Man, we're so smart," Amy says, slapping five with her partner. She and her teammate eventually win with eight points. "Poppin' for all y'all who don't think I'm smart enough, that I can't go to college," she says, tugging on her collar. "I have to go to college."
With a few minutes left in class, Mendez dims the lights and turns on a projector that displays an Internet page on the wall. He opens the USA Today Web site and asks, "What's going on in the news?"
"French fries cause cancer, that's all I know," Sylvia says. "Plus I know Bush wants to do anything to go to war with Iraq."
"War in Iraq," Amy says scornfully. "Why don't we just kill Bush?"
"We can't kill Bush!" Mendez exclaims.
"Yeah, you can," she replies. "Just shoot him."
"What's the civil way?" Mendez asks.
Another student offers the option of the vote.
"That'll take four years!" Amy barks, exasperated. "I'll vote for the Iraq president before I vote for him."
A couple of days later, Amy receives some bad news. She's one of nineteen students being suspended for excessive tardiness. Amy has been late to class twenty times since the beginning of the school year. "I guess I have a hard time getting up in the morning," she says.
The suspensions are a bold move by the principal, Cassandra Cole, who is in her first year at Alta Vista. She wants to show that school administrators are serious about their policies. But she knows that the action could jeopardize her budget. State funds for charter schools are largely dependent on attendance rates.
Discipline has always been a difficult balancing act at Alta Vista. Administrators want to keep kids in line, but not at the expense of scaring them off to a full-time street education.
And there's plenty in the neighborhood to derail the journey to graduation. Sylvia says "pretty much everyone" in the school has done drugs. The party fare is mostly booze and pot, though cocaine and hallucinogens occasionally show up at gatherings in parks or homes. In the days leading up to Amy's suspension, she and Sylvia had been pondering invitations to a hotel party, though they weren't offering any details for publication. But when Amy returns from suspension, she'll hear tales of her classmates' exploits. One boy passed out on the couch at a Saturday night party. And a carload of guys was pulled over by cops, who emptied the Latino kids' pockets and threw their cash in the gutter before letting them go because they couldn't make any charges.
All of this greatly disturbs the faculty at Alta Vista. "We've definitely had a problem with substance abuse," says Gusman, the counselor. The fight against drugs is especially tough, Gusman says, because it's so enmeshed in the kids' culture. Drugs are often part of the kids' family lives. Some are second- or third-generation pot smokers. Gusman recalls seeing a girl step out of her mother's car amid a cloud of marijuana smoke. When confronted, the girl admitted that her mother had lit up on the way to school.
To battle this, the teachers at Alta Vista make it clear that their turf is drug-free. Virtually all of the students seem to understand this. They might whisper about their weekends, but none would dare spark a joint in the bathroom or show up to Mendez's class reeking of tequila.
The faculty also combats negative forces by projecting a different image of cool. Mendez and his art-teaching colleague Ben Morales, for example, are hardly dorks. They both grew up in Latino communities. They respect the kids because they see themselves in them. And the kids respond to this respect by opening up to them, sharing their problems and reaching out for help.
The model for leadership at Alta Vista was created by Uzziel Pecina (Don Pecina's younger cousin), who served as principal through the late 1990s. He had grown up on the Westside and continued to live there while he was principal. Pecina started at the school in 1992 as a Spanish teacher. "I was a hothead," he recalled of his early days in a 1999 Kansas City Star article. "I thought respect came automatic. [But] just because you have a Mr. or Ms. on your name doesn't automatically earn you respect."
Pecina was either tough or compassionate, depending on the circumstances. When he caught kids with forbidden pagers, he smashed them. But when he discovered students doing drugs, he didn't kick them out -- he prescribed treatment.
Pecina left too soon for many at Alta Vista. Armed with a graduate education paid for by the Guadalupe Center, Pecina eventually took a job with Central Missouri State University, which sponsors Alta Vista's charter. "He wanted to be a professor," Guerrero says. "Part of our mission was to help him do what he wanted to do." Pecina still comes back every year on field trips, bringing students from his multicultural-education classes.
Pecina was replaced by Larry Pulos, a white man who had once worked in a prison. Pulos didn't last a year. "He had good intentions," Gusman says. "But he didn't have that nurturing, soft, tender way. Which here you really have to have."
Students organized a walkout in February 2001. A few days later, Pulos put in for some time off and never returned. Guerrero filled in while the school embarked on its search for a new principal, which eventually led to Cole.
"At the interview," she says, "when they asked me, 'What is your ideal for a good principal?' I said, 'Me.'"
Cole is short, with a round, young face. Though she's black, she often blends into the crowd at Alta Vista, especially when she wears the school uniform, white shirt and tan pants. "Students have adapted to her well," Gusman says. "They like her personality. She's flexible. She'll work with students if they have a problem."
But she's still tough. Consequently, Sylvia has to endure school without her best friend. Sylvia thinks Cole is a hypocrite. "She talks about how she wants to keep kids in school," Sylvia says. "Then she turns around and suspends them."
In government class, Mendez leads a discussion on Mayor Kay Barnes' big plans to build an arena downtown. "Do you think that's a good idea?" Mendez asks.
Most of the kids in the class say yes, but Sylvia crumples her face into a scowl. "We can use that money to do better things," she says. "We don't even have that much stuff at Kemper."
The bell rings, and she slinks up to the science room for an hour in Dan Groff's class. The room is small, about 20 feet by 20 feet. A dozen or so students crowd around several narrow Rubbermaid folding tables. Sylvia takes a seat in the back corner, near a sink with broken handles. She sniffs at the air. "Mr. Groff, it smells like a sewer," she complains.
"That's what it is," he says without hesitation. "It's sewer gas."
The offending odor appears to be coming up from the bowels of the school through the drain in the sink. "It smells bad," she says, grimacing.
"Well, move," Groff says.
She shrugs and turns her attention to the boy sitting next to her, who sports a thin curl of whiskers on the tip of his chin. She reaches out and fondles them, which doesn't seem to bother the boy a bit. Sylvia seems well aware of her prettiness. She wears her long, black hair pulled back to display her slim face, and her khakis ride low on her hips to show off her belly button.
For today's lesson about crystals, Groff hands out worksheets for the students to fill out independently by hunting through a textbook for answers. Like the rest of the class, Sylvia is immediately bored by the activity and begins chatting with the kid next to her.
"Crap," exclaims Kandi Diaz, a senior sitting on the other side of the room. "I don't like science."
The contrast between Groff's teaching style and that of Mendez is striking. Guerrero says Alta Vista has struggled to find good math and science teachers because there are so few available. But he also admits it's hard to find teachers who fit the needs of this school's students. "A lot of times we end up with teachers that have, on paper, very good credentials, but a lot of times they don't do well in class," he explains. "And in the past, we've had to go through the difficult experience of getting rid of teachers because they don't relate to the kids. We listen to kids a lot as to whether or not we should keep teachers. Kids will tell you, 'We don't learn nothing in that class.'"
Groff believes that he does relate to his students. He likens his work at Alta Vista to a mission of service. He, too, took a pay cut to teach at Alta Vista. He had been a manufacturer's rep for 3M, selling traffic-light control systems to municipal fire and police departments. He's an older man, white, with thinning hair and a widening midsection ("I think he's kinda senile," Sylvia says), and had been pondering seminary school and a late-life career as a priest. But church members persuaded him to return to his earlier vocation of teaching. "I haven't regretted a day of it," he says.
Yet he wishes he could have a few more resources. Worksheets weren't in Groff's first lesson plan for today. He wanted to pull up an Internet page and download short movies depicting crystallization, but the Internet connection is down. Ideally, he'd have a collection of crystals for the students to pass around and examine. He might also have supplies for crystal-making experiments. But he has neither. He's trying to get CMSU to cough up some more funds for science supplies, but so far the money hasn't arrived. In the meantime, he has used his own money to buy a VCR and TV so kids can watch science films.
"How they gonna educate people if we don't get no supplies?" Kandi asks, still frustrated with her dull questionnaire.
"We don't have the funds," Groff says.
Money is on the kids' minds today. Earlier this morning, while passing through the halls, Kandi and a few of her friends overheard Guerrero and Gusman arguing hotly about the budget. A teacher might have to be laid off, and amid Alta Vista's family environment, the administrative spat felt to some kids like watching their parents fighting. The news has traveled fast and transformed into conspiracy theory. One senior in Groff's class speculates that the Guadalupe Center is using Alta Vista's state money to help fund the multimillion-dollar renovation of its headquarters on Avenida Cesar E. Chavez.
The real cause for the tight budget, school officials say, is their emphasis on keeping a low student-to-teacher ratio. If they want to pay all of their teachers competitive wages, they have to sacrifice science equipment. Moreover, state law dictates that $1,000 of the $6,000 the school gets for each student each year must be diverted to the Kansas City School District in order to pay off the district's bonds. "That's almost $150,000 a year," Gusman says. "We could do a lot with that money. A lot."
"You know the golden rule, don't you?" Groff asks his class rhetorically. "He who has the gold makes the rules."
After science, Sylvia heads to poetry class, and Kandi goes to senior seminar, a requirement for all graduating seniors. Hand-drawn maps of the Middle East decorate the walls of the windowless basement room. Kandi settles in her usual spot at the back table with her friends Laura Vega, Yaneth Gonzalez, Natalie Tinoco and Michelle Ramirez. The five girls share a lot of the same classes and seem to be the unofficial queens of Alta Vista. They're smart, outspoken and sometimes rambunctious.
For the past several days, they've been doing mock job interviews in senior seminar, the final step in a long study plan that included scanning want ads and writing résumés. The class is led by Morales, a recent graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute. He's from Los Angeles, and he looks every bit the sophisticated urban artist. He wears casual but clean monochromatic shirts and pleated slacks, and his long hair is pulled back in a tight pony tail. A trim beard enhances the sharp angles of his jaw.
Before Morales can begin another round of interviews, Gusman pokes her head in the door and asks Kandi, Natalie, Michelle, Laura, Yaneth and several other seniors to join her in the cafeteria, where a representative from Donnelly College, a Catholic school in Kansas City, Kansas, awaits them with brochures, applications and key chains imprinted with the school's logo. The seniors were chosen because their grade-point averages are above 2.5. The rep explains that the school has two scholarships available for the spring semester. They're provided by the Bloch Foundation, and students can use them to pay for two years at Donnelly followed by two at UMKC. Two-thirds of the school's population is either black or Hispanic, the rep explains, and the rest are either Asian or white. She boasts about Donnelly's small class sizes and free tutoring.
Kandi and her friends seem skeptical of their prospects for getting into Donnelly. Most of them had planned on attending Penn Valley. But as the rep continues her pitch, they realize that Donnelly is a real possibility. They hurriedly fill out applications. The prospect of choice is exciting. All of the girls have, at one time or another, doubted whether they would even graduate from high school, let alone go to college. Each is certain that she wouldn't be in this position were it not for Alta Vista.
Take Yaneth. She entered Kansas City's Van Horn High as a freshman and right away felt alienated. "Van Horn, it was just like a clique," she says. "I didn't like none of them. I was an outsider. The Hispanic people there were kind of stuck-up. They were like, 'You're not Latina.'"
She didn't feel much support from the faculty, either. "You don't learn nothing there," she says. "The teachers don't really care about you." So she became invisible, skipping classes and blowing off homework. Outside school, she tried drugs and alcohol and committed a few minor crimes, landing in jail a couple of times. Then she got pregnant. Van Horn didn't offer day care; Alta Vista did.
There, she made friends quickly. She also found teachers who seemed to care about her, who didn't ridicule her unique interests. Early on, her counselor, Gusman, asked Yaneth what she'd like to do with her life.
"I want to be a mortician," she said.
"For real?" Gusman asked. Yaneth had wanted to be a mortician since sixth grade, when she happened across rotten.com, a Web site featuring images of dead bodies -- victims of motorcycle accidents and shootings. She was fascinated by the gruesome pictures, but mostly she felt a desire to fix up the bodies, to make them presentable for funerals. She had no idea how to go about finding such a career. Gusman asked her if she'd considered going to a school with a mortuary sciences program. She hadn't. But with Gusman's suggestion, she started discussing the idea with her mom, who did some research and discovered a program at Kansas City, Kansas, Community College. Yaneth intends to transfer to the program after a stint at Penn Valley.
Likewise, Alta Vista has helped Laura (friends call her Lala) develop her talents as an artist. Lala now says that she, too, would have been a dropout were it not for Alta Vista. She didn't think so when she entered middle school. Back then, her intelligence and high test scores earned her admittance to Lincoln Prep, the Kansas City School District's elite college-preparatory school. But right away she felt out of place. "I didn't like the kids," she says. "I didn't like the teachers. There was real pressure because you had to make really good grades to stay."
Lala says she failed out of Lincoln. Still, the officials at Alta Vista allowed her to skip eighth grade and begin as a freshman, and she made fast friends with an art teacher. Ever since she was a kid, Lala had drawn on whatever paper she could find, but few people had taken her seriously. Her new teacher took her to art galleries and museums and to coffee shops, where they would talk about what they'd seen. She also introduced Lala to Juxtapose, a glossy magazine that highlights edgy work that bridges the gap between comics, CD covers, psychedelic posters and the canonized work in museums.
Soon Lala became Alta Vista's artist in residence. Other students pay her to draw or paint things for them. Her close friends are constantly on her to pursue a career as an artist. She shyly admits that she'd like to attend the Kansas City Art Institute, but she's not sure how she'll be able to afford it. She doesn't know what she plans to do after graduation.
Of all the senior queens of Alta Vista, only Michelle arrived after her freshman year. She had spent most of her high-school time in an accelerated program that divided her day between classes at North Kansas City High School and Maple Woods Community College. Michelle is responsible beyond her years. At age fourteen, she and her family agreed to take custody of a six-month-old baby. The girl, Aurora, was the daughter of a close friend, age fifteen, who had been arrested for smoking crack and sentenced to five years at a treatment facility in Garden City, Kansas. Shortly thereafter, Michelle also assumed responsibility for her friend's son, Zane. "I wasn't scared, 'cause, like, my parents [helped]," she says of being a parent at fourteen. "It was fun at first. But now it's scary." Now that the kids are older, they demand more attention. And her friend is nearing the end of her sentence, so she's not sure how the custody situation will shake out.
North Kansas City High offered day care. But it also had stringent policies against fighting. Last year Michelle got into a scuffle with another girl over a boy. Michelle was kicked out, so now she's at Alta Vista. With her experience in an advanced education program north of the river, she finds the pace of education at Alta Vista too slow. And she doesn't care for most of the faculty -- except Terri Hunter, her journalism teacher. "She really takes control and tells you, 'This is where we're going,'" Michelle says.
But like everyone else, she enjoys the sense of community.
"I didn't think I was going to know anybody," Kandi says. "But when I came here, I knew everybody from when we were little."
It's Wednesday, two days before Christmas break, and Sylvia and Amy are reunited in Mendez's government class. In Amy's absence, Sylvia dominated Mendez's daily competitions. One day they played Jeopardy, and Sylvia won more than 2,000 fake dollars by answering the most questions about city government.
The games were played in preparation for a test Mendez gave on Tuesday. It was three pages long, concluding with a series of essay questions in which Mendez encouraged the students to express themselves. In response to a question about the state of her neighborhood, Sylvia wrote: "The only really bad thing I can say about my neighborhood is that for my family ... being the only Hispanics up their + the longest living their I feel they exclude us a lot. Like barbecues at one community center + they don't ask us to patrol the neighborhood."
The test was hard. It took Sylvia almost the entire hour to complete. But it's nothing compared with the exam she and her classmates will have to take this spring. That's when Mendez and his colleagues will pass out copies of the Missouri Assessment Program tests and force their students to bow their heads for hours to complete its many questions.
If history is any indication, Sylvia and her peers at Alta Vista will struggle through the exercise. Alta Vista's scores have been among the lowest in the metro area -- lower, even, than those at Kansas City's Northeast, Central and Southeast high schools, all of which state officials have declared "academically deficient." On the math and communication portions of the test, no Alta Vista student has ever scored above the "proficient" level. In science, only one student has, in 2001.
"It's a nightmare," Gusman says, adding that it's especially hard because many of Alta Vista's immigrant students struggle with Spanish, let alone English. And many who were born in America had barely survived elementary and middle school before Alta Vista. This, she says, is often the first school that has really engaged them in any meaningful way.
"I've never been surprised by the scores," Guerrero says. "We know they're low, because the students come in here not being able to read."
In the age of school accountability, though, it's not so easy to pass the buck. Alta Vista's relationship with the Kansas City School District soured last summer. For the past several years, Alta Vista had reserved several seats in its classrooms to allow the school district to place some of its at-risk students here. But over the summer, Guerrero heard through the grapevine that Superintendent Bernard Taylor had been grousing about the school's low test scores. Angered, Guerrero went to Alta Vista's board of directors and recommended that they stop reserving seats. "We don't need them," he says of the district. "Their kids come to us anyway."
This incident compounded Guerrero's resentment toward the current superintendent. He was dismayed when Taylor chose not to invite any Latinos to serve on the executive advisory committee Taylor appointed during the summer of 2001. He's also troubled by the fact that Hispanic educators have not been involved in the district's latest high-school reform initiative. "This is the only superintendent I have not been able to work with," he says. "And I've been through them all."
The disputes with the district are minor, though, compared with what could come down from Jefferson City.
If Alta Vista fails to show improvement on its test scores this year and the next, it could lose its charter. Guerrero is concerned about this, but not deeply worried. If the state decides to pull Alta Vista's charter, they'll just go back to square one. "We'll probably open again in the basement of a church," he says.
He doubts this will happen. "The state has been very supportive of us," he says. The school offers an education that can't be measured by one-size-fits-all tests, he explains, and that's why each senior is required to produce a portfolio as a graduation requirement. "Their portfolios are full of their work -- poetry, reports, math and science projects. We also demand better attendance, more parental involvement. We're just on them all the time." State officials, he says, "realize there's a need for alternative education."
Orlo Shroyer, Missouri's deputy commissioner of elementary and secondary education, agrees. "We would not expect to see the same sort of improvement in this sort of specialized school that we would expect to see in normal schools," he says. "We still expect changes, but we understand that with the population they're serving, they're going to need time to show improvements."
For now, Sylvia doesn't have to be afraid that her school will shut down. On this Wednesday morning in December, there are a dozen places she'd rather be anyway. But she's been showing up every day in spite of her professed contempt for the school. Playing Mendez's games, she's managed to learn the rudiments of city government.
Mendez stands at the front of the class, holding the stack of tests in his hands. "I'm proud of this class," he says. "Nobody got a D or an F. Everybody got a C or higher. And that's my goal."
Sylvia slumps sideways in her chair, leaning against the wall, only half listening.
"And I also want to recognize now those two who got A's," Mendez says, raising an eyebrow. "And those two are Sylvia and Jessica [Daniels]."
Sylvia perks up and reaches out for her test. She stares at it for a moment and then looks up, beaming.
"This is the first A I've had in, like, years!"