Local News

Sunday, Feb 02 2014 12:31 PM

JOSE GASPAR: 'Freedom Writers' give voice to struggles and hopes

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    By Henry A. Barrios/ The Californian

    Californian contributing columnist Jose Gaspar.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Bridges Career Development Academy graduate Michael Cuen hugs Crystal Kline as he prepares to graduate with 11 others from the school. Kline was there in support of her friends.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Jayvon Ruffus takes a moment to himself before he graduates from the Bridges Career Development Academy.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Leslie Olivarez was one of 11 students who participated in the Bridges Career Development Academy graduation.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Bridges Career Development Academy lead teacher Danny Means, center, gives last-minute instructions to the graduates on how to enter the ceremony.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Anthony Gallegos Jr. proudly walks to his graduation ceremony at the Bridges Career Development Academy. The Bridges Academy is a probation high school serving at-risk youth and is a collaboration between the Kern County Probation Department, Kern County Superintendent of Schools, and Dr. Fred Rowe and Associates.

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By JOSE GASPAR, Contributing columnist

The journal entry read: "11-25-13. Dear Vato (slang for guy), I remember when I used to go out with your carnalilla (little sister). We had it in for each other. Time went by and we became carnales (friends). I miss you, bro. Rest in peace."

The words were written by high school student Sebastian Haro in a very nontraditional school setting. And they were meant as a tribute to Haro's friend who was killed recently. Other students in the same class write of similar tales, either losing a close friend, parent or other family member to violence. In his short life span, Haro appears to be much more mature than his 17 years. He's been homeless and in and out of confinement since he was 12. And he is hardly alone.

Another student in the class feels remorse for having put his mother Yesenia through years of grief and suffering.

"Even through all the pain and misery you stood by my side. No matter what I did I was still your 'Mi hijo' (my son) when I told you that I didn't care about life or death. I love you mom, I always did. But please forgive me for my sins," wrote Alex Guillen in his journal.

The 17-year-old describes his mother as "a nice lady" and now realizes he's not been the ideal son. Writing helps him ease his own pain, by putting down on paper the words that can't seem to come out of his mouth.

"It's a little scary to say something face to face or if you're a little shy or something. But when you write stuff, you can say whatever you want," said Guillen.

Haro and Guillen are part of a class unlike any they've ever had before. Except this class, "Freedom Writers," does not meet on any traditional high school campus. It's part of an academic project on social justice and writing under the auspices of Bridges Career Development Academy, a high school administered by the Kern County Probation Department and the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office.

The population at Bridges Academy consists of high-risk probationers with disturbing histories including gang and criminal activity. Each student who attends Bridges is on a form of formal probation, including some on adult probation and others returning from the Division of Juvenile Justice. Most have served one or more commitments in a Kern County Probation juvenile facility. This court school is located in central Bakersfield where security is tight.

The Freedom Writers class project was inspired and based on the book, "The Freedom Writers Diary." It tells the true story of how Erin Gruwell, a teacher during the early 90s at Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, turned troubled students' lives around by having them record their experiences in a journal.

Dr. Dixie King, owner of the Bakersfield educational consultant firm Transforming Local Communities, approached Kern County Probation with the idea of replicating the program at Bridges Academy.

"We thought it was a great idea for our students," said Elaine Moore, Kern County Probation Supervisor. The project started in September with 20 students who volunteered to take the class.

"What we're really trying to do is give them a voice and give them a choice," said King.

For some of these students, it may be the first time anyone has listened to what they have to say about seeing their friends or family members die, dealing with multi-generational sexual abuse, being evicted, or growing up in foster care or numerous group homes.

"Some of what they have written has literally reduced me to tears," King said.

Paradise is another student in the class. The 18-year-old is the oldest of 14 children and is five-and-a-half months pregnant with twins. She was arrested for "being on the run," as she put it.

Paradise wrote, "I'm thankful for being blessed for my unborn babies. They made me realize it's time to stop messing around and get into the world, to learn to live right and survive in society legally. Babies, thank you for coming into my life you've changed me. Life isn't going to be easy for us, but I promise I'll never give up and give you the best I can."

Inspiration to write comes when she's angry. But she admits this class has also motivated her to pursue her diploma. She'll be graduating in June.

"I didn't want to write it, because I'm a very to myself type of person," said Paradise. "I didn't want anyone to read it, but I thought, 'Why not?'"

In fact, no one reads a student's journal except King, or one of two interns, Flor Lopez and Gerardo Marquez, CSUB master's students who assist in teaching. The passages quoted here were read voluntarily by each student. In addition to journaling, King is having students use other mediums to document their lives including art, collage, rap and video production. Students recently visited the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

"Many of these students, because they have messed up, are not going to be very employable, but the desire is there," said King.

Troubled kids can turn their lives around. But it'll take more than just desire to do it.

King is asking, pleading with employers to give these students a chance to do job shadowing, to allow students to visit a job site on a field trip to learn more about a particular job or do an internship. And perhaps even hire them.

"They will go back to their old ways if they have no way of earning a living because some of them come from very poor families," said King.

Any employer willing to help out can contact King at (661) 619-2735.

Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com.

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