PASADENA, Calif. – School has long since started for the day when Jose Ramirez pulls up to a small bungalow and yells out to a tardy student. Anthony Gonzalez limps to the door, shirtless with a head of bed-tousled hair.
"It's after nine, man, you got to be in school," Ramirez tells the 19-year-old, who dropped out of school after a gang shooting four years ago left him paralyzed on one side. Ramirez helps pull a T-shirt over Gonzale's frozen arm and playfully scolds him.
"I got to dress you, too, sleeping beauty? The day you graduate I'm going to let you sleep in." Gonzalez smiles sheepishly, grabs his cane and gets in the car.
It's part of Ramirez's job as a "chaser" at Learning Works! Charter School, which pushes Pasadena's most hardened dropouts back to school by using former dropouts to hunt them down under a philosophy of no excuses, no judgment and endless second chances.
"Once you're in here, you're not getting away," said Mikala Rahn, founder of the two-year-old school that enrolls 300 students and has graduated 126. "We will come and get you."
An education researcher, Rahn started the academy after studying dropouts and finding 24.3 percent of Pasadena Unified School District high-schoolers don't graduate. "A high school diploma is your only measurable statistic to get out of poverty," she said. "I thought, 'Why doesn't anyone go and find them'."
So she did. She found troublemakers expelled for fighting, gangbangers who exchanged classrooms for jail cells, girls who became stay-at-home moms, truants coping with abuse and neglect through pot and booze, kids working to help pay the rent.
Many wanted to go back to school but didn't know how, or were too embarassed.
Rahn developed a model based on what most dropouts lack: family-style support. Learning Works staffers dispense everything from hugs to hamburgers, condoms to child care, as well as academics in classrooms decorated with graffiti murals.
After learning some students were nervous about running into gang rivals in class, Rahn quickly got word out that the school is a violence-free zone, which gang members have honored. But other setbacks run the gamut — kids getting high on field trips, girls abandoning babies in the day care room, a student who poked holes in the giveaway condoms, cops arriving with arrest warrants. "These are crisis kids," Rahn said.
David Carrillo, an 18-year-old former gang member who said he has attention deficit disorder, is typical. Expelled at 15 for fighting, he did three years in juvenile detention for assault and has struggled to stay out of gang life. Now he's set to graduate in December and has already enrolled in auto mechanic school. "I didn't think I could make it this far," he said.
The school, which offers classes as well as independent study programs, also offers counseling, anger management therapy, court-ordered drug and alcohol education and community service.
Experts say little research exists on how effective dropout recovery programs are, but the use of mentors, especially peers, has been documented to help at-risk youth. Intensive intervention to help students overcome challenges is what is needed but the high cost deters school districts, noted Debra Duardo, board member of the National Dropout Prevention Network.
As a charter school, Learning Works is state-funded and non-unionized. Services, ranging from chasers' salaries and gas money to food for hungry kids, cost about $200,000 a year, which the school budgets for by employing entry-level teachers, Rahn said.
Learning Works' mentors function as part homeboy, part truant officer, their phones on 24/7.
They go to juvenile court with students, pick them up from juvenile hall, take them to jail to visit relatives. They ferry them to Planned Parenthood and McDonald's. They bring and collect homework.
But they won't give cash. "What they want a dollar for is to buy a blunt (marijuana cigarette)," said chaser Dominick Correy, 25, a former gang member who spent his teens in and out of jail.
After dropping off Gonzalez at school, Correy reads Ramirez the next name on the no-show list — Claudia Sanchez.
The 18-year-old mother was a good student until her boyfriend was recently released from jail for domestic violence. The chasers suspect he may have something to do with Sanchez's slide.
"Boyfriends are our worst enemies," said Ramirez, 21, who dropped out at 15. After earning his diploma at Learning Works, he attends Pasadena City College and wants to become a firefighter.
Sanchez comes out, cradling her 4-month-old. She's been trying to call the teacher. "We keep like missing each other," she said, adding the baby had been sick. She takes a class assignment and promises to come to school, but she's pregnant again and not feeling well.
"They try to use anything — 'I got to take care of my sister,' then I find out they don't have a sister," Ramirez said, sliding back behind the wheel of an SUV, Rahn's personal car she lends to the school. He laughed. "I know all the excuses because I used them all."
Chasers establish a rapport with the students, leveraging that trust to motivate them. Most students don't want to let the chaser down, explained Correy, who just graduated from Pasadena City College and plans to go to a four-year school.
Roaming through the leafy but rundown neighborhoods, they look out for police. Cops know who the chasers are and who might be in the car. "The guys we chase are the guys they chase," Ramirez said.
Correy spots three guys, jeans drooping to mid-thigh exposing swaths of boxer shorts, hanging out in a weed-filled lot with a pitbull. He jumps out and takes their numbers. He'll start bugging them to enroll in the school.
To promote school to those who never succeeded at it, the chasers must temper frustration with patience — they know it takes time. Even getting dropouts enrolled doesn't guarantee success. Two Learning Works students were recently sentenced to 16- and 17-year prison terms for a shooting and gun possession.
They swing over to pick up Edgar Rodriguez, a 17-year-old father who said he likes school but is too lazy to get there on time. He admits smoking a lot of weed.
Ramirez stops at an apartment building where Correy thinks a no-show lives. The gate is locked. Correy vows to return.
The chasers head to school. It's nearing lunchtime, when they have to watch over students prone to wander away and not return.
Anthony Gonzalez, the student paralyzed in the shooting, is smiling. He's not only learning algebra, but things like conquering the fear of trying to walk on his own — "I used to come in a wheelchair, but they told me 'you don't need that'."