For Javier Franco, it's a long way from Columbus Street to precalculus at L.A. Mission College.
A member of the notorious Columbus Street Gang, which just received an injunction because of street crimes including drug dealing and murder, the 27-year-old Panorama City student had served long stints in Folsom State Prison.
Then he found moral guidance from a former prizefighter at Communities in Schools in North Hills, a welding job through an apprenticeship at Laborers' Local 300 -- and hope at the Sylmar community college that he could someday succeed.
"Deep inside, the gang life, the prison life, wasn't for me," declared Franco, gazing out over the school that sent its soccer forward over many remedial math hurdles. "I always wanted much more. I wanted to be somebody."
The northeast San Fernando Valley community college has long been a leader in reaching out to so-called at-risk youth by offering college-level courses to kids at local juvenile halls.
But now the growing campus, tucked up against the San Gabriel Mountains, is ramping up its community outreach, from a new effort to coax gang members such as Franco into the ivory tower to a new campaign beckoning adults locked up in county jails to take courses in the likes of social ethics and media arts.
And at the center of it all is a college president with a special affection for screwed-up kids and adults.
"I grew up in a community in East Los Angeles (and) had friends who went the wrong way," said Monte E. Perez, who has headed L.A. Mission since May 2011. "They were either in gangs or didn't finish school. They needed an opportunity to find themselves, to get a second chance, to re-create themselves to the human beings that they are.
"I feel an empathy for that population."
For nearly two decades, L.A. Mission College has worked with the Los Angeles County Office of Education to teach college-credit courses at juvenile halls in Malibu, Santa Clarita and Sylmar. Three of four students pass.
Chefs from the school's Culinary Arts Institute teach incarcerated girls at the county's Road to Success Academy at Camp Joseph Scott in Santa Clarita everything from how to keep a kitchen clean and slice and dice an onion to the best way to bake focaccia and whip up a French souffle.
"The interactive 'hands-on' culinary aspect allows students to have real experience in preparation techniques, methods of cookery, along with developing skills and confidence," said Louis Zandalasini, the institute's head chef and chair of professional studies, in an email about the college-credit courses.
This fall, the college went one step further by partnering with a gang intervention agency that has long directed at-risk kids to better jobs through union apprenticeship construction programs.
Communities in Schools of the San Fernando Valley and Greater Los Angeles soon aims to funnel 100 young adults into training programs run by Laborers' Local 300 and Southern California Laborers Apprenticeship.
The unions then aim to shuttle graduates into hundreds of Los Angeles Community College District building-program jobs, from pouring concrete foundations to welding structural beams and stairways.
At the same time, college counselors and teachers will be providing personal-development classes, as well as career, technical education and training.
This spring, the college is reaching out to county inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic with a class in social ethics and a media-arts course -- in conjunction with Hollywood Impact Studios -- that covers sound editing, set construction and other entertainment industry skills.
"I think what they're doing is wonderful," said Steve Springer, spokesman for the L.A. Community College District. "While they are as dedicated to student success as any of our (nine) colleges in Los Angeles, they have also not lost sight of the needs of the greater community as well."
"We're not just about (university) transfers," Perez said during a recent meeting with social service and labor leaders. "We're about workforce. We're about jobs. And that includes at-risk youth. If they can get jobs, they'll be able to reduce violence."
William "Blinky" Rodriguez, executive director of Communities in Schools, knows something about violence. The former world-class kickboxer has worked since the 1970s to stem gang activity. Two decades ago, his 16-year-old son was killed in a drive-by shooting.
"We've been in this community our whole lives," Rodriguez said. "So we're picking individual kids who want change, who want to reduce violence in this community."
"I want to challenge these young people to enter our program, then enter Mission College" said Javier Nunez, president of Laborers' Local 300. "We don't want to see (just) laborers. We want to see superintendents and people in managerial positions."
Franco hopes to be one of those managers. He grew up hard, the son of immigrants who moved to the northeast Valley. Before long, he was in a tagging crew. Then he was challenged by the Columbus Street Gang. Franco recalls their message as either join us "or it's on -- we'll be enemies."
He joined, he said, and was soon living the high life, earning $1,000 a day selling crack. By the time he hit 18, however, he'd joined the lowlifes, serving time in Folsom for drug sales.
It was during his time in prison that Franco grew disgusted. But while locked up, he learned to weld. And when he got out, he met Rodriguez, who talked to him about the possibilities of a better life. He served a union apprenticeship, became a journeyman and landed $26-an-hour union jobs across Los Angeles.
For the past two years, Franco has been studying and playing soccer at L.A. Mission College, while moving toward his dream of becoming a structural engineer.
Now awash in the career's requisite advanced math, he hopes to transfer to a university and play soccer. And someday, he'd like to wear a tie at a construction site.
"I'm excited about the change," said Franco, his almond-shaped hazel eyes glittering above upper arms slathered with tattoos of buxom babes. "It's hard to be in prison, then leave and be a member of society, because you don't have the social skills.
"My ultimate goal is to have a happy home, to have a family. I want to change my bloodline. I want my kids to go to college. I want them to be successful.
"I don't want them to go through what I went through."
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