By Marisol Zarate
Before he arrived at Camp Smith, a Los Angeles County juvenile probation camp in Lancaster, Taylor Faatai couldn’t see a future for himself.
“The person I was before…didn’t have a destination, and I didn’t want a destination,” Faatai said.
Growing up in an unstable home and in a family with ties to gang life in South Los Angeles County, Faatai began to get involved with criminal activity at age 12. That led to an armed robbery charge, and a stay at Camp Smith, one of the county’s 10 juvenile camps, for what would have been Faatai’s senior year in high school.
But thanks to his hard work and a desire to change the course of his life, Faatai is not only leaving the camp this month, he’s graduating with honors.
While at Camp Smith, Faatai attended Christa McAuliffe High School, a juvenile court school ran by the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE). He credits the programs and staff at McAuliffe High School for helping him imagine a different path for his life.
“Going through all the stuff that I’ve been through, I didn’t think I would be here today,” Faatai said. “I thought I’d be dead, or in jail, doing life.”
Last week, Faatai was one of more than 350 students honored at “Operation Graduation,” a ceremony dedicated to celebrating the students who earned a high school diploma or GED from LACOE schools, including those in juvenile detention facilities as well as alternative and special education schools in the county. Sponsored by LACOE and the LA County Probation Department, the annual event took place at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
It shines a light on students who have persevered through pregnancy, substance abuse, delinquency and behavioral problems in the schools overseen by LACOE, which provides education to thousands of teenage inmates each year as well as thousands of students with special needs.
The path is difficult for students at juvenile court schools like McAuliffe. Many struggle with learning disabilities and are English language (EL) learners. According to a 2014 Youth Law Center report, about 62 percent of students in Camp Smith were EL students. Students at juvenile schools in LA County juvenile camps must also manage a lot of educational disruptions and transitions. A 2015 study on juvenile probation outcomes in LA County found that youth in juvenile camps average eight school transitions, with some youth dealing with as many as 13.
When he arrived at Camp Smith, Faatai said he could not imagine a world outside the walls of the facility, and he described himself as a “minor who didn’t like staff or being told what to do.” However, when he entered McAuliffe, supportive staff changed his perspective in seeing education as a “hustle.”
Faatai particularly loved how the staff taught him to use the good habits he learned in camp for life on the outside. One of the greatest lessons he learned in the camp was to overcome his fear of what others thought of him.
Teachers like Deshawn Banks helped Faatai look past his temptations to fight others.
“He helped me in things not about school but about life,” Faatai said, “He helped me come back to earth and humble myself.
“I had to humble myself and be a bigger person [because now] I had a destination to go to.”
A powerful tool that drove change for Faatai was thinking about how he could use his education to help his family. Faatai is a middle child in a family of four, with two older brothers and one younger sister. After hearing from his mom that his family was living in hotels, he was inspired to work through obstacles in order to get to the life that awaited him after his stint at Camp Smith. His main goal is to help his mom through “the struggle” and help support his family.
LACOE superintendent Debra Duardo, who congratulated the youth at the event on Thursday, said she has worked to improve the education in juvenile probation camps and alternative and special education programs.
Many of the youth participating in the Operation Graduation event have overcome poverty and trauma that has disrupted a more traditional educational path. But Duardo, a one-time high school dropout who went on to earn a doctorate from UCLA, knows what it is like to be in their shoes.
“I identify with these kids, I know what it’s like to drop out of high school, I know what it’s like to be far behind, [and] I know what it’s like to focus on education when you’re a parent,” Duardo said, “For me whenever I see this this event, it brings me hope.”
During the ceremony, a LACOE educator recognized as teacher of the year, Carolina Fernandez, encouraged the students to pursue their goals fearlessly.
“Your past will not define you as long as you believe in yourself, you dare to dream and do the hard work,” Fernandez said. “You get to co-create yourself with God the last chapter of your book.”
Fernandez’ words ring true relative to Faatai’s future life goals. Faatai plans on pursuing his music dreams as well as getting a degree in economics and financial management.
Faatai’s advice to others involved in the juvenile justice system is to “humble yourself, stay focused on what you have to do to get free, and stay focused on your goals and your loved ones.”
Faatai is grateful for the opportunities he now has as a high school graduate.
Realizing how far he’s come, he is determined to create a bright future for himself and his family.
“I want success to be my destination in the end,” Faatai said.
Marisol Zarate is a summer fellow for The Chronicle of Social Change (where this story originally appeared) and Fostering Media Connections as part of Stanford University’s Haas Center for Public Service fellowship program.
Photo of Taylor Faatai by The Chronicle of Social Change’s Jeremy Loudenback.