Graduation Ushers in Centennial
by Beverly Ventriss –
Booth High School in Lincoln Heights had only three graduates in the class of ’99, but the jubilation could have easily belonged to a class of 300.
Making history on this day and adding to the festivities was the fact the graduating class included one male…not an unusual occurrence for most graduating classes, but Booth High School is located on-site at The Salvation Army’s Booth Memorial Center, a 100 year-old program to assist single pregnant teens and their infants. This year’s sole male graduate in the school’s second graduating class was from another Salvation Army social service program and commuted daily to attend classes. Viewed as a popular student, Jaime Flores, 18, was warmly described by one of his teachers as “the student who filled lives with laughter while attending classes here.”
Marking its 100th anniversary this year, the Booth Memorial Center started as a program for unwed teens who had nowhere else to turn.
Over the years, the program at Booth has evolved, but its mission of helping teen mothers and their infants have a better life has not. Today, Booth is a state-licensed foster group home for 44 adolescent girls between the ages of 12-18 who are pregnant, mothers, and/or victims of abuse.
In a halting but proud voice, graduate Reyna Reyes searched her thoughts in a moving speech she had carefully rehearsed–in English. Not able to speak English when she first began working towards her diploma at Booth, Reyes had the added struggle of meeting her academic requirements while learning a second language. But it was not a lack of proficiency in English that caused Reyes to falter when beginning her speech, but rather an overflow of emotion as she attempted to share what graduating, and the Booth program, meant to her.
Providing an opportunity for each teen mother to receive a high school diploma, or receive vocational training, is given special focus at Booth. Education is considered the key to changing circumstances and opening the door of opportunity for girls who come to Booth removed from their home environment due to abuse or other serious family problems.
Most of the young teen girls arrive at Booth in need of many support services. Usually behind in academic learning, each must work twice as hard to catch up in order to meet requirements established by the Los Angeles Unified School System.
“Stay in school to be a better person…to provide a better life for your children,” said Reyes confidentially as she spoke to the crowd filled with other young mothers, hoping to convince them the same moment could be theirs one day.
Booth High School principal Robin Lutsky–equal parts den mother, counselor and cheerleader–told each graduate that while it is not possible to change the past, “you have the opportunity to create the future.”
Introduced as a former “tough cookie” who dedicated the past two years to receiving her diploma, Yvonne Cortez, mother of two young girls, took to the podium after being described in present terms “as a person who has completely changed.”
“I’ve struggled for two years,” Yvonne recalled as she, too, spoke directly to the teen mothers in attendance. “I don’t want to remember the past. I’ve learned that I can do whatever I want to do. I know it’s hard to get up in the morning, especially when you have kids. You say you don’t have to prove anything to anybody, but you have to prove it to yourself–because it feels so good to be up here!”
Using the humor credited to him, Flores reminded those in attendance, “just remember, the longer you stay in school, the quicker you get it over with!” Graduating with honors and headed for college in the fall, Flores gave special thanks to one teacher for “teaching me the groovy things in science,” and closed by expressing regret that some of those close to him were unable to take the time to attend the day’s ceremony. Unable or unwilling, the absence is simply the reality for many foster teens who come from turbulent family backgrounds.
According to Dr. Margaret Martin, executive director of the Booth Memorial Center, the Booth High School learning program is designed to underwrite academic success and to teach each student to accept responsibility for her successes and failures. Once students begin to respond to the learning environment, the school will support each one in setting and reaching goals that will enable them to transition successfully into a wider community. “The goal for all residents is to become self-sufficient,” said Dr. Martin.
Booth provides individual, group, couples and family therapy. Emphasis is on individual growth within the family structure and family reunification, when appropriate. On-site parenting classes train both mothers and fathers how to give their children nurturing care. A licensed day care center provides a full range of child day services from infancy to five years for residents as well as families in the surrounding community. Booth Memorial Center expects to receive full accreditation as a group foster home early next year.
The overcoming of many emotional challenges–and the recognition of just flat-out hard work–made the graduation ceremony at Booth like few others held that day in any part of Los Angeles.