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US High School Students Gain Discipline, Leadership from Police Cadet Program - 2003-06-09

Millions of U.S. high school seniors will graduate this month. Many will go to college, some will join the military, and others will enter the job force. In Los Angeles, Mike O'Sullivan attended the graduation of a group of students who have an interest in law enforcement.

It was a high school graduation with a difference. The large open area next to the Los Angeles police academy was a sea of blue uniforms, worn by students from five high school programs that focus on police work.

They are some of the graduates of so-called "magnet schools," programs in public high schools that draw students with specialized interests. Magnet programs in Los Angeles cover such diverse subjects as performing arts, environmental studies, business, and science.

Like other graduates, many of these students will go to college or join the military.

Daniela Gurrola, the student captain of the police program at Reseda High School, will attend the Los Angeles campus of California State University, where she will study U.S. history. Then she hopes to join the Los Angeles police department.

For the past four years, she has taken conventional courses like English and math, with a heavy dose of physical education and specialized courses related to police work.

"It was kind of difficult at the beginning because of the discipline, but once you get used to it, it becomes really easy," he said. "And I enjoyed my four years there. I got to do a lot of things, and it is a wonderful experience."

Blair Russell enrolled in the program because he thought it would give him an edge over the competition after he finished high school.

"I joined because I was interested in going to the Air Force Academy, and possibly not doing that and going into the FBI, and I figured this program could get me either place," he said.

The strategy worked. Blair will attend the U.S. Air Force Academy this fall.

Officer Marc Madero is the police department liaison at Reseda High School, one of the five Los Angeles schools that hosts the cadet program. He says the curriculum is demanding, but from year to year he sees a change in the students.

"Absolutely. The best change is that you see the self-discipline start to develop within the cadet," he said. "You see the responsibility, the maturity."

For some, the program provides an alternative to the lure of teenage gangs. Joel Schaeffer, a former high school football coach, now coordinates the cadet program at Reseda High School.

"Down deep, there are a lot of kids that feel safe within the discipline of this program," he said. "There is good discipline and they wear their uniforms, and they are comfortable with that."

The cadet program started six years ago, after discussions between police officials and a member of the Los Angeles school board.

A West Coast insurance firm called 21st Century provided start-up funds. The company still helps, says president Bruce Marlow.

"Often with contributions, you're really looking for organizations and groups of people that can actually do something with the money, because often you contribute the money and it does not really take root and grow into anything," he said. "And this program is one of the successes that we have had."

Los Angeles mayor Jim Hahn hopes the cadet program will generate recruits for the city's police force. High school graduates, who are typically 18, must wait until age 21 to join the department. Mr. Hahn says, regardless of their career choice, the program is giving the students a good foundation.

"It teaches them discipline and teamwork. All the kids who are here do better at school, they get better grades," he said. "And we hope a lot of them will choose law enforcement. We want to grow our own here. Maybe some of them will end up at LAPD."

A former graduate of the program attended this year's ceremony to wish the current graduates well. Elena Perez, 21, was a member of the first graduating class from the high school police program in 2000.

For her, the program led to an interest in law. She has just completed a bachelor's degree at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and this summer will have an experience granted few young people.

"I am on my way to the Supreme Court of the United States to intern this summer," she said.

She will return to California this fall to attend Stanford Law School. Ms. Perez credits the cadet program with giving her focus.

"I learned a lot of leadership and commitment and responsibility, and those are the pillars that have guided my life throughout my college experience and now my adult life, because it is really things that you need in life, and that is what this program offers every cadet," she said.

The police program has now expanded to a middle school, and 13-year-old cadet Edward Escobedo says it has already given him a career goal. He plans to become a forensic scientist and analyze the evidence from crime scenes.

All photos by VOA's M. O'Sullivan