Marco Garcia is a young man with a plan for the future. He arrived in the U.S., not speaking English, two years ago. Between then and now, through determined effort, he’s learned the language. As his English skills have improved, he’s been promoted from dishwasher to bus boy to the kitchen staff at the Sea Chest where he works part time.
All the while he’s attended Leffingwell High School, where he’s on track to graduate this spring. He credits the “small classes and teachers’ focus on individual students,” as important to his progress. His plan is to go on to Cuesta College, where he’ll focus first on English, and then learn to be a welder. Ideally, he’d like to apply that skill underwater, a technically demanding and dangerous occupation.
Leffingwell High School, with a small campus across the football field from Coast Union High School, provides a high quality, hands-on education to its small student body. Known as a “continuation” high school, it bears little resemblance to its counterparts in urban school systems.
It isn’t a last resort for troubled youth, but rather the school students choose because the environment is aligned with their learning styles. The school is an ideal setting for Garcia and the other students because it provides individual attention and a level of independence that encourages students to learn at their own pace.
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Grant Phillips, who teaches math and science, has found that his students learn best when the lessons mirror “real life.” Under Phillips’ guidance, generations of Leffingwell students have built several structures on the campus, including the current weight room, a greenhouse, the ranch-style fence and the campus irrigation system. They study fractions and angles with measuring tapes and by building architectural models. Lessons like these return to the textbooks eventually. But when they do, the students have a tangible understanding of why they are important.
Another hallmark of Leffingwell’s approach is that Phillips uses community resources to augment the limitations of a two-person faculty. Marine biology, for instance, involves setting out in kayaks on San Simeon Cove to collect samples that are analyzed at the Coastal Discovery Center. Students often engage in internships, such as cabinet making or automotive repair, which reinforce what they are learning during the four-hour school day.
The day I visited Leffingwell, the students assembled for a presentation by Zoo To You, a Paso Robles organization dedicated to education about and preservation of wild animals. Live animals were displayed in the classroom as the Zoo To You ambassadors described the animals’ natural habitats, feeding and reproductive systems, endangerment status and many other details of their lives.
Not missing an opportunity to reinforce the importance of continued education, Sandi Pound, Leffingwell’s English teacher, probed the ambassadors about their educational background. As a result, the students learned, not only about the animals, but also about what they need to do if a career with a zoo or other exotic animal organization is part of their future plans.
Garcia’s experience is typical of Leffingwell’s students. They work hard in school. They take on jobs or career-oriented internships. They graduate. They pursue relevant vocational education, often going on to Cuesta College. And many stay local, providing valuable service to their community.