(Top) Free L.A.! graduates gather before 2011 ceremony. (Bottom) Brandi Brown (center) and fellow graduates spend final moments of high school together. Photos courtesy of: Jose C. Lopez/Youth Justice Coalition

LOS ANGELES ( – Tears streaming down her face, Brandi Brown admitted that she never thought the day would come when she would graduate. But in August, thanks to the efforts of an alternative school in Los Angeles, that’s exactly what she and 50 of her peers did.

“It’s been hard to try and get my life back on track,” said Ms. Brown during her commencement address at Free L.A. High School, which was opened in 2007 by the Youth Justice Center (YJC) as part of its mission to end the mass incarceration of youth. The school proudly honored its first 24 students with high school diplomas in 2009. In 2010, it celebrated 31 graduates and in a historic ceremony, 51 students graduated on August 13, 2011.

Honoring the memory of her brother Vincent, who died in 2008 after being shot 11 times, Ms. Brown continued. “If he can finish school, then I can too … Now I’m standing in front of you guys today saying, ‘I can do it!’ Even when people told me I couldn’t, even when they told me I wasn’t going to be nothing, I stand here today to tell you, I’m somebody!”


Free L.A. uses a restorative justice and community service approach to formulating its curriculum, which provides an alternative to incarceration and other challenges confronting youth that have either been locked out of or grown disinterested in traditional schools.

The two-story building sits at the intersection of South Central Los Angeles and Inglewood, territory that is claimed by no fewer than five warring “gangs,” according to Kim McGill, executive director of the Youth Justice Center and a school founder.

“YJC opened the school because our members were coming home from lockup, or were pushed out of other schools, and they had no place else to go,” Ms. McGill noted of the student body, with the average age ranging from 16- to 24-years-old. “We feel that very few people choose to leave school, and those that do leave schools that are demoralizing, disrespectful, under resourced, overcrowded and over policed.”

Educators at Free L.A. High stress that what “shut out” really refers to are youth who were kicked out of traditional schools, in part because of absences due to long nights spent working to help their families make ends meet or because they fell behind during periods of incarceration.

Brian Searles, who teaches English at Free L.A., says he likes the fact that the curriculum is tailored to make learning relevant to the student’s own experiences.

“I’m learning that they all want to learn. In every person, it’s a natural human behavior to want to gain and gather information, particularly if that information will lead to your benefit,” says Mr. Searles. “It’s unnatural to disengage and shut down, when you know that an education, particularly a high school education, is a rudimentary part of success.”

One of the advantages at Free L.A. is that students there can earn 60 credits per semester through the school’s accelerated program, compared to a maximum of 30 credits per semester at traditional schools. In addition, core subjects at Free L.A. like Math, Science and English are strengthened by a curriculum that includes vocational training.

Still, Ms. McGill is quick to point out that half of the semester’s 60 credits can only be earned through community work or efforts to improve conditions for jailed youth. Such demands led to a major research project carried out this year by a group of students who analyzed police budgets for L.A. County and identified ways that portions of the money could be better used if transferred to community or youth work.

The group is also working on a state initiative that would grant opportunities for early release and fair sentencing for incarcerated youth denied the possibility of parole, as well as developing reentry programs as alternatives to detention.

According to school administrators, students at L.A. Free were often shuttled from one school to another before finally entering alternative schools where they either couldn’t or didn’t graduate.

Ms. McGill points to a growing lack of educational opportunities for these and other students, particularly because of increased privatization and the rise of charter schools, which she noted were easier to get kicked out of because students at these schools have little leeway to challenge the disciplinary process.

Breaking free

Visitors to Free L.A. are met by a full mural depicting a classroom of student protesters and teachers handing out books to prison inmates. The artwork and much of the fundraising for the school is done by the students themselves.

One single mother who attends Free L.A. said she was drawn to the atmosphere at the school, which she described as being free of the stigmatism and judgment found at traditional schools. She also said she cherishes the fact that she can bring her daughter to school, allowing her to earn class credits without abandoning personal responsibilities.

“These families, like all families, have overcome homelessness, mental illness, incarceration, buried some of their children, and still pushed for their youth to get through high school,” said Ms. McGill. The major challenge for many remains breaking free from the lowered expectations they’ve inherited regarding their own education, she added.

Part of the process revolves around the school curriculum, which includes a street university that helps to build student leadership through writing, public speaking, advocacy, organizing and direct action. Topics also highlight the history of social movements and their leaders through music, speakers and art.

Community support is a major part of making sure students get what they need, according to Ms. McGill, who points to a core group of volunteers comprised of parents and students who run the lunch program, help with tutoring and ensure the safety of the school.

The school also offers classes in boxing and martial arts taught by former inmates, who also assist with tutoring and other academic programs.
“They contribute thousands of hours,” says Ms. McGill. “A lot of them have been in prison and have really seen the dark side of street life so they do a lot of one-on-one counseling and mentorship, as well as intervention and peacekeeping among young people that still think street life is going to take them somewhere.”

The school also relies on former gang members, who help preserve the peace in a student body that hails from an array of at times mutually hostile neighborhoods. “Some of these neighborhoods may have been at war for 20 years,” says Ms. McGill, “and (these students) are now members at school together.”

(Charlene Muhammad, national correspondent for The Final Call, wrote this story as part of a 2011 New America Media Education Beat Fellowship for ethnic media journalists on the topic of “What’s Working For Kids in Your Community?–Innovations in Underserved Communities.” The fellowship was sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.)