At Life Academy, a better kind of peer pressure

Life Academy, a new small high school in Oakland, Calif., has sparked enough praise in its first few months to generate a waiting list. But today, Life stinks - literally.

The telltale rotten-egg smell still lingers from the school's first stink bomb. Instead of a swift crackdown from the principal, though, the perpetrators will get an earful from their peers, who are working hard to create a good atmosphere here at Life.

The 250 students chose to be here, after all, largely because they were tired of negative peer pressure, apathy, and occasional chaos at nearby Fremont High, a crowded campus surrounded by chain-link fences.

"I think it's better that your peers tell you, 'You should do this,' " says 11th-grader Brandon Eastman. "It's better because, like, if my friend wants to go higher, then I'm gonna want to go with him."

Oakland is part of a nationwide trend toward building smaller high schools or breaking large ones down into "learning communities." The expectation (backed up by research) is that better relationships with teachers and peers will translate into higher graduation rates, especially in urban areas.

Built into every day at Life is a period known as "advisory." Here, 16 to 18 students will get to know one another, and their adviser, during the years they are here. Every adult in the school takes an advisory group, including Principal Laura Flaxman.

Advisories do everything from self-evaluations to impromptu kickball games. And when there's a fight or some other disciplinary problem (rare so far, Ms. Flaxman says), every advisory talks about it.

Latonya Evans, a 10th-grader who says she used to cut class and be a "ring leader," is helping start up a student court. But she and another friend have already given a male friend some big-sistering. "We came up with a contract for him; he suggested it," she says. He agreed to pay attention in class, to stop hanging out with a guy who's been dragging him down, and to hide his marijuana pendant inside his shirt.

The peer pressure and adult mentoring help keep students focused on academics. Rene Morales, a lanky sophomore, says he doesn't want to put Fremont down, but it was so large that "it didn't seem like people cared what you did. You could listen to music, eat in class, walk out. Here, you know, you've got to stay in class, do your homework. You've got to ask to go to the bathroom."

He came to Life because his teachers said they knew he could do better, especially if he weren't so worried about looking too smart in front of friends. Rene wants to go to college and maybe law school. He flashes a sly smile while confessing that he's good at arguing.

Elizabeth Easiley, a sophomore in Rene's advisory, says she always did her work at Fremont, but "the teachers didn't push you as hard as these ones do, and every now and then, you need a push." Now, her adviser will call her house if she's late.

"He told us he's going to be like our buddy," Rene says. "That's weird, cause usually teachers are supposed to be, like, with a capital T.... Here, if you act like an adult, they'll treat you like that."

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