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Fremont High graduates 700-plus students, a school record

June 28, 2012 |  8:59 am

Jessica Espinoza, left, and Karla De Leon celebrate Wednesday during Fremont High School's graduation at the Home Depot Center.

Fremont High this week graduated more than 700 students, the most in the school’s history, district officials said.

The South Los Angeles school is two years into a shakeup that resulted in more than half the teachers leaving. Some students and parents remain critical of district efforts, but others cited the number of graduates as a clear sign of progress.

The 700-plus graduates compares with 494 last year and 501 the year prior.

“I think it worked out great,” said Juan Salas, whose son was among the graduates in a late Wednesday afternoon ceremony at the Home Depot Center in Carson. “This was the biggest group that has graduated so far.”

Senior Tashawna Byas also endorsed the new Fremont.

“They only changed a few of my teachers, but it was better.”  On balance, she said, the new staff was younger and could better relate to students in how they taught. “And a lot of things were more organized.”

But her mother, Trina Gipson, a Fremont grad herself, disagreed.

“I felt the teachers who were already there were more concerned with education and more familiar with the kids,” she said. “There were a lot of good teachers who didn’t return.”

Student Wilmer Recinos saw a difference.

“They hired a lot of inexperienced teachers,” said Recinos, who plans to study engineering at UC San Diego. “They should have tried to hire people who were more adequate for the job. I could have learned more in my classes.”

Efforts to improve Fremont included renovated athletic fields and spruced-up buildings, as well as an increase in student activities and academic support.

Substantial room for improvement remains. The number of graduates is about 38% of the size of the ninth-grade class four years ago, when this year’s seniors started high school.
The event marked two departures. Principal Rafael L. Balderas, who has led the turnaround effort, will become principal at Bell High School. And the senior regional administrator, George McKenna, announced his retirement after 50 years in education.

“I’m old enough to be your grandfather, so I think I know more than you do,” said McKenna to warm applause. Fremont, he said, was restructured “for your benefit.”

“You worked hard to get here,” he told them, before noting that the name for graduation — commencement — means beginning. “So you haven’t finished anything,” he said.

He urged them to get more education, and though the graduating class was large, “Remember your brothers and sisters who are not here yet.”

One person not exiting is calculus teacher Herb Niebergall, 69, who started teaching at Fremont the fall after the Watts riots. A former student, Jesus Rodriguez, who graduated in 1988, came up to say hello with his just-graduated daughter, a calculus student.

“Why didn’t you tell me I taught your father,” said Niebergall.

“I didn’t know until just now,” said Jeannette Rodriguez.

Niebergall praised the potential of his students, who he said have the talent to be successful if given the right opportunities. All 19 of his calculus students took the Advanced Placement test this year, but he doesn’t yet know the results.

He’ll keep coming back to Fremont, he said, as long as students want him to.


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— Howard Blume

Photo: Jessica Espinoza, left, and Karla De Leon celebrate Wednesday during Fremont High School's graduation at the Home Depot Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.