Shipping trip: School benefactors pay for new graduation clothes

The Press Enterprise (Riverside, CA.)
May 29, 2008, Thursday

SHOPPING TRIP: SCHOOL BENEFACTORS PAY FOR NEW GRADUATION CLOTHES;
Dress, Success;

Val Verde Students Treated To New Suits

byIMRAN VITTACHI, THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE

LOS ANGELES

Except for the black brush of his Mohawk cut, fringed by a mat of
black hair on his scalp, Manuel Najar emerged onto Hollywood Boulevard
a transformed young man.

The 19-year-old from Perris had just walked out of Suit City of
Hollywood, a Tinseltown clothing store. He wore a rayon and polyester
black suit with red pinstripes and a pair of red-topped black
shoes. Earrings still hung from his earlobes, but the sleeves of his
new suit concealed the star-shaped tattoos on his forearms.

"That whole look is a higher class look," Najar had said earlier in
the day when he was picking out his suit. "It’s a look I’m not used
to."

The suit is the first he has ever owned.

Najar and 35 other male students from the Student Success Academy, a
Val Verde Unified campus in Perris, spent the day May 20 traveling to
Hollywood to acquire a free new suit and clothing accessories. Each
student is to wear his suit for graduation night Friday and for the
school’s award ceremonies Wednesday.

On May 20, a group of 10 girls from the academy traveled separately by
van to the Ontario Mills mall to shop for dresses to wear for those
occasions. They also will be able to wear them again for job
interviews. A few of the male and female students are not graduating
this year but were getting new formal outfits as a prize for winning
Student of the Month honors.

ROYALTY FOR A DAY

In what has now become a four-year-old tradition at graduation time
for this small school, the shopping trips are the academy’s way of
rewarding the students for turning their secondary educational careers
around. Not too long ago, many of them were at risk of dropping out or
failing.

But not a penny of district money was spent on the suits for the boys
and dresses for the girls, school officials said. The $5,415.45 for
the 36 suits bundled with an equal number of dress shirts, ties,
handkerchiefs, belts, socks and shoes came from donations from the
district’s business partners and corporate benefactors, and campus
barbecues and other student-led fund drives, school officials said.

The idea, said Principal Norman Towels, is to make these youngsters
feel like royalty for at least a day.

"What I wanted for them was to have the experience of going to a shop
and being treated like someone," Towels said.

The 36 boys invaded the store, owned by a family of Armenian
immigrants, at Hollywood and Schrader boulevards. The store owner’s
son, clothes salesman and part-time actor Greg Grigorian, had attended
his own graduation from Cal State Northridge that morning. He, his
mother, his father and aunt had returned to the store to fit the 36
students with suits and accessories.

FEELING ACCOMPLISHED

By sunset, the students’ rapper musician chains, and shorts and baggy
jeans that sagged to the ankles, were replaced with new suits and, in
some cases, faux alligator-skin shoes.

"It feels good. I feel accomplished," said Donnie Cantrell, 17, of
Moreno Valley, who wore an Atlanta Braves cap. He plans to take
business classes at the Riverside Community College campus in his
hometown. Most of the seniors are heading to two-year community
colleges.

The students also visited a university campus May 20. The boys went to
USC and the girls went to UC Riverside

"We want them to understand that it’s not that far away. It’s not out
of their reach," said James Macaraeg, an anger management and drug
counselor at the academy, who co-chaperoned the girls on their trip to
UCR.

Najar had dropped out of high school before enrolling at the
academy. All of his four siblings, he said, are high school dropouts.

He had been thinking of becoming an off-road racer. Now, he plans to
train as a mechanic at Universal Technical Institute in Rancho
Cucamonga.

"Other schools don’t give you this opportunity to feel good about
yourself, like you’ve accomplished something," Najar said.

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