School or Survival?

This project was led by Catherine Stifter, a 2013 California Fellow, who takes an up-close look at the high rates of high school dropouts through the lives of four young people from the Central Valley.

Other stories include:

Class Dismissed

No Regrets, Just Keep It Moving

Family First

This story was written by Rebecca Plevin


As he tells it, Geronimo Garcia was on the path toward dropping out by the time he started school.

Geronimo is one of 14 kids born to Mexican immigrant parents. He remembers ditching kindergarten. His older brothers dressed him like a gangster – in a white T-shirt, baggy shorts, and high, white socks – when he was in elementary school.

He was suspended the first time in fourth grade, when he sold marijuana on the school campus and got in a fight over it. He was expelled from school in the seventh grade after stabbing a member of a rival gang. He spent a year in the Tulare Probation Youth Facility, which he describes as a boot camp. After that it was in and out of a school for expelled students. 

Geronimo, who is 17 now, says: “School was nothing to me. I wasn’t learning anything in school. So I did most of it all in the streets. The street is school to me.”

He eventually dropped out. People searching for solutions to the dropout crisis say his problems are a symptom of much deeper issues afflicting the San Joaquin Valley, like poverty, violence, and the reign of gangs in the region’s rural communities.

“When you have those types of things, that is a recipe for disaster,” says Scott Braden, the principal of Charter Alternatives Academy, the expulsion school that Geronimo attended. “His story is indicative of our at-risk kids in America, not just the Central Valley.”

On his bad days, the future looks dark to Geronimo. On better days, he says he knows he must change his life, or he’ll wind up dead or locked up.

Geronimo does have the support of several adults. They encourage him to stay out of the streets, earn an education, and develop job skills. And even with his rough edges, they say they can see a better future for Geronimo.

Manny Castro stands outside the Wittman Village Community Center's front office. Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio

Manny Castro stands outside the Wittman Village Community Center's front office. Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio

One mentor, Manny Castro, is realistic about Geronimo’s options.

“He’s always fighting back,” says Castro, who met Geronimo few years ago, while working at the local community center. “He’s always wanting to do something different, to do something better. But you know, because of circumstances, because of environment, because of some cultural hooks, there’s this… it’s really difficult to break those chains, you know?”



“My mind’s just full of ghetto”—Geronimo Garcia, young gangster

When we first met, Castro was a gang intervention specialist with Youth for Christ in Tulare County. He’s since moved to a similar position with Visalia Unified School District. He accompanied me on almost all my interviews with Geronimo.

On a Wednesday in late July, we rode together to Geronimo’s family home in Patterson Tract, an unincorporated community outside of Visalia. I wanted Geronimo to take me on a tour of his neighborhood. But Castro had warned me that it wasn’t safe to leave one of our cars in the neighborhood, even for a few minutes.

The small neighborhood has no sidewalks or streetlights. Some houses have junk in the yard; others have dirt instead of lawns. Gang graffiti is scrawled on some fences. Small dogs run in the streets.

When we drive through the neighborhood, I ask Geronimo to describe what he sees.

He says the street looks “ghetto,” though some houses look nice and well-kept to him. As we cruise down a street, toward an orchard, he narrates: “There’ll be a church, little houses, and during the night out here you’ll see some rabbits running around the church, a lot of them. Some of them got ran over.”

On another trip, we drive down his street, then double back and slowly pass his family’s house as he describes it: “It’s got some broken windows from drive-bys and stuff like that, dirt everywhere, not really much grass…”

As he speaks, a man walks out of the house, and eyes the car suspiciously.

“You might want to wave at your people, because they’re coming out,” Castro tells Geronimo in a serious tone. “Is that your uncle?”

“No, that’s my brother,” Geronimo says.

A view of Geronimo's home in Patterson Tract. Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio

A view of Geronimo's home in Patterson Tract. Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio

He doesn’t share much else about his family. He’s one of seven brothers, and he has seven sisters. He hesitates when he lists their names. He can’t remember all of them.

But there’s one sibling he won’t forget. His brother Jose was 23 when he was shot and killed earlier this summer. It was likely a case of gang violence.

“What do you remember about your brother?” Castro asks Geronimo one morning. Castro wants to give Geronimo an opportunity to talk about his brother.

“My brother always liked to smoke marijuana every day,” he says. “That’s his favorite thing to do is smoke marijuana. He loved his kid a lot.”

In his more reflective moments, Geronimo acknowledges that his education and future have been shaped by the violent world where he’s grown up.

“If my family was not to be in gangs or drugs or anything like that, I don’t know what would I be at,” he says. “I can’t picture that.”

“You can’t picture it?” I ask him.

“My mind’s just full of ghetto,” he says. “It’s all I’ve been growing up with, around the ghetto. It’s how it is to me.”


Castro describes Geronimo as a “generation gangster.” Kids like him are born into the lifestyle. They live to survive. If they want a different future, they will struggle to break free.

Castro knows this type of youth well. He’s worked with hundreds of them. Once he was one of them.

Castro grew up poor in the Fresno County city of Orange Cove. He was expelled from middle school. His criminal career intensified when he attended a continuation school.

“And around 1981 was when I committed a pretty big crime. Three or four of us went out and robbed a few houses and shot a few people and did a few things,” Castro said.

He spent seven years incarcerated in the California Youth Authority. He stayed out of jail after that, but he hit the Fresno-area night life hard. He discovered meth, and was addicted for about 15 years.

He says he eventually turned his life around, and earned a certificate from College of the Sequoias in Visalia. Today, he’s married and has three children.

Manny Castro walks the halls of Geronimo's former school, Charter Alternatives Academy. Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio

Manny Castro walks the halls of Geronimo's former school, Charter Alternatives Academy. Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio

His experiences, he says, allow him to relate to the at-risk Tulare County youth that he supports, mentors, and for whom he’s become a father figure.

“I think that’s one of the biggest things that make me so effective, is I understand the process,” Castro says. “I understand the transition. You know, you’re not going to tell a kid that he’s on the wrong path today and have him change tomorrow. That just doesn’t happen.”

He continues: “It’s a gradual process. They’re going to learn. They’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to fail. They’re going to get back up. They’re going to call on you. They’re going to hate you. These are just the things you go through.”

Education is a major part of that process, he says. But he knows a student’s performance or attendance in school can be an afterthought when there are much bigger problems to be addressed.

“Some days you don’t preach education. Some days you just comfort; you’re just a comfort guy. You just love them, you care for them, and you offer the love of a parent,” he says.

“When things get better and when they seem to be cheered up and when you have the opportunity to talk about education, that’s when you go in and start talking about education and the importance of it and where it can take you and what it can do for you.”

It’s a strategy he uses with Geronimo. One afternoon, Geronimo and Castro talk about a charter school for non-traditional students. It’s run by the Tulare County organization CSET, and offers students the chance to earn a high school diploma while they develop job skills and earn an income.

Castro says he can suggest these options to Geronimo, but Geronimo must want them.

“I can bring him the application, I can take him to CSET to sign up, but if he doesn’t want to go, I’m just wasting my time, so we’re just going to keep talking about it and discussing it,” Castro says.


When Geronimo recalls his years in school, he doesn’t talk about challenging classes, or favorite teachers, or fun field trips.

He remembers drugs.

“Marijuana was around me since I was a little kid,” he said. “I bought it in school; I sold it in school; I got caught with it at school; I smoked it at school.”

His stories about school are stories of violence and punishment.

He fought over drugs in fourth grade and was suspended. After that, he says, he knew school would never be the same.

“I knew that I would be into fights, selling drugs, and being into more of the gang because I knew what my brothers did and they seen me and they’re like, ‘all right, we’ve seen you do this. Now you’re going to join us because you did that.’”

In middle school, he recalls stabbing a member of a rival gang.

“I stabbed him and started fighting him to the ground.”—Geronimo Garcia, young gangster

“And I had red shoes, all red shoes, and he told me to take them off and I told him no,” he said. “And I guess he said that he was going to stab me. And I said you ain’t going to pull out shit, because I’ve already got one right here, and took it out and stabbed him and started fighting him to the ground.”

Geronimo was expelled, and spent a year at a probation youth facility. After that year he attended an expulsion school.

We visited the school, Charter Alternatives, in August. He pointed out some benches, near the basketball courts, where he and other members of his gang would hang out.

He remembers his friends: “Two are in prison for a shooting at the mall, others are either dead or still in jail. Some of them are out there playing around, I haven’t heard from them or talked to them in years.”

He shows me where he got into a fight, this spring, with a deputy Sherriff.

“It happened right here,” Geronimo says. “I was fighting with the officer, next to the cafeteria over here, and we ended up on the ground.”

Geronimo was suspended for five days and didn’t go back to school after that. His last month of enrollment was May 2013.

His fondest memories of the school?

“I don’t know if you guys think this is fun, but I always thought it was fun,” he says, as a smile brightens up his face. “I’d always take pencils, and take the lead out, and make the pencils into pipes.”


Scott Braden, the Charter Alternatives principal, says education was never Geronimo’s priority.


“I don’t think he really believed he had a future from the very get go,” he says. “I think his ideal world was being high and hanging out with friends.”

Charter Alternatives is intended to rehabilitate students who have been expelled from Visalia Unified School District. Its goal is to re-enroll students in a comprehensive school from which they can graduate. Braden says, of every 100 Charter students who return to a comprehensive school, 96 of them will graduate.

Geronimo was not one of them.

“He’s been here for three years at this school, when he should’ve only been here for one semester,” Braden explains. “But because he was not doing the things he needed to do, like attendance and GPA, and not get suspended, he then had to stay for these last three years until ultimately he just dropped out.”

Braden attributes Geronimo’s problems with school, in part, to drug use.

“I saw in that three year period of time just the incredible drug use and he became volatile, severely depressed,” he recalls. “You just saw the life being sucked out of him.”

The other challenge with Geronimo, Braden says, was getting him to believe he could succeed.

“When you come from his background and there’s been nothing but dream breakers, and people that have never painted on the canvas of his mind that,‘you can,’ whenever he hears that from an authority, he’s going to think, ‘yeah, right.’”

Braden tells Geronimo and other students that success is a “battle in the mind.”

“I think that many of these kids just have this hope that maybe something will change,” Braden says. “Not that they’ll become the change; they never become the change. But they hope for change. So then it’s always should’ve, could’ve, would’ve, and it’s always just hopeful thinking.”

Still, Braden says it’s not too late for Geronimo.

“I believe Geronimo knows deep down in his heart that one day he’ll look back and go, ‘man, I had lots of opportunities. Even though I had a messed up life, there were lots of people in my life that were trying to help me out.’”

“And when he’s ready to do that and to take those steps, I think there’s a future for Geronimo. But I think right now he’s his own worst enemy.”


Since he stopped going to school, Geronimo’s been spending a lot of time in the streets.

He sells drugs. Or, he says, his friends will get him stacks of jeans, which he sells quickly and cheaply. He saves the money or spends it on clothes, food, drugs and gifts for his girlfriend.

“To me, school was a waste of my time, when I could do more in the streets, make my money,” he says.

An education may pay off in the long-term. But the streets are lucrative immediately. It’s the situation Braden, of Charter Alternatives, describes when he says Geronimo’s purpose was to exist and survive.

“You know, he is a cute kid, but he’s learned how to be a hustler,” Braden says. “He’s going to work this person to get that money to get this. It’s all for self, whatever. It’s gratifying and whatever I want for this moment in this time.”

“It’s really hard to get out of a life like this.”—Geronimo Garcia, generation gangster

But when Geronimo looks to his future, he understands he’ll need more than quick cash in his pocket.

He knows he’ll need a high school diploma to get a job: “And if you don’t have it, you’re out of luck. You’ve got nothing. And that’s what I’ve got: I’ve got nothing.”

He knows how his story could end.

“I’ve got to do something about it because if I keep following I’m going to end up dead or in prison,” he says. “And look where it took my brother’s steps at. He ended up dead and I don’t want to go there.”

After hearing about his experiences with violence and drugs, it may be surprising to hear Geronimo talk about a career goal in law enforcement. Inspired by the National Geographic’s television series, ‘Border Wars,’ Geronimo says he wants to join the Arizona Border Patrol. He says the job would likely require a college degree.

But Geronimo is realistic when he describes his struggles to find a path toward education and a steady job.

“It’s really hard to get out of a life like this,” he says. “But I haven’t got out of it yet. I’m still doing the life. But here and there, you know, it’s where I’m doing good or I’m doing bad but most of the times I’m always trying to stay good, not trying to be on bad side.”

Geronimo’s mentor Manny Castro has heard this story before. It’s his story, and the stories of hundreds of youth he’s worked with. I ask him what it would take for Geronimo to turn his life around.

“He’s got to get to a point where he understands that there is a better way of life,” Castro says. “He’s got to get to a point where he understands that he can do things better. There is another way of living rather than drugs, rather than gangs, rather than lack of education.”

“It’s got to come to him on his own understanding, because that’s when it’s going to mean something to him.”


Geronimo and I talked several times at the Wittman Village Community Center. Since we can’t meet at his home, and the streets would not be safe, this is one of the only places where we can talk.

It’s a small community center in a tough part of Visalia. There’s a basketball court inside, and a small room with computers and a couch.

It’s a safe gathering place for neighborhood kids. A sign on the wall lists the center’s rules. They include: No gang colors; no gang clothing; no gang graffiti.

It’s a place of some progress for Geronimo. He has learned some job skills, and earned money working in the center’s bike shop and cleaning the facility.

Geronimo Garcia repairs bicycles part time at a community center near his home. Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio

Geronimo Garcia repairs bicycles part time at a community center near his home. Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio

Still, on this afternoon, Geronimo envisions a dark future as he looks five years ahead. Does he see a high school degree, a steady job, or a family?

No, no, no.

“I see pure black,” he says. “I don’t see anything.”

I ask Geronimo if he has advice for other young people struggling with school.

“Well, for younger kids, I would tell them don’t end up in gangs or anything like that,” he says. “It’ll take you in the wrong places. Stay in school.”

What would he tell older kids?

“I’d just tell them how my life was, you know?” he says. “Tell them how it is, how hard it is out here in the streets to live. Know what you’ve got to go through. It’s ugly. It’s not pretty.”

When asked about the reference to “ugly,” Geronimo puts up a wall. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he says.

At other times, Geronimo sees a slightly brighter future. Castro asks him to rate his desire to return to school on a scale of one to 10.

“Like a 5, in the middle,” Geronimo says. “When I go to school, it’s like, I don’t want to be here. But when I’m home, it’s like, I want to go to school, and see what it’s like.”

That’s an honest answer, and one that Castro is willing to work with. In his job of youth intervention, he says, it’s the small successes that keep him energized.

Manny Castro and Geronimo Garcia walk the halls of Geronimo's former school, Charter Alternatives Academy. Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio

Manny Castro and Geronimo Garcia walk the halls of Geronimo's former school, Charter Alternatives Academy. Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio

“It comes at a Wal-Mart. It comes at a Wendy’s,” Castro says. “Oh man, it brings tears to my eyes sometimes when you can see a kid crossing the street and you’re like, ‘hey, Joey, what’s going on?’ ‘Hey, Manny, I’m doing good now. I’ve got two kids, I’ve got a house, and I’m doing good.’”

“That, oh my god, there’s just nothing like that,” Castro says.

For now, Geronimo’s still living “the life.” But mentors, like Castro, stay by his side.

Castro can’t drag Geronimo into the light, but he can walk with him through that gray place between school and survival.

[This story was originally published by Cap Radio.]

Did you like this story? Your support means a lot! Your tax-deductible donation will advance our mission of supporting journalism as a catalyst for change.