In the small quad of the Academic Performance Excellence (APEX) Academy campus Tuesday night, a red carpet led past a limousine into a white tent with a photo backdrop.
Oscar statuettes decorated the space as families began to gather outside. Meanwhile, in the library, mascara tubes, blush and eye shadow crowded onto tables as professional Aveda stylists hot-ironed hair and brushed makeup onto shining cheeks of students sitting in blue and white gowns.
The glamorous setup hardly looked like a high school graduation. But for the first graduating class of APEX Academy High School, which seeks out local students in danger of dropping out as well as those who have failed to thrive in a traditional public school setting, the occasion was grand indeed.
"Graduation should be a major event, but many of these students have already had major events in their lives," said Alfonso Paz, a APEX counselor and the impetus behind the red-carpet celebration. "It made sense to go big."
To thunderous applause from friends and family, 40 students walked the stage of the Helen Bernstein High School auditorium. The class included some of the most at-risk students in east Hollywood, with lives complicated by gang violence, immigration policy and financial hardship.
APEX, located in the Helen Bernstein High School Complex, is pointedly not like a charter or magnet school, said Principal Cesar Lopez. Established three years ago, the school is funded primarily by the Los Angeles Unified School District and the nonprofit group Diploma Plus.
An emphasis on a caring, personalized atmosphere and the Diploma Plus model of performance-based education has put APEX into its own educational category, Lopez said.
For the APEX teachers, Tuesday night was the culmination of a promise made to students three years ago—not just a diploma, but a path to college and the means to pay for it. More than half of its graduates are headed to four-year colleges.
At the podium, Paz held back tears as he reiterated that promise to the roughly 400 people seated in the audience.
At one point, a graduate shouted from the crowd, "I love you!"
Paz paused to smile. "I love you too,” he responded, empathetically.
That sentiment has marked APEX these past three years, LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer told the crowd.
"[APEX] is rehumanizing public education," Zimmer said. "They are bringing love back into public education."
Zimmer said Diploma Plus has become the model for the district.
APEX shed an A-B-C grading system for categories such as "emerging," "bridging" and "advanced."
"[The students] have failed [in the past] and know failing vocabulary," Paz said. "We changed the vocabulary."
In addition to a focus on performance rather than textbook learning, APEX requires students to complete Community Action Projects, a type of service-learning that emphasizes community involvement and education while pushing back against stigmas.
Some students, like Alvin Merida, were fifth-years who have turned around their academic careers. Merida was barely a student at Hollywood High School three years ago. He rarely went to class, pressured to skip by friends he later identified as the "wrong crowd."
"I wasted two years of my life," said Merida, a stocky 19-year-old with earnest eyes and a friendly smile.
With his grades in the gutter, Merida seemed bound to become a statistic.
Then Paz sat him down and made him the promise.
On Tuesday, an emotional Merida addressed his classmates as their student body president.
"Academics, performance, excellence," Merida said, looking around. "That's what our school stands for."
He plans to return to APEX after studying kinesiology at Cal State Northridge. He wants to become a teacher to give back.
APEX works to identify and encourage leadership qualities like Merida's, said college counselor Rachel Livingston. The school also goes one-on-one with its students and counselors arrange court dates and help with deportation paperwork.
Livingston walked among the students after the ceremony, hugging each tightly. She told graduating student Stephanie Renteria, who gave birth to a daughter six months ago, to call her cellphone anytime.
A number of the students followed Paz from his post as a counselor at Le Conte Middle School including valedictorian Hermine Vardanian, who met Paz in the sixth grade.
Through a $10,000 scholarship, Vardanian spent a summer at Harvard University, taking summer classes in macroeconomics and neurobiology. Vardanian plans to transfer to USC after attending classes at a community college.
Smiling broadly, Vardanian and mother Jessica Chatalian took a picture together under the white tent on the red carpet.
"[APEX] is like a family. They always keep pushing you," Chatalian said.