Inside the South L.A. High School That’s Giving the Doctors of Tomorrow a Head Start

Meet some of the students getting a top-grade medical education at King/Drew Magnet High School in Willowbrook
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Seventeen years after the Watts riots, a group of civic and religious leaders responded to the lack of educational and employment opportunities in the neighborhood by creating a small magnet school with a few bungalows for 60 students on a shared high school campus. Today the King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science has a curvilinear campus that’s adjacent to Charles Drew University and a new Martin Luther King hospital.

The school has about 1,600 students—that’s half the population of a typical L.A. high school—and girls outrank boys by a seven-to-one ratio. It has a 99 percent graduation rate. Ninety percent of those graduates end up going to college (Berkeley, Harvard, Princeton, etc.), and King/Drew is one of the city’s major feeder schools for sending African American students to UCLA.

The success of the magnet inspired the Los Angeles Unified School District to dedicate $750,000 to get going on a clone campus. Students in their junior year are sent on weekly visits to five area clinics: the Ronald Reagan Medical Center at UCLA, Veterans Affairs Hospital, Watts Health Center, Martin Luther King Jr. Outpatient Center, and downtown’s VA ambulatory care center.

We spoke to eight students to find out what draws them to medicine.


Alexei Olivo

Cardiology 

I want to become a cardiologist because I have a cardiologist myself: I was diagnosed with a heart murmur, and my doctor motivates me. The people in my community motivate me because I know this community can be better. I grew up here. I have two older sisters. One wanted to work in medicine, but both had to drop out of college because of family problems. Compton is very vicious. Living here is a journey itself. In my neighborhood there have been drive-bys and gang shootings. All that made me more cautious about the choices in my life and made me want to do better.


Nayeli Lopez

Orthodontics

We had to research careers when I was in middle school, and I got really interested in orthodontics, particularly in the amount of money that orthodontists make. I volunteered at the Watts Health Clinic and shadowed the dentist. I watched them fill cavities and liked it. I wish I’d seen something gross—it would have been better for learning. My mom suffered a lot because she came here alone, spoke no English, and had to work at a young age to help her mom back in Mexico. I saw her pain and her desperation. I want to buy her a house and make sure that she never has to work again.


Marifer Magaña

Neurosurgery

Every Tuesday I go to the ambulatory surgery unit at UCLA, and if I’m lucky, I get to see a procedure. There were residents that found it weird that I was a high school student, and I was watching the same thing they were. I don’t find regular high school things interesting. I’m not into sports and stuff like that. I want to focus myself on medicine. I want to achieve something in life to prove that kids from Compton won’t all grow up to be in gangs. I want to be a doctor so I can give Compton a different name.


Nyla Modeliste

Forensic toxicology

King/Drew is pretty much like any other high school, but the teachers have higher expectations and train us to be prepared for college. I grew up with science and math because my dad trained me to understand that you have to use it in the real world, whether you’re eating or paying taxes. He told me that math and science are the key to life. I’m going to be a forensic toxicologist. I woke up in the middle of the night and my dad was watching Forensic Files. It’s real interesting how people figure out all these things by analyzing one little clue.


Chukwudi Iwu

Emergency medicine

I’ve been attracted to medicine since the fifth grade, when my mom was in a car accident and broke her leg. All I had was a busted lip, but they wanted me to come with her in the ambulance. It was very scary because I didn’t know what was happening. Now that I look back on it, it made me want to help people. I want to become an ER specialist. A 9-to-5 job doesn’t interest me. I’d like to do something where I’m always on my feet and doing something. The ER is really hectic and, yes, it seems scary, but if you know how to handle things, you can save people.


Priya Bhavsar

Oncology and hematology

I’ve been interested in medicine my whole life. My grandfather got diagnosed with diabetes, and I would make sure he got his meds on time. My parents speak an Indian language called Gujarati, and I was the only one in my family who knew enough English to talk to the doctors. I plan to become a pediatric oncologist and hematologist. My dad has leukemia, and so I was familiar with that subspecialty. I volunteer at the neonatal ICU. I saw the trauma team help a baby with a pulmonary hemorrhage. I felt the rush of adrenaline and tried to help the docs as much as I could.


Elizabeth Orkeh

Orthopedic surgery

Ashley Sky Walker

My mom is a nurse, and my dad is a doctor. My aunts in Nigeria are nurses. Most of the
African American students here are first generation like me. My dad used to work for
the World Health Organization, but when he came here he had to take odd jobs because he couldn’t practice medicine in the U.S. I have a lot more opportunities than my parents did. I used to play a surgery simulator called Edheads back in fifth grade. Then I started watching small surgeries on YouTube, and that showed me how it was done in real life.
It was so messy but also really cool.


Shakirah Williams

Anesthesiology

Ashley Sky Walker

My mom is a traffic officer, and my dad’s a barber, so I’ll be the first generation to go to college. When I came here for orientation I was amazed. Not a lot of schools have these opportunities, especially in this area. You go to Torrance and you see all those big houses with lawns and good restaurants. We’re surrounded by Burger King and McDonald’s, and that’s bad for your health. We have a mannequin to practice phlebotomy; we have a pregnant mannequin; there’s even one with a foot injury. Not a lot of schools have that type of equipment.


RELATED: Doctors Who Got Degrees Abroad Are Coming to L.A. To Work in Underserved Communities


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