Above right, Fina Tavake has become a high achiever and a student leader at John R.Wooden High School.

Just a few years ago, Fina Tavake was barely making it in high school.

Failing grades. Poor attendance. And a tendency toward shyness that made it difficult for her to fit in with most of the 3,100 other kids on the sprawling high school campus.

Behind on credits and running out of options, Tavake enrolled in John R. Wooden High School in Reseda, a 100-student continuation school named for the inspirational UCLA basketball coach.

Soon, she was blazing through her classes, earning As and Bs as she accumulated credits toward graduation. She came to school early and left late, joining clubs and helping teachers. She worked weekends on the school farm, ran the L.A. Marathon as part of Students Run LA, and talked with classmates about the problems and challenges that brought them to the alternative campus.

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Wooden High graduate Fina Navake won a full scholarship to Norwich University in Vermont.

“The support is incredible here, and the teachers are amazing,” said Tavake, who enrolled in Wooden her sophomore year. “The school has only five classrooms – it’s really small – and it’s really family-oriented. There’s a Town Hall every week, where all the students are in one room and there are announcements about students who achieve.

“I felt comfortable knowing that so many kids are like me – we’re all trying to strive and not give up.”

Just how far Tavake has come was highlighted Tuesday during Wooden’s Awards Night, when she took home honors for character, for mentoring and for leadership – recognition made extra special since it was awarded by Tavake’s peers.

“When I think about the power of education and the mentoring relationships and positive teacher supports that are available at Wooden – Fina has absorbed all of the positive things we do here,” said Principal Laura Novak. “She is that student you can always count on. She always exceeds your expectations and just shines.”

Tavake said she was torn in her decision to attend Wooden. She was tempted to drop out of public school and be home-schooled, which would allow her to stay home with her disabled mother and help care for her younger siblings. But her father and older siblings encouraged her to give school one more try – and it paid off.

Tavake won a full scholarship to Norwich University, a private college in central Vermont. She plans to major in criminal justice and to someday become a homicide detective. Her older sister, who graduated from Cleveland Charter High School last year, will be a sophomore at Norwich by the time Fina arrives.

“We usually do everything together,” Tavake said. “She was going to major in sports medicine. But when I told her about becoming a detective, now she wants to do that too.”

It’s evident that family is important to Tavake. She described the closeness of herself and her six siblings, explained that her parents took in the friend of one of her brothers, talked about the faith that binds them all together.

And she credited the family-like support provided by the teachers and staff at Wooden for keeping her and other students on the path to success.

“Everyone comes to the school because someone from their family went there – my brother, someone’s cousin or auntie,” Tavake said. “It’s a family school.”