You’ll have to forgive Canoga Park High School teacher Caryn Cornell Michaels if she doesn’t give up on kids others might not give a second glance – let alone a second chance. As a graduate of Canoga Park High and Columbus Middle schools – campuses where she now works with at-risk kids – Michaels has walked in her troubled students’ shoes in more ways than one. “I was just going down the wrong path,” said Michaels, 44, of her teen years. “I hung out with a lot of kids who abused drugs, and fortunately my mother made sure I went to school and got good grades.” Besides her mother, a former English teacher, Michaels credits the intervention of a middle-school instructor with helping her get through that difficult period in her life. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECoach Doc Rivers a “fan” from way back of Jazz’s Jordan Clarkson“I was going through incredible depression, and that teacher, he probably saved my life,” Michaels said. “I was 13 years old, and I wanted to die. I had a plan.” A plan she was on her way home to carry out. “This teacher sensed something was wrong with me and made sure I didn’t go home. I never even told him what I was going to do.” Without help from him and others, Michaels realizes she was destined for a hard-knock life, being one of only three of her core group of friends to graduate from high school. One of them later died “because she couldn’t leave that (drug) culture,” Michaels said. And the other friend’s boyfriend, an artist who painted a mural that still is on display at Columbus, was killed in a crack drug deal gone bad. So when Michaels, a mother of two sons ages 9 and 19, walks the campuses of her youth today as a health teacher and safe-school coordinator – part of a program that allows her to work closely with kids heading down the wrong path – it’s not with a sense of nostalgia that she does her job, but a sense of gratitude. Through 23 years of teaching and mentoring, the California State University, Northridge, graduate has engaged in the kind of relationship building that has had a profound effect on her students. Canoga Park High senior Steven Navarro, 17, is one of them. On a recent day, he was dressed smartly in a gray suit and tie for his shift at a local department store. His polite and confident air was a far cry from the life he might have led had Michaels not persuaded him to join United Colors, a student conflict-resolution group. “I’d probably be a gang member,” he said. Through United Colors, which Navarro first joined while at Columbus, he and others help stop fights and other campus disputes before they start. The group consists of students from all ethnicities and walks of campus life. Navarro said United Colors has helped him grow up. He sees Michaels as a confidante. “She’s someone I can talk to,” said Navarro, who plans to attend Pierce College after graduation. “I can trust her. Whenever I need anything, I can come to her. The same for me. If she ever needs anything, she can come to me. “That’s why I’m here,” he added about coming to school for an interview during his holiday break. Canoga Park junior Katherine Gonzalez, 16, has her sights set on Oregon’s Concordia University after she graduates next year. She wants to be a doctor. She’s also a member of United Colors and said she very easily could’ve dropped out of school and gotten involved in gangs without Michaels’ guidance while at Columbus. And while Canoga Park has made headlines this year for its gang and racial problems, Gonzalez noted groups such as United Colors have a positive appeal. “Some (students), after we helped them, they want to know what they can do to get into United Colors,” she said. “In my school, you’re split by areas that you live. United Colors teaches us to interact with people you would never talk to. “There’s not only Latinos and blacks, there’s many ethnicities in the group. … You see how much we have in common, and it helps the school unite.” The students meet once a week, discussing and debating everything from the number of prisons versus schools in California to what makes a good citizen. “It’s hard to hurt somebody if you know them,” Michaels said. It’s tough to say how many students Michaels has helped keep away from gangs or helped graduate, but she doesn’t want the credit, instead citing principals, deans and teachers for the “team effort.” She also recognizes people such as Los Angeles police Lt. Tom Smart, who heads the Gang Impact Team for the West Valley Division. “I think the world of her,” Smart said. “She is a very proactive, committed teacher. … She’s the real thing.” In January, Canoga Park High will begin Over the Bridge, a program designed for “high-risk” students who otherwise would get kicked out of school. About 15 kids will be isolated from other students on campus. They’ll not only study math and other core subjects but also receive life lessons from Michaels and other instructors. It could be their last chance. If nothing else, they’ve got an in-your-corner ally in Michaels, a fellow Canoga Park Hunter who once sat at the same desks, ran in the same streets and managed to overcome some of the same demons. “I’d rather work with my own Canoga Park kids,” she said. “They’re good kids.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!