After generations of failure, a school and its students head for success

Jordan High has made big strides in academic performance. There is more to achieve, but its progress is plain to see.

I was prepared for the dog-and-pony show — the choreographed "reveal" of a school makeover that's been in the works for years.

I didn't expect much beyond a grown-up version of show-and-tell. But I came anyway because I have a soft spot for Jordan High in Watts.

I've spent a decade tracking the school's efforts to improve; watched reformers arrive with big plans and leave with broken dreams.

The school's problems, they'd say, are too deep and expensive to fix; too intertwined with a neighborhood that will always be warped by dysfunction and poverty.

But on Wednesday, state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson visited the school with certificates announcing its improvement. Jordan's 93-point jump on the state's academic performance index was the biggest of any urban high school in California this year.

That's why Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa showed up after working "56 hours straight" on trade missions and labor deals. "No way I'd miss this," he said. His Partnership for Los Angeles Schools is the architect of Jordan's reforms.

And it's why philanthropist Melanie Lundquist, whose $50-million contribution keeps the partnership going, showed up ready to celebrate the return on her investment in this city's struggling schools.

We spent the morning visiting classrooms, talking with teachers, oohing and aahing over pristine hallways and perfectly manicured grounds.

But what moved me most was what I heard from students on a campus that, for generations, hasn't been able to shake its "failure" label.

"It used to be 'Why are we here at Jordan?'," said one 12th-grade girl. We knew what she meant:

Their school was nothing but a holding pen. Their neighborhood had been written off. Their lives would never change.

That's how it was for years, she said. "Now everybody is seeing the change, in the school and the community."

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I don't know that everybody is seeing a difference. "Change" here has been a popular but failed refrain.

Two years ago, the school was failing so persistently, it was essentially dissolved — reconstituted, in edu-speak. Its students and campus were divided between two groups, Green Dot Charter and the mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

Both schools on the campus posted gains this year. But the partnership's jump — from 515 to 608 on the state's academic performance index — surprised even its most ardent supporters.

Still, 608 isn't scholar status; scores at the best public high schools are more than 200 points higher. And Jordan isn't out of the woods. Its enrollment dropped this fall, after a charter school with "college" in its name opened up nearby.

The students I talked with understand that Jordan's reputation may be its biggest hurdle. And they intend to change that by succeeding, returning as mentors and spreading the word.

"We know that we're the ones that have to make the difference," said senior Esmeralda Diaz. She was Student of the Month in her chemistry class — for her good work and for helping classmates with theirs.

She's not sold on all the changes at Jordan. She misses the pep rallies, the socializing, the school spirit that disappeared when her campus was divided in half and its student body shrunk.

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