Put dozens of boys in a new school in South L.A., the first one in Los Angeles Unified devoted to young men.
Give them ties to knot over sweater vests bearing their names and the logo of the Boys Academic Leadership Academy.
Bring them to USC to show them what college looks like, and then return them to class. All on the first day of school.
Anything might happen.
One student might feel like he isn’t good enough to be there.
“What’s the point of putting this tie on?” a boy said to teacher Tommy Johnson. “I don’t deserve it.”
Johnson reassured him, “You're exactly the type of kid that needs this.”
Another might express glee.
A sixth-grader named Josh started dancing the second he saw a camera. After it stopped recording, he asked Johnson, “Did I just embarrass myself?” (The answer was no.)
Another might be upset because his cellphone was confiscated — and return to class only when the district’s police chief tells him he can turn his day around.
One might feel alienated enough from the new environment to leave class and try to escape through the front gate.
A pastor named Brian Davis — whose son attends BALA — was on hand to catch the boy who gave that a try. The boy told Davis he didn't have a father figure at home and that he had been routinely told he was dumb. Davis told him that he belonged at BALA and escorted him back to class — where he stayed only after Davis gently held him by one arm and his teacher by the other.
L.A. Unified opened a boys’ school after it launched the single-sex Girls Academic Leadership Academy in Mid-City last year — in part to comply with its interpretation of a federal regulation. But it’s also the kind of unusual offering that the district hopes will help its ongoing fight to recapture enrollment — and revenue — lost to charter schools.
“The district is trying to give parents a unique opportunity they feel they can’t get through charter schools,” said Tyrone Howard, a professor and associate dean for equity and inclusion at UCLA’s education and information school. But, he said, “you can’t just say it; you have to ensure the quality.”
You also have to get students to enroll, which so far is a problem. The school, starting with grades six and seven (with plans to eventually grow into a high school), attracted 87 students on the first day of classes. As of August 24, 94 students were enrolled.
It is also on its second principal: Jeremy McDavid built out the program but in July was transferred to another school, the one previously led by current BALA Principal Donald Moorer. The switch happened because "the numbers were low,” said George McKenna, the L.A. Unified school board member who pushed for BALA’s creation. He said it wasn't McDavid's fault.
The leadership change has been noticed. At an orientation before the school year began, Amber Banks, one of just three parents or guardians present, asked for McDavid because she’d learned about the school from him at a presentation to a Boy Scouts troop.
Moorer said he was glad to inherit a fully developed school. “Growing up, I would have benefited from this program,” he said.
BALA is modeled after Eagle Academies, a group of all-boys schools in New York. Rosemary Salomone, a professor at St. John’s University law school who wrote the book “Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling,” said she was impressed by the Bronx site’s communal feel. It gave students, she said, “a positive image of what it means to be an African American male.”
Others question the need for the schools. Sarah Bradshaw, West Coast political director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said creating a STEM-focused all-boys school only widens the gap between males and females represented in those fields. “How do we catch up when extra resources are diverted to ... supporting boys’ education?” she said.
L.A. Unified Supt. Michelle King said in an interview that boys from South L.A. are also underrepresented in STEM. “There’s different types of underrepresentation,” she said. “There’s a gender gap, and there is a minority gap.”
Each day at BALA will start with a schoolwide town hall in which students will pour “libations.” The boys will also recite the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
On Aug. 15, the first day of classes, Moorer invited district officials to join his students in libations, which consist of watering a potted tree and expressing gratitude.
“My libation is thankfulness,” King said. “You’re pioneers in this work."
Moorer told parents at the orientation that he wanted to create a culture in which right answers are rewarded and students feel comfortable owning up to what they don’t know. Each classroom, he said, will have a “mistake board” on which a student can volunteer his “mistake of the day.”
The school, Moorer said, will be divided into four houses, which compete for points and rewards based on character. Boys who misbehave or struggle won’t be suspended. They’ll face a tribunal or an “intervention circle” to discuss the root causes.
There will be a mentoring program, a digital portfolio of students’ work, an effort to teach students to be aware of how they think and process information. Every student will take music and contemplate college early — they visited USC on the first day. Eighth-graders eventually will be able to earn college credits at nearby Middle City College. Students will have a daily wellness break, an afternoon period to recharge through tai chi, yoga or meditation.
Christina Fuller, a Willowbrook mother who liked Moorer’s pitch so much she chose to send her son to BALA, said she hoped her son Robert continued to socialize with girls. “It’s a cool idea to be with all boys,” she said. “But maybe that’s just an idealized, romantic view of education.”
The boys had their own reasons for coming. Jamion Brown, 11, who transferred from a private school, said he wanted to be a NASCAR driver.
“I can learn coding and engineering,” he said. “I can learn a lot about cars or engines. I can make my own cars.”