"I think there are thousands of kids like me, but we're losing them because we don't give them that opportunity," said Huizar, who left the school board after he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council last fall. "Yes, there will be dropouts. But I'm looking at the glass half full."
Birmingham High in Van Nuys, where Gabriela Ocampo struggled to grasp algebra, has a failure rate that's about average for the district. Nearly half the ninth-grade class flunked beginning algebra last year.
In the spring semester alone, more freshmen failed than passed. The tally: 367 Fs and 355 passes, nearly one-third of them Ds.
All those failures and near failures have left a wake of discouraged students and exasperated teachers.
Fifteen-year-old Abraham Lemus, the son of Salvadoran immigrants, finally scraped by with a D after his mother hired a tutor. But he recalls how he failed the first time he took the course. "I was starting to get suicide thoughts in my head, just because of math," he said.
Shane Sauby, who worked as an attorney and stockbroker before becoming a teacher, volunteered to teach the students confronting first-year algebra for a second, third or fourth time. He thought he could reach them.
But, Sauby said, many of his students ignored homework, rarely studied for tests and often skipped class.
"I would look at them and say, 'What is your thinking? If you are coming here, why aren't you doing the work or paying attention or making an effort?' " he said. Many would just stare back.
Sauby, who now teaches in another district, failed as many as 90% of his students.
Like other schools in the nation's second-largest district, Birmingham High deals with failing students by shuttling them back into algebra, often with the same teachers.
Last fall, the school scheduled 17 classes of up to 40 students each for those repeating first-semester algebra.
Educational psychologists say reenrolling such students in algebra decreases their chances of graduating.
"Repeated failure makes kids think they can't do the work. And when they can't do the work, they say, 'I'm out of here,' " said Andrew Porter, director of the Learning Sciences Institute at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
The strategy has also failed to provide students with what they need most: a review of basic math.
Teachers complain that they have no time for remediation, that the rapid pace mandated by the district leaves behind students like Tina Norwood, 15, who is failing beginning algebra for the third time.
Tina, who says math has mystified her since she first saw fractions in elementary school, spends class time writing in her journal, chatting with friends or snapping pictures of herself with her cellphone.
Her teacher wasn't surprised when Tina bombed a recent test that asked her, among other things, to graph the equations 4x + y = 9 and 2x -- 3y = -- 6. She left most of the answers blank, writing a desperate message at the top of the page: "Still don't get it, not gonna get it, guess i'm seeing this next year!"
Teachers wage a daily struggle in classes filled with students like Tina.