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But, Teacher, My Homework Got Run Over at the Taco Bell Protest

Richard Lee Colvin, a former education writer for The Times, is director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University.

At a passing glance, there was a certain familiarity about this Los Angeles public middle-school classroom. The students definitely looked the part--they were still sweet, still relatively innocent, the boys barely aware of the girls, the girls only barely able to tolerate the boys. And there was a teacher standing in front, talking about the video that was playing.

A closer look, however, revealed that most of the students were in the back of the room making protest signs. The few 11- and 12-year olds watching the screen saw Guatemalan villagers exhuming the skeletons of victims of that Central American nation’s bloody civil war. And the social studies teacher made it clear he thought the U.S. had been on the wrong side.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Oct. 26, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 26, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo illustration -- A photo illustration on the cover of the Oct. 5 issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, showing a boy writing “We shall overthrow” on a school chalkboard, was not a photograph taken at the Los Angeles Leadership Academy charter school. Although the image was identified as a “photo illustration,” some readers said they mistook it for an actual photo from the school.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 09, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 14 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
A photo illustration on the cover of the Oct. 5 issue, showing a boy writing “We shall overthrow” on a school chalkboard, was not a photograph taken at the Los Angeles Leadership Academy charter school. Although the image was identified as a “photo illustration,” some readers said they mistook it for an actual photo from the school.

“That’s a mass grave--you’ve heard about them,” Shawn McDougal told the class. “The U.S. supported the government and they were our friends. We gave them weapons so they could kill their own people.”

By contrast, the guerrillas fighting the government were, apparently in his view, valiant heroes. “What’s a guerrilla movement?” the teacher asked, then quickly answered: “People fighting for change, right? For economic and political reforms, right? And they opposed the military government.”

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He shushed the kids in the back of the room, then continued: “Remember how we talked about Afghanistan? About how the U.S. gave money to arm Osama bin Laden?”

If you believe, as many people do, that left-leaning lectures and graphic images such as these are appropriate for middle-school students, then the curriculum at the Los Angeles Leadership Academy, a novel charter school, can be seen as enlightened and progressive--giving youth the kind of unfettered truth they are denied in more oppressive societies.

But if you believe public schools should present a more balanced view of history, and that students far, far behind in basic reading, writing and math skills should not be spending class hours preparing to picket a nearby Taco Bell, then you might say something is terribly wrong with a system that would approve and support such an effort--especially given that charter schools exist to provide an alternative to the failings of regular public schools.

The lesson given on this autumn day a year ago was typical for this taxpayer-supported school--where the war in Iraq is wrong, capitalism is suspect, immigrants are almost always taken advantage of by their bosses, and the United States and its government are, if not the enemy per se, then at least misguided.

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Those messages mirror the beliefs of the school’s founders, Roger Lowenstein, a 60-year-old former attorney-turned-TV writer, and Susanne Coie, a 33-year-old teacher. They conceived of this school as having a dual purpose: giving inner-city students from ethnically and economically diverse backgrounds a college-prep education, and exposing them to immigration, criminal justice, labor relations and other social issues. They would learn community organizing and study law and public policy. Their field trips would be street protests.

Lowenstein and Coie had persuaded the Los Angeles Board of Education that their focus on social justice was appropriate for middle-school students and would inspire them in ways conventional classrooms had not. The board agreed, and last September the academy opened its doors as one of more than 400 charter schools in California, one of about 2,700 nationwide. Each of those schools has a special focus its founders hope will connect with students. It might be rigid academics, or the arts, or multiculturalism, or military discipline.

Or social justice. The Leadership Academy’s founders believed their mission a noble one, even if so unusual that it is shared by just a handful of other charter schools in the U.S. So with the blessings of the Los Angeles Unified School District and $950,000 in taxpayer dollars, Lowenstein and Coie set forth last year to do their part in fixing American education.

But when the academy welcomed its first class of 120 boys and girls in the sixth and seventh grades, the average student was only reading at slightly better than a second-grade level. One thing quickly became obvious: It’s tough to start a revolution when most of your troops need remedial training.

And all year long, the school would struggle with the fine line between teaching social justice and the force-feeding of political indoctrination.

The Los Angeles leadership academy rents space at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church near the old Ambassador Hotel in the mid-Wilshire neighborhood. It’s in a densely populated area where middle schools bulge with as many as 3,400 students, most of them immigrants, and have to operate year-round. The high school that serves the surrounding Pico-Union and Westlake areas is Belmont, which, with 5,500 students, is among the nation’s largest. And 900 high school students and 1,500 middle school students are bused from the area to the western San Fernando Valley.

To accommodate anticipated enrollment growth, the LAUSD plans to build 79 schools and expand 80 others during the next six years. In addition, the district expects to add at least 100, possibly 200, more charter schools to the 51 already operating.

Charter schools can be started by anyone--parents, teachers, outsiders with a vision--who can win approval from the local school board. That means the educational fate of tens of thousands of Los Angeles students over the next few years will be determined by as-yet-unidentified people who may or may not have any formal background as educators. And given the demographic trends, the school board will feel pressured to approve charter proposals.

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Meanwhile, these alternative labs are still schools. So whoever is in charge still has to hire qualified teachers, maintain decorum and monitor student progress. At the Los Angeles Leadership Academy, those tasks fall to Lowenstein and Coie.

Growing up as the scion of a prominent attorney, Lowenstein had attended a demanding private prep school in an affluent suburb of Newark, N.J., where he says he got suspended “more times than I can count.” He went on to the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School and became involved in civil rights and student protests.

Lowenstein was a successful attorney in New Jersey and a longtime political activist for progressive causes who became controversial while fighting for two decades to free a cop-killer from prison. He came to Los Angeles in 1990, taught law and spent a decade writing TV scripts about attorneys.

Lowenstein says it was his prep school experience that made him “a revolutionary--for which I am extremely grateful.” But he also calls himself a “hustler.” Or, alternately, an “education entrepreneur.” It all depends on the setting and whom he’s trying to sell on his school, which he does tirelessly. He’s conversant in the Marxist educational theories of Paulo Freire and Peter McLaren, but it’s clear that his partner is the more radical of the two.

Coie had worked in an alternative school in Montebello for five years before her frustration with the students’ lack of progress drove her out. She nurtured the dream of starting a different kind of school, one where she could make more of a difference. That’s not uncommon among teachers, who are subject to the whims of remote policy makers.

She left for UC Berkeley to get a master’s degree in public policy. But she found the program too far removed, too lacking in intensity, and she wanted to return to the front lines of education. After a brief stint in Chiapas, Mexico, working in the schools of the Zapatista revolutionaries, she returned to Los Angeles, more determined than ever.

Through contacts, she hooked up in early 2001 with Lowenstein, who had decided to pursue his fight for justice in the classroom after visiting a successful charter school that a friend had started in Detroit. He and Coie, whose demure persona belies her passionate beliefs, quickly realized they were on the same wavelength. The arrangement was simple: He’d run the politics and raise the money; she’d run the school.

Theirs is part of a small but growing segment of the charter movement. Schools dedicated to social justice are popping up in Florida, the Bronx, Northern California, Chicago and elsewhere. In fact, some leftist scholars think the charter school movement--which has had support from across the political spectrum but has drawn its strongest support from conservatives--presents a great opportunity to promote ideas shunned in mainstream schools, such as the redistribution of wealth.

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Lowenstein and Coie’s social change concept won strong support from the Los Angeles Board of Education even though the district had adopted a traditional, back-to-basics type of curriculum. Lowenstein was intent on re-creating his own educational experience for these students, most of whom were the children of immigrant day laborers and house cleaners, cooks and factory workers.

“I literally want these kids to have everything that I had,” he said. “Unless these students see themselves as empowered and deserving to be at the table with their white middle-class counterparts, they’re not going to be able to take positions of leadership.”

Lowenstein, because of his extensive connections in entertainment, law and politics, had built an impressive network of backers. He is married to Barbara Corday, co-creator of the 1980s television series “Cagney & Lacey” and former chair of the production division at USC’s School of Cinema-Television. Like her husband, she has been active in a number of liberal causes. Not surprisingly, the Leadership Academy has enjoyed support from others in those circles. Steve Tisch, a producer of “Forrest Gump,” and his wife, Jamie, pledged $250,000 over five years from their foundation. Nearly $350,000 of the $1.3-million budget for the public school’s first year came from private sources, including $200,000 from Lowenstein’s own pocket. The extra fund-raising is essential because charter schools don’t charge tuition, and in California they actually receive less funding per student than traditional public schools. They also have to pay for their own facilities.

“There are just a million people who have made this place happen,” said Lowenstein, who draws no salary for his efforts. “I really think it runs very, very deep in our political and social consciousness that, if the public education system isn’t working, there’s something desperately wrong with our society. So, when the white middle class has spent all of their money extracting their children from the public education system, there’s just a huge reservoir of guilt there. Or maybe not guilt. But what does it do to any feeling person who feels they’ve got to send their kids to private school? So, when one of their own, meaning me, comes along and says, ‘I’m devoting my life to working in some tiny way to fixing a broken system,’ it taps a huge reserve of goodwill.”

Charter schools, however, haven’t turned out to be the laboratories of educational success that backers had hoped. Since the first charter school opened 11 years ago in St. Paul, Minn., a number of evaluations have found that charter students generally are performing only about as well as they are in traditional schools or, in some cases, not even as well. The record, to be fair, is mixed, with some standouts. Coie believes one reason some charter schools lag behind is that they have not paid enough attention to the quality of instruction.

She was determined that the Leadership Academy would be known for instructional excellence and that teachers from other schools would come to learn from the academy’s nine teachers.

The first instructor Coie and Lowenstein hired was Dana Bowden, a Yale graduate and experienced elementary teacher who had become disenchanted by curriculum changes in the Pasadena school district. She brought along Dave Cullen, a colleague and UC Berkeley alum who shared her views. Other experienced teachers signed on as well.

Math was a concern. Two teachers the school hired left before classes began, amid disagreement over the academy’s unstructured approach. Because the applicant pool wasn’t very deep, and the start of class was imminent, the school wound up with an elementary school teacher who had never taught math and a former college math tutor who had never taught young kids. He had no teaching credential and neither did Shawn McDougal, the social studies and community action teacher who showed the Guatemala video. Still, six of the nine instructors were fully licensed.

The next step was to recruit students. When the academy’s parent coordinator put out the word, the applications flowed in from parents desperate to escape nearby educational behemoths and to avoid long bus rides to Valley schools. The school wound up with 246 applications for 120 spots.

Most of the students and parents who applied told stories about how the public schools had failed them, or about what they feared would happen in the huge middle schools that have to pay more attention to crowd control than to learning.

Adela Ferguson, a cook who had worked for former President Ronald Reagan in Bel-Air, said her daughter, Lindsey, had trouble in math at her previous school. The academy, she thought, was so small that Lindsey wouldn’t be overlooked. Plus, she said, “It’s so safe because it’s inside a church. It’s like a private school.”

Perla Melgar’s daughter, also named Perla, had been identified at her elementary school as a gifted student, a designation that made her eligible for special instruction. But Melgar said the school told her that it didn’t have enough gifted students to do anything for her daughter. Not only did the academy admit Perla, it hired her mother for the school’s meals program.

Dyan Moore, who works for the city’s Building and Safety Department, also was looking for a greater challenge for her daughter, Mecca, who came to the academy with test scores in the 98th percentile. “When you can go forward, you should be given additional work, because you cannot wait,” she said.

But others were simply fleeing bad situations.

Timothy O’Connor, a large, impulsive boy with a Mike Tyson-like voice, had been jumped by gang members at his previous school and had been in constant trouble. He would also prove to be one of the academy’s most difficult students, often disrupting classes and intimidating other students. Cornell Stephenson, the school’s P.E. teacher, became so frustrated that he demanded that Timothy be expelled or he’d quit.

“We can’t save everybody,” said Stephenson, who, like Timothy, is African American. “Roger and Susanne suffer from that white guilt too much. You have to realize you can’t save the world.” But Lowenstein and Coie insisted that Timothy was precisely the kind of student that the academy existed to serve. Stephenson calmed down and Timothy stayed.

Rafael Solano said that at his former school, “every day someone got beat up. In this school you feel comfortable. But in the other school you have to be careful in the hall, you have to look both ways. It’s like being in the street.”

At his former school, Rafael had failed classes and said he was grabbed by a teacher who yelled and swore at him. An exceedingly bright student who speaks in elaborate metaphors, he nonetheless had been designated as needing special education. “They didn’t tell me what it was for,” Rafael said. “They didn’t care about me. They just saw me as a piece of paper and they just threw me away.”

It did not take long for students to realize that the academy was nothing like their old schools. By early fall, they had marched to pressure a nearby market to allow its workers to unionize. Another group had marched in downtown Los Angeles to support sweatshop workers in the garment industry and had written postcards demanding higher wages for them.

One day they headed to a nearby Taco Bell, where they shouted and hollered and waved their homemade signs. “Taco Bell is unfair!” some chanted, while others shrieked and whistled. “Please don’t buy your tacos there!” The students were supporting a claim by a farm worker rights organization that the fast-food giant underpays laborers in Florida who pick the tomatoes it buys.

“Social justice is kicking in!” a giddy teacher had declared before shepherding the group to the restaurant.

Well, maybe.

If these students were going to become the leaders of tomorrow, they had no time to waste. Typically blunt, Lowenstein put it this way: “We can go to all the protest marches we want, but if we can’t read, write, think critically and do math, then it’s all [useless].”

“Educators are really eager to be deeply involved in the education of the children they’re serving,” says Caprice Young, former president of the Los Angeles Board of Education and now the head of the statewide association of charter schools. “Particularly with a large school district, the board has a say, the union has a say, the bureaucracy has a say, but the principals and teachers who are in the school have very little say, and that’s just wrong.”

Young predicts that in a few years charter schools will enroll at least 10% of California students. Traditional public schools, she says, are homogenized in a world that’s become increasingly customized. So what charter schools offer is educational niche marketing, in the form of a specialty that will appeal to a small group of parents or students.

But in Los Angeles, the market theory breaks down. Parents are so eager to find alternatives to the huge institutions in most parts of town that they clamor to get into smaller schools, regardless of their orientation.

Among the parents at the Leadership Academy, for example, few were attracted by the focus on social justice. And some were put off by the school’s sharp political emphasis. “You have to have both sides here and you’re only getting one side, and that’s not right,” said Moore.

Ferguson was somewhat torn. She thought it was good that the students were learning about what’s going on in Iraq (“That’s history”), but she knows the school opposes the war. Her daughter went with other students to a protest rally where they marched with the teachers, three of whom were arrested. But Ferguson thought the war was necessary. What mattered, she said, was that she wanted her daughter “to grow up clean, with no drugs” and be prepared for college.

Though a quality education is what most parents wanted for their children, even Coie acknowledges that the level of instruction was uneven in the first year.

The strongest class, by far, was the reading and writing workshop team-taught by Bowden and Cullen. On the first day of school last fall, however, the two teachers realized their challenge: Most of their students couldn’t remember reading a single book over the summer; nor could they name a favorite author. The first task the duo embarked upon was to get kids reading.

“The most important thing we can do as teachers,” Cullen told his students, “is to give you books you really, really, really, really like.”

The school library, however, consisted only of the paperback books Bowden and Cullen had assembled. Even so, every time I dropped in on their class, a sense of order and structure was obvious. Kids who zoned out or tried to fake interest were quickly noticed. That alone distinguished the academy from the middle school that Mario Rojas had attended the year before, where “If you didn’t show up, they didn’t care. You could write a fake note and they’d just take it,” he said.

Halfway through the school year, Bowden and Cullen figured most students had already made at least a year’s progress. But not everyone was benefiting. One day, 11-year-old Harolt Campos was struggling through a social studies assignment in which he was supposed to do some research about a country in Africa. He couldn’t understand the questions and had no sense of how to find the answers. He had come with his mother from Colombia five years ago and his English was still weak.

One day, Harolt was called into the office. “I’m very worried,” Lowenstein said in practiced Spanish that he was learning from Harolt’s mother, a janitor at the school, who sat in on the meeting. He warned Harolt that if his grades didn’t improve he would be held back. Then, in English, Lowenstein repeated: “You’ve got to work, Harolt. You have to pay attention and focus in class.”

Yet it was precisely that sense of rigor and effort that seemed to be missing on most days in many classes. I almost never saw students carrying books during the 20 minutes a day set aside for silent reading. The after-school tutoring sessions were chaotic, with many students running around uncontrollably. “All of us have to buy into that sense of urgency,” Lowenstein said. “Our kids and parents and the volunteers, all of us, because our kids are behind and they have to catch up.”

In February, the school’s math classes were having trouble. The two inexperienced teachers were unable to deal with the fact that, while some students were struggling with arithmetic, others were ready for geometry. They decided on a traditional solution--grouping students according to their abilities. It was wrenching for a school committed to treating everyone as equals.

Another problem area was science, which was supposed to have been combined with math, but that didn’t work. Then it was to be shoehorned into the English language development class. In the end, it was only taught through vocabulary words. (Just as well since the academy has no science lab.) Charter schools have the flexibility to make such decisions, as long as the parents don’t object.

Another concern was the social studies classes, which, the five times I visited, seemed largely devoid of civics or history or even discussion. McDougal, a 32-year-old graduate of Williams College, had been a community organizer who’d worked on housing and criminal justice issues. But he hadn’t taught before, so he was attending night classes to earn his credential.

Even so, as with his more experienced colleagues, he had been given great latitude to design his own curriculum. Coie and Lowenstein worried that students in McDougal’s class weren’t being asked to really think and to wrestle with ideas. “I want to see evidence, argument, relevance, communication and articulation,” she said. But that was hard, she acknowledged, given that about 40% of the students in McDougal’s classes were not good readers.

In the spring, a student survey in the school newspaper found that the social studies classes, which most closely identified with this school’s stated mission, were by the far the students’ least favorite. An accompanying editorial suggested the reason: “At the door you can feel the boredom brewing.” McDougal said he regretted their sentiment, but was glad they felt free to voice their opinion.

By year’s end, the unevenness of the instruction was starkly obvious. During my last visit to the reading class, Bowden was leading a discussion among her top achievers on how an author used the relationships between characters to reveal their personalities. The students were expected to participate and support their opinions with citations drawn from the text--precisely the kind of lesson that would prepare them for college.

Down the hall, in McDougal’s class, students were making posters of the world’s religions. Often in L.A. high schools, teachers faced with students who can’t read or write well allow them to draw or color instead. McDougal was following suit. One group presented the poster it had done about Buddhism. “Buddhists don’t have a god,” the kids reported. “Buddhism is a religion in lots of countries in Asia” and “Buddhists shave their heads.”

It was hard to believe that such a lesson would help these students get on the road to college.

Coie and Lowenstein were concerned that many students were being overlooked. Coie figured that about 10% to 15% of the most advanced students were bored and unchallenged. She thought that about the same percentage of the weakest students were not being helped either. And those in the middle were more or less floating along.

Earlier in the year the faculty had decided each teacher would come up with a plan to begin making sure that all students were challenged. But it never got done. Coie said: “There’s not enough time to do even everything we want to do, let alone the other things we’ve decided are important.”

The quality of instruction was hardly the only issue the school struggled with. There were 120 kids to get to know, and 120 kids who had to get to know the school. Disciplinary rules had to be established. A school culture had to be created.

Lowenstein and the others had encouraged students at every opportunity to speak out. They did not hesitate to offer their complaints or ideas. They tried to solve the school’s persistent graffiti problem by creating, and policing, a wall reserved for tagging. But on my last visit I saw obscenities and gang signs, the telltale signs of a lapse in enforcement. (Lowenstein said none of the students are gang members, but that doesn’t stop them from pretending.) More than 60 students demanded that the school year be shortened. (Nice try. Next.) Although there were daily exceptions--certain students were always in trouble and the school wasn’t always equipped to handle their emotional needs--most had settled into a comfortable routine. They knew what behavior was acceptable and what was not.

The academy still veered occasionally in the direction of political indoctrination. As when, in early June, the school invited a recently paroled drug dealer to speak and he delivered a 45-minute harangue about how prisoners “are not the problem--the government is the problem because a lot of them are capitalists and they’re more worried about the money they make than about people.”

That was one of the times in which the adults’ political agendas seemed to take precedence over what was arguably in the best interest of the students. But it also was striking how hard the teachers worked to help students. Early in the year when a boy named Edwin Chavez tossed a lock out the window and dented a car, the school paid for the damage. In another school he might have been suspended. But the academy allowed Edwin to do chores as restitution. (At the end of the year Lowenstein called Edwin one of the school’s real success stories.) Another student stole the purse of a volunteer who’d come to teach Korean calligraphy. Stephenson, the P.E. teacher who also served as the school’s accountant, became a mentor to that student and another boy, taking them for weekend outings.

Whatever problems the school had, they were known and were discussed, mostly in the open. When the math program went awry, Coie and the teachers tried three other approaches--without having to consult with a higher-up in some remote office. When the after-school program got to be too much, it was scaled back. The school was small and independent enough that issues could be addressed.

One morning in June, Lowenstein stood on the steps outside the school as students arrived. He addressed each one by name and then offered a little aside. “She gets A-plus, A-plus, A-plus,” he said of one girl, “but getting her to talk is really difficult.” Unfortunately, that girl’s mother felt she wasn’t challenged enough. She did not return this fall and neither did Mecca Moore, as well as several other high-achieving students. “I thought the work was not [just] a little, but a lot too easy,” parent Dyan Moore said as the end of the school year neared.

But, like the vast majority of parents, Ophelia Mendez, a part-time house cleaner, was grateful. One morning, as she accompanied her daughter, Jessie Alvarado, Mendez was asked what she thought of the school. She liked the small size and that the teachers seemed more interested in Jessie than those at her former public school. “Please don’t close!” Mendez blurted out to Lowenstein. He assured her that the school wasn’t going anywhere. She did not mention the school’s political bent.

“They are so unbelievably grateful to have a school that cares, where their kids aren’t going to get lost,” Lowenstein said. “We’re a social justice charter school. We have a theme. But if our theme were Albanian botany, it would still be OK with them. The magnitude of the educational crisis is so great that merely providing a safe school is already a huge accomplishment for the parents.”

Many of the difficulties the Leadership Academy faced its first year were to be expected. It’s understandably hard for a start-up to woo experienced teachers. Still, the academy had found some standouts. This fall, the school added an eighth grade and 65 more students, part of a plan to eventually serve grades six through 12. So when Coie recruited new teachers for the additional classes, she was hiring them for a going concern, and the pool of applicants was deeper. Two new social studies teachers both have master’s degrees, and one is team-teaching with McDougal, which allows him to focus on community action. The instructors hired to teach literacy and English as a Second Language are veterans with successful track records. This year, too, each class has a written, established course of study. It isn’t being made up as they go along.

“I think we’ll be at a whole other level this year,” Coie said not long before school began. “I thought all along that it was unrealistic that we were really going to serve all these kids in the first year or two. I think we did a pretty good job, though. There’s no question that what we’re doing is way better than all the schools around here.”

That seemed like an accurate assessment. The school was small, with a student-to-teacher ratio of 16 to 1, and every teacher seemed fully engaged in the process. Everyone had a voice and they hashed out problems at weekly meetings. Some of the teachers, for example, resented the 90 minutes or more devoted each day to reading and writing. McDougal said he felt social justice and community action had become, by the end of the year, an add-on, not the school’s central focus. Others, though, felt that students always were being pulled out of class for assemblies and protests, disrupting their schedules and limiting academic progress.

But over the summer, there was some good news. The students had been reassessed by a consultant to measure their progress in reading. State test scores were abysmal, but, on average, students had gained nearly 2 1/2 years in reading ability in one year. A number of them had made gains of four or five years.

On the last day of school, Anabela Trujillo, a small, quiet seventh-grader, came close to tears as she recounted her experience. “At the beginning of the year,” she said haltingly, “I felt sad because when I read the books, I couldn’t understand them. It made me feel stupid when people used to ask me what happened. But now when I read books in class, I can tell Dana when she asks what is happening in the books.”

After six years of public school in Los Angeles, no one apparently had noticed, or cared about, the girl’s deficiency--until she came to the academy.

Perhaps this was the true manifestation of social justice: Anabela Trujillo was learning to read.


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