This King/Drew, a Magnet School, Is a Robust Success

Times Staff Writer

It is the holy grail of urban education: an inner city public high school that works. A school where students, most of them poor, almost all of them black and Latino, learn together in safety and harmony. Where almost no one drops out. Where an overwhelming majority of students go on to four-year colleges, and where at least some make it to the most prestigious and selective universities.

Few such places exist.

One that does is located in one of Los Angeles County's most impoverished and dangerous neighborhoods, and takes its name from an institution better known these days for scandal than success.

But then, King/Drew Medical Magnet High School has always prided itself on exceeding -- no, shredding -- expectations.

"Everybody has a stereotype that if you grow up in Watts, you're not going to succeed," said senior Omunique Falls, who applied to 12 colleges this year and was accepted at 11. "That just motivates me to do better. I use it to my advantage."

That attitude and smart, dedicated students such as Falls are among the reasons that King/Drew routinely sends more African Americans to UCLA than any other high school. This year, 20 King/Drew students were accepted at the Westwood campus, eight of them black, the rest Latino. Students were also accepted by Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Duke, Cornell and four other University of California campuses.

King/Drew was second only to Garfield High School in East Los Angeles for having the most Latino, Chicano and African American students accepted by UC Berkeley, according to Richard Black, assistant vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment.

"King/Drew is just this jewel," said Phyllis Hart, a UCLA official who works to encourage qualified minorities, in the post-affirmative action era, to select UCLA over other schools. The school is, she said, "this wonderful place where you see all the things that people say you can't get done, getting done."

Hart led a delegation of nearly a dozen UCLA officials to King/Drew on Monday to meet the students who were accepted to the university -- and to practically beg them to attend.

"We would love to have you walking around our campus, making it a more flavorful place," said Soncia Lilly, an assistant vice chancellor.

King/Drew's principal, J. Michelle Woods, said the secret to the school's success was simple: a relatively small, close-knit group of students (King/Drew's enrollment is a little less than 1,700, compared to 4,000 or 5,000 at many high schools); staff that didn't let youths slip through the cracks; and high expectations.

At a time when the L.A. Board of Education is considering whether to require a college prep curriculum for all students, King/Drew is already there.

It demands that students take the rigorous courses meeting UC and Cal State system requirements. That means, among other things, four years of math, two years of science and two years of foreign language.

King/Drew actually goes further and requires a third year of foreign language and four years of science.

The campus in Willowbrook, just south of Watts, isn't alone among Los Angeles public schools in making tough demands on its students. It has, in fact, a mirror institution: Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet, near County/USC Medical Center, which also requires all students to meet the UC entrance requirements and sends a similar percentage of students to college.

Still, Hart, who has been tracking how well schools prepare minorities for college, said such campuses were exceptions.

In an interview, she cited high schools in L.A. and Pasadena where fewer than a third of black students took a college-entry curriculum. At some, she said, less than 10% of African American boys were on a college track.

Board of Education President Jose Huizar and trustee Jon Lauritzen introduced a motion Tuesday that would make the college prep curriculum a graduation requirement throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District, beginning with the freshman class of 2008.

As a matter of equity, Huizar said, the district should set "high expectations for all our students, not just some."

Anticipating an opposing argument, he added: "A lot of people think that if we set a higher bar, we will have higher dropouts because our children cannot perform. That is false. Our students can perform if we give them that opportunity in our schools."

For years, that opportunity has been available at King/Drew.

The school began life in 1982 in a few bungalows on the campus of nearby Jordan High School in Watts. Like so many institutions in South L.A., it was the fruit of a struggle by local activists, who saw the need for a place that would encourage minorities to become doctors and nurses. Many of King/Drew's graduates have done just that.

In 1999, it moved to its current campus, centered around an airy, curvilinear, brick-and-glass building at 120th Street and Compton Avenue, directly across from Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center and next door to Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

The high school is affiliated with both institutions, particularly the hospital, where students participate in medical research and learn the workings of various departments.

While the school has soared, both the county-run medical center and the university have struggled, with the hospital blamed for a series of deadly errors in the last two years. Students and administrators at King/Drew High said the troubles didn't directly affect them.

Principal Woods said her main problem was one of perception. As people in the community have heard of the hospital's troubles, she said, they have sometimes called to ask if the school is at risk. She ruefully remembered the calls received after the medical center lost its national accreditation.

"I had to tell them that we received a six-year accreditation," she said. "Our flag flies every day."

King/Drew may be, as its advocates say, a model for other public schools, but it enjoys advantages that others don't. As a magnet, it receives additional federal money and has greater power to select its teaching staff. It has a spacious building with well-equipped labs and an abundance of textbooks and other teaching materials.

It also, perhaps oddly, has twice as many girls as boys -- a result, administrators say, of its lack of a football program. College administrators say girls are more and more likely than boys to qualify for college admission.

Finally, and perhaps most important, as a magnet school it has a self-selected student body -- and active, engaged parents. Magnets were created as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan to draw together students from diverse neighborhoods. Some of the schools have entrance requirements, but most, like King/Drew, accept a random share of those who apply.

"Our mom let us choose our high school -- thank God," said Tiffany Russell, a 5-foot-3-inch bundle of intellectual energy wrapped in cornrows. She lives within three blocks of Washington Preparatory High School, among the city's lowest-performing schools.

She finds King/Drew an oasis where an academically driven student is accepted. That isn't always the case outside, she said. "It's hard sometimes, because you want to be yourself but you don't want to be disconnected from the rest of your community," she said.

Tiffany, who wants to be a physician or a veterinarian, said she was admitted to several colleges, including UCLA, USC and Cal State L.A. Although she said her mother thought Cal State L.A. would be more affordable, Tiffany was leaning toward UCLA after being assured -- and reassured -- by the university's scholarship coordinator, Mary Horne, that she would receive enough financial aid.

"Everybody's in competition for you guys," Horne told the King/Drew students. "You guys are so blessed, because everybody wants you."

Times staff writer Erika Hayasaki contributed to this report.

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