Chaos Reigns at a Model School

Times Staff Writer

Administrator Maureen Cologne thought she had stumbled upon a missing cellphone two weeks ago after touching a smooth object wedged between a stack of chairs at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s newest high school. During the random classroom search, about 40 students watched her pull out a loaded handgun instead.

“What was terrifying,” Cologne said in an interview last week, “was why?”

At most urban high schools, the incident could have been considered an anomaly in an otherwise normal school year. But since South L.A. Area High School No. 1 opened in July on the old Santee Dairy site just south of downtown, nothing has been normal.


During its first week, as staff haphazardly opened five small schools on the pristine campus with little or no guidance, more chaos reigned outside. On the second day of classes, someone fired shots in front of the school. A day later, a student with an AK-47 was arrested after school in front of the campus, police said. Campus police said students jumped on officers and tried to steal their guns during a lunchtime brawl three months ago. And students said the police pepper-sprayed them as they tried to avoid the melee.

The school has earned a dubious distinction: It ranks No. 1 among district high schools for crime, with 218 reports since school began, including theft, assault and weapons possession.

“We’ve taken out knives and brass knuckles. We’ve had kids selling meth in classrooms,” said police officer Veronica Perez, who has been stationed on the 2,900-student campus since it opened. “We are the busiest school in the district, and there’s only two [campus-based officers] here.”

Supt. Roy Romer and district officials had hoped the state-of-the-art school, with its heated swimming pool, rubber track, ballet studio, fully equipped chef’s kitchen and shiny Macintosh computers, would become a pride of the district. It was intended to relieve overcrowding and serve as a model for implementing small learning communities, a reform effort aimed at boosting student achievement and graduation rates at all district high schools.

“This was, for three years, Romer’s talked-about flagship [small learning community] site,” said Board of Education member David Tokofsky. “It was his dream, and it has turned out to be a nightmare.”

Romer said the district was trying to open new schools against long odds. Changing the culture on campus and in the community, he said, is a “slow and painful process.”

“Opening a new school is challenging,” Romer said. “Doing it with the kind of unrest we have among those youngsters is also a challenge. But that doesn’t mean you don’t do it.”

The attendance boundaries are part of the problem of South L.A. Area High School No. 1, which draws students from some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods around Belmont, Jefferson, Manual Arts and Fremont high schools. Police say youths cut through more than 50 gang territories to get to school. There are 18 documented gangs represented on campus, and, staff members say, each is posturing for recognition and a spot on the quad.

Students carry weapons because “they have to go through somebody else’s turf to get to and from school,” said Dean David Hickman. “The district never asked us, who are on the ground, how to build a school.”

Dan Isaacs, the chief operating officer of L.A. Unified, said the district’s primary concern is “building schools where we can find land and where there’s a density factor.”

For years, because of overcrowding, students in the Santee area endured long bus rides to schools outside of their neighborhoods. Others attended neighborhood campuses teeming with students. Isaacs said that gangs exist all over the city, and it is nearly impossible to build schools on land that doesn’t touch gang turf.

“It’s kind of like saying, ‘Should we build a school where there’s no grocery stores?’ ” Isaacs said. “It’s not a manageable issue.”

Two weeks ago, after school was dismissed, a student was stabbed at the Burger King across the street. On Monday, at lunchtime, police inadvertently pepper-sprayed a dean as he was breaking up a fight between gang members.

Last week, a janitor carrying a bottle of orange cleanser scrubbed graffiti off a freshly painted stairwell. Students had also tagged the school’s stylish umbrella-covered picnic tables, signs advertising the fashion academy and many of its glossy new textbooks.

When it opened, the school did not have a staff handbook outlining emergency and curriculum guidelines. Teachers and principals whipped one up amid the confusion.

During a recent lunch, Officer Perez spotted a boy with a studded necklace bearing the initials of his tagging crew. Many taggers don’t just spray graffiti, Perez said; they also carry weapons.

“We’re not going to have this here,” Perez told the boy, taking it from around his neck. “These are not your initials.”

Co-Principal Vince Carbino, who is known for handing out his cellphone number to students, approached. He told Perez he got seven calls over the weekend warning him about possible campus violence. Such tips, he said, helped police make an arrest in the Burger King stabbing.

Despite these tactics, Perez and others wish the district would deploy more officers to the school.

“They’re so focused on the small learning communities,” Perez said, “they don’t realize safety has to be the focus.”

Isaacs said the district provides plenty of support. In addition to the two school officers stationed on campus, four district motor officers patrol its perimeter. He said the school also receives support from the Newton Division of the Los Angeles Police Department.

“What occurs in a community sometimes spills into a school,” Isaacs said. “Our campuses are a lot safer than the communities they are in.”

When the school opened, teachers and administrators received scant training in creating small schools. Staffers scrambled to figure out how to carve five mini-campuses with distinct identities out of a large school that had no identity.

For Co-Principal Brenda Morton, establishing a safe school culture has been a demanding dance, and its choreography keeps changing.

Even though students are divided into groups, they come together at lunch. In December, several lunchtime brawls resulted in 34 students arrested and 10 hospitalized. To quell the fighting, administrators split lunchtime into two 35-minute periods so that fewer students congregate on the quad at once.

But because students skipped class to attend both lunch periods, administrators changed the schedule, again, to allow more time between lunches. The first lunch now begins at 9:40 a.m.

After students got into fights in restrooms, the principals decided to lock classrooms during instruction. Now, adults escort students who need to use the restroom, but only if it is an emergency.

The principals of the five small learning communities are slowly building semi-autonomous groups, each with about 20 to 30 teachers and 600 to 700 students.

The principals have each claimed a wing of the school, in some cases converting classrooms into offices, each with its own clerk, counselor and principal.

“Everybody had to settle their turf, teens and teachers included,” said administrator Cologne. She is the head of the school’s public service and social justice academy, in which more than half of her teachers are in their first year in the profession. The halls of her academy are decorated with student-designed posters that read: “Black and Brown=Peace” and “What Are We Fighting For?”

The idea behind small learning communities is that students will remain in their campus wings, taking classes with the same group of teachers for their high school careers. Yet at South L.A. High, many youths are shuffling among academies because they need courses that they can’t get in their small schools.

The campus remains overcrowded. It opened as a year-round school, and there are no immediate plans to change that. The Board of Education approved a plan last week to open eight charter schools in the area. It hopes that the plan will ease enrollment.

“It’s a journey, it’s a process,” Co-Principal Morton said. “We’re still in its infancy.”

Sophomore Jilman Gomez, 15, is frustrated with the new system. He said he is enrolled in the same world history class that he already passed with an A last semester. He is also enrolled in an English course at a lower level than he needs.

“It’s wrong,” he said. “You should be able to take the classes you need.”

The students in administrator Jan Hackett’s fashion and design academy came from seven middle schools and 22 high schools.

“I don’t think they acknowledged this [school] was theirs,” she said. “This was just a place they were sent.”

Hackett spent 12 years at Taft High School in Woodland Hills.

“Nothing has ever been this complex, this difficult, in my entire career,” she said.

Despite the challenges, Hackett sees the concept beginning to work. She raves about her design class, equipped with new sewing machines and cutting tables, and the yearbook class with its 40 Mac laptops. She now knows most of her 600 students by name.

“One thousand percent,” Hackett said, “I believe in this.”

Kennetta Bradley, 15, believes in it too. She transferred to the school last year from nearby Jefferson High after being hit in the head with a bottle and shoved to the ground during a series of riots that roiled that campus last spring. In December, when fights broke out at her new school, Bradley was pepper-sprayed while standing in a stairwell.

“It got in my lungs, my eyes, my nose,” she said. “My face was all flush red. I was scared.”

Afterward, her mother asked, “With all of the fighting, do you still want to go there?”

Bradley thought about the contemporary-style campus, with its clean restrooms and its counselors who helped her enroll in community college classes. She thought about how much fun she had in the travel and culinary arts academy, especially in cooking class. She thought about her teachers, who helped her more than the rotating substitutes she had met at Jefferson.

Bradley told her mother she wanted to stay, as long as she remembers that when violence breaks out, “you just got to stay your distance.”