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Igniting a Fire to Learn

Times Staff Writer

Jazmani Busby has learned things in her nine years that no child should have to learn.

She has learned to drop to the floor at the sound of a gunshot. She has learned what an AK-47 looks like. She has learned that, all too often, the people around her die young.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 25, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 25, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Science program: An article in Wednesday’s Section A about a science program at 112th Street Elementary School in Watts misidentified a neighboring Catholic school as Mater Dei. It is Verbum Dei High School.

Jazmani, a lifelong resident of the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts, doesn’t like to talk about these things. When she calls her best friend, Raquel Hernandez, the two fourth-graders are much more eager to talk about something else they’ve learned, something that makes them bubble with excitement.

Science.

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Their mothers have gotten used to it. The phone will ring, and Jazmani and Raquel will start gabbing about exoskeletons and endoskeletons, arachnids and crustaceans, photosynthesis and cell biology.

“Science is my life,” Jazmani explained. “I eat, drink, breathe science. I just love science.”

She and Raquel attend 112th Street Elementary School, where Principal Brenda Manuel says, “The kids are just on fire about science.”

How did this happen? By conventional measures, 112th Street Elementary is a failing school. Its standardized test scores are among the lowest in California. Fewer than one-third of its students are considered proficient in math, fewer than a fifth in English. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the school could face sanctions if it fails to raise its test scores significantly this year.

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And it won’t be easy. There aren’t many schools in the United States whose students face so many obstacles to success in school -- or in life.

Every student at 112th Street Elementary is poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals. Most of the students live in Nickerson Gardens, a housing project known for being violent and gang-infested. Many come from single-parent families or are in foster care. The school is 62% Latino and 38% African American, and more than half of the students are learning English as a second language.

Yet teachers and parents say the school has become a place where good things are happening.

Things like science.

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The children of 112th Street are on fire about science because a teacher named Stan White came into their lives last fall like a blowtorch -- a large blowtorch with a wide smile, a shaved head, a crisp no-nonsense manner and a deep-seated belief that these children are as capable of excelling as any children anywhere.

“I know a word!” he says in a booming singsong voice to a room full of fourth- and fifth-graders, who chant after him:

“I know a word!”

“That you don’t know!”

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“That you don’t know!”

“Cephalothorax!”

“Cephalothorax!”

“Cephalo means head!”

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“Cephalo means head!”

“Thorax means body!”

“Thorax means body!”

“Put them together ...

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“Put them together ...

” ... head-chest!”

” ... head-chest!”

This is the way a lot of learning takes place in White’s science program. It’s old-fashioned and rote, and it seems to work. The children are eager to please White, in part because they like him (“We love him to death,” one boy volunteers), in part because they know the consequences of displeasing him will be swift and severe.

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“Do you know the meaning of the digestive system?” he asks one girl who has been chatting with a neighbor.

“The meaning of the digestive system is....” She stops, looks stricken, hangs her head.

“Goodbye,” White says.

Knowing better than to argue, she quietly leaves to return to her regular class. White’s class is a special pull-out event held in the school library, designed to supplement the school’s regular curriculum.

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To be dismissed by Mr. White is a terrible fate. It means more than just missing out on science, although one suspects that would be punishment enough. (On this day, it meant missing out on the opportunity to hold a tarantula.) It means losing a chance to make The Team. For White’s real secret is that he has transformed science into a competitive sport.

Students compete for spots on the science team, and the team, in turn, competes with other schools -- also coached by White -- in “Jeopardy!"-style showdowns.

On this day, the students are studying a DVD that White made of their first competition, on March 14 against the nearby Watts Learning Center. The Learning Center is an acclaimed charter school whose students, overwhelmingly African American and poor, are learning at levels more typical of middle-class suburbs than of the inner city. Their score on the Academic Performance Index is nearly 200 points higher than 112th Street’s. They are the reigning champions in White’s science competition.

And yet here, on the DVD, the students of 112th Street are trying to hold their own.

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“Name one main kind of organism on Earth,” White is saying to two students seated at a table before microphones and buzzers. A girl from 112th Street slaps her buzzer first.

“One main kind of organism on Earth is a plant,” she says in a burst of syllables.

“Correct. One point,” says White. “Name the other main kind of organism on Earth.” This time, the competitor from the Watts Learning Center starts to answer first.

“The other -- “

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White cuts her off. “You don’t have the light.” The girl hadn’t hit her buzzer first. The student from 112th Street answers.

“The other main kind of organism on Earth is an animal.”

“Correct, one point.”

And so it goes, with the fourth-graders from 112th Street keeping the Watts Learning Center team in check. Just as in class, White is fair but tough. Answers must be perfect and spoken in standard English to win points.

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White, 51, is African American and grew up in a single-parent household, first in Portland, Ore., and later in Los Angeles, where he attended Fairfax High School. He could have failed, he says, but was saved by his love of animals, which became a love of science; the help he got from the Westside Jewish Community Center, where he was encouraged to launch a science and nature club; and a forceful mother who demanded success.

He also had an unusually strong male role model -- the late Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who was a family friend and occasional visitor, even when White lived in Portland.

He has been running science programs in Los Angeles schools as a private contractor, beginning while he was still in college, and has taught children all over the city. He charges $350 to $450 a day. Lately, he has focused his efforts on inner-city schools, because, he says, they need him more.

Among inner-city children, White says, there’s an “initial lack of desire,” a feeling “that if they’re learning, they’re somehow selling out.” Once students get past that, he finds that the children are not only as bright as their peers on the Westside and affluent neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley, but they’re tougher, more resilient. “Once they’re on, they can’t be beat,” he says.

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Even so, he wasn’t quite prepared for what he found at 112th Street. “They surprised me,” he says, “and I’ve been doing this for 35 years.”

They are a surprising group.

There’s Philip Aubrey, one of the co-captains of the fifth-grade science team who shocked White by learning the seven systems of the human body -- respiratory, circulatory, muscular, etc. -- overnight. “Usually, that’s a two-week process,” White says.

There’s Raquel, who, along with Jazmani, is a co-captain of the fourth-grade team. Her love of science is matched by her talent for writing. When she’s upset or scared or especially happy, she writes nonfiction accounts of her life or richly imagined fairy tales written in a precise, letter-perfect hand.

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And there’s Adam Hymes, a fourth-grader who bristles at the thought that other schools might think less of the children of 112th Street because of where they live.

“I think they think that we cannot work hard,” he says, speaking slowly and deliberately. “But we can -- because we’re 112th Street School!

In the weeks leading up to the Watts Learning Center competition, the students held conference calls at night to drill one another. They turned out on a Saturday when White agreed to lead an extra study session.

And teachers began to notice a spillover into their regular classes.

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“This has elevated their esteem, elevated their desire to be part of something,” says Ed Allen, a fifth-grade teacher. And it has given him, as a teacher, a new disciplinary tool: If a student thinks misbehaving “will somehow affect his position on the science team, he’ll straighten up.”

There’s a greater desire to do well in all aspects of academics, he says.

In her 18 months as principal, Manuel has been on a crusade. She spruced up the school, making it feel clean and safe. She reached out to its next-door neighbor, Mater Dei, a Catholic high school that now sends students to tutor 112th Street children, and a foundation has been established to nurture 112th Street students through middle school and offer them provide scholarships to Mater Dei if they succeed. Manuel also worked closely with teachers -- collegially, they say -- to fine-tune curricula.

She is hoping this year’s standardized tests will give the school an Academic Performance Index score of 625 (on a scale of 200 to 1,000). That would be disastrous for some schools, a huge accomplishment for 112th.

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“She’s been trying her best to raise the academic culture around here,” said Joseph Laden, the teachers union representative at the school. He said Manuel has sought “novel solutions to the same old problems. Like bringing in a high-quality science program, for one.”

White’s program is open to all fourth- and fifth-graders -- if they can hack it. In his first couple of months, White said, he was kicking out most of the kids. “Oooh, they hated me,” he said. But they were allowed to come back for the next session and, gradually, their behavior began to improve.

Back on the DVD, the 112th Street team looks strong in the fourth-grade competition. But when it comes to the ultimate showdown, with 20-point questions on the line, the Watts Learning Center brings in a new two-member team that includes its best competitor, a tall girl in a plaid jumper who speaks like a living encyclopedia.

Jazmani is one of the two students from 112th Street who are going up against her.

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If White experienced a sense of deja vu at this point, it would be understandable. Fourteen years ago, back when he had hair on his head, he had another girl from 112th Street with a sharp aptitude for science. That was Jasmine Busby, Jazmani’s mom. She still remembers what White taught her but says she never learned much science after that as her educational career foundered at Markham Middle School and Locke High.

Kids from the projects, she says, “don’t have a chance.” She is set on breaking the cycle and plans to move with her two children to Las Vegas this summer.

White is saying: “For 20 points, the definition of science?”

The girl from the Watts Learning Center pounces. “The definition of science is a body of knowledge and an understanding of the physical and natural world,” she says, without a nanosecond of hesitation.

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“Correct,” White says. “Twenty points: The definition of the scientific method?”

She nails it.

Suddenly, things aren’t looking good for 112th Street.

“Last 20 points, what are the six steps of the scientific method?”

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Once again, the girl in plaid gets to her buzzer first. “The six steps of the scientific method is purpose, research, hypothesis, experiment and -- “

White cuts her off: “Incorrect.”

Jazmani hits the buzzer.

The words fly out of her mouth: “The six steps of the scientific method are purpose, research, hypothesis, experiment, analysis and conclusion.”

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“Correct, 20 points,” White says.

For lack of the proper verb -- the girl in plaid said “is” instead of “are” -- Watts Learning Center has lost the points.

Jazmani is unstoppable now, sopping up the final two five-point questions and bringing home the victory for the fourth-grade team.

The fifth-graders would lose, but it didn’t matter. That anyone from 112th Street had won seemed like a miracle.

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“How’d it feel to win?” Manuel asked the team captains a few days later.

“I feel really good,” said Philip, the fifth-grader, “even though we didn’t win. We’ll win next time.”

Next time will be today against Wilders Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Inglewood.

“Let me tell you something about Wilders Prep,” White tells the 112th Street students. “They’re great.” But, he adds, “You can beat them.”

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They believe him.


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