Success? That’s not an elective

Times Staff Writer

IN his first year as principal of Jordan High School in Watts, Stephen Strachan ordered 743 suspensions -- 600 more than the principal the year before -- to punish students for fighting, defying authority, defacing the campus and disrupting classes. His second year, he suspended students 596 times.

Strachan lost 30 teachers -- almost one-third of his staff -- to other schools and different jobs at the end of that first year, and 16 more the next. Some blamed the departures on his hard-nosed style.

Since his arrival in the fall of 2004, Strachan has seen Jordan’s test scores rise dramatically, then fall unexpectedly. He has been yelled at by parents, cursed out by students. He’s ignored whispers that he might not be the school’s salvation, just another in a long line of flops.

Still, he works 12 or 14 hours at a stretch, often skipping breakfast or lunch. He spends his evenings going over school reports and his weekends at Jordan’s dances, fundraisers and football games.

He has chased would-be truants over the school’s chain-link fence. He’s gone door-to-door in the neighboring housing project, rousting sleeping teenagers on a Saturday morning because they didn’t show up for the bus he rented to take them to a college fair.


He wages a never-ending war against graffiti. Some days it seems he spends more time playing cop -- confiscating students’ cellphones and cigarettes -- than shaping curriculum.

And when he needs to recharge his batteries, Strachan retreats to a classroom filled with boys: his all-male academy, a daring, unofficial experiment that he will not allow to fail.

FOR generations, Jordan High has been synonymous with failure.

When Strachan took the helm, only one in 100 students was proficient in math, more than half were not fluent in English, one in six was enrolled in special education and only half of ninth-graders made it to graduation.

Now, the building blocks for improvement are in place. The campus has been reorganized into the kind of small learning communities that are supposed to keep students in school and engaged. A $1.5-million Gates Foundation grant funds a special, personalized program for ninth-graders. A new schedule gives students more chances to make up failed courses. There are intervention classes, Saturday school, remediation programs.

Yet progress has been unsteady. Attendance has improved substantially, and the graduation rate has inched up, from 51% to 58%. But state test scores, which made a dramatic 54-point leap in Strachan’s first year, took an unexpected 24-point dive last spring. So much attention was paid to freshmen and to juniors and seniors close to graduation that 10th-graders fell between the cracks, he says.

“Those who just look at test scores said, ‘They’re not doing a thing,’ ” Strachan says. But the school’s state-appointed monitor cried when she saw the scores, “because she knows we worked so hard.”

AT Jordan, as at many urban schools, boys are more likely than girls to cut classes, fall behind, fail, drop out and wind up as adults in dead-end jobs -- or, worse, prison cells.

“Our men are going to be extinct in the inner city if we don’t do something,” Strachan says. Prodded by his sense of desperation, he built his experiment on research that suggests boys can thrive in single-sex classes.

His first year at Jordan, he picked 30 freshmen boys at random -- half black, half Latino -- and assigned them to take all their courses together, with no girls in their classes.

The boys were not happy. Some parents were wary, “but they were open to anything that would save their sons,” Strachan says. “I got very little push-back when I explained what I was doing.”

Some teachers balked at the extra work the project required. “I needed teachers willing to go above and beyond. Stay after school, tutor the boys during lunch hour, show up at their games.”

The first two years were up and down.

The boys separated themselves by race, reflecting neighborhood divisions. But gradually, they learned to get along. “There have been no fights in that room at all,” the principal said.

Several of the boys did clash with tough male teachers. Strachan experimented with teaching assignments, seating arrangements and lesson plans, and found that behavior problems could be reduced with lots of structure and predictable routines.

“I got just what I expected when I went into this,” Strachan says. “A lesson.”

The boys are now in 11th grade. Their number has dropped from 30 to 24. One boy is incarcerated, two had to be moved to different schools because of gang affiliations, one was transferred to another campus by his mother, two were pulled from the program because they fell too far behind or were disruptive.

But a brewing culture of success seems to propel the group forward. Last spring, 85% of them passed the state’s graduation exam, compared with 24% of Jordan’s other sophomores. This year, their curriculum includes Advanced Placement courses and college-level math, science and literature.

“They’re struggling, but they’re beginning to see education as a tool, a ticket out of the inner city,” Strachan says. “When there’s a problem, they come to me. Some are thinking about college, [saying] ‘Teach me how to study.’ ”

Word of the boys’ progress has begun to spread; the nearby King-Drew Medical Magnet began its own all-male classes this fall. And new rules, announced last week by the U.S. Department of Education, will make it easier for other schools to try single-sex classes.

“There are days when I walk this campus and I visit other classes and I don’t see that level of expectation and engagement,” Strachan says. “Then I get in that class and feel the energy.... We’re doing things different, stepping out of the box.”

SOME days the box is all there is.

On the board in Kori Hamilton’s 11th-grade English class is a list of colleges in the Ivy League. The walls are decorated with university posters. The first guest of the morning is the college counselor. Next up is Strachan, with a list of questions.

How many of you are planning to go to college? he asks. About half of the two-dozen girls and boys raise their hands.

How many passed both the math and English sections of the state’s graduation exam? Only one hand goes up.

Strachan talks to them for 15 minutes, explaining the importance of the upcoming SAT exam, prodding them to take Advanced Placement classes, warning them to make sure they have enough credits for graduation because overworked counselors can’t be counted on to make sure they keep up.

“Any questions?” he asks.

“I don’t see why we can’t wear spaghetti straps!” a girl in the front row shouts as her friends chime in with support.

Another wants to know why “those nasty Baked Lays” are the only chips in the vending machines.

Because, the principal shoots back, 70% of Jordan’s students failed last year to meet basic fitness levels. He lectures them about the high rate of diabetes among blacks and Latinos, the need to make smart choices in food, in fashion, in school, in life.

“Any questions about the upcoming [exit] exam?” he asks. A long silence. No one raises a hand.

He’s not discouraged, Strachan insists, as he bounds down the stairs from the bungalow classroom. Almost every seat in the class was filled. Three years ago, one in four Jordan students was absent on any given day. Now, nine of 10 show up for classes.

Wading through the sea of teenagers changing classes, Strachan stops a stocky, baby-faced 11th-grader strolling toward his classroom empty-handed, his baggy T-shirt drooping below his knees.

“Where are your supplies?” Strachan asks. The boy shrugs, mumbling something about money.

“Are those new shoes?” The principal shakes his head. “You’re so caught up trying to be Mr. Cool.” He speaks loudly enough for passing students to hear. “I don’t want to see you without a notebook again.”

“We’ve bought into this lie,” Strachan says as the boy ambles away. “We have to look good, but we can’t read or write.”

He rounds a corner and spots two 10th-grade fashion plates -- one girl in skimpy lime-green shorts, the other in white capri pants so thin and tight that the design on her underwear shows through.

Strachan calls the pair over, then summons a young female teacher to quietly explain why such revealing clothes are not appropriate on campus. He can hear the girls’ loud protests as he walks away.

ON weekends, Strachan preaches at the Pentecostal City Mission Church in South Los Angeles. Weekdays, Jordan High is his ministry.

He’s a sort of stand-in father for many students, hectoring the boys to keep their hands off girls’ bodies, warning the girls to watch their language, pushing them all to imagine a future beyond boundaries imposed by narrow minds, neighborhood blight and gang rivalries.

He speaks bluntly to his all-boy class, not just about the challenges of junior year, but of his belief that “designed racism” threatens to keep them trapped. It’s “cultural change” Strachan is going for, “trying to instill leadership values among them as men.”

He gets groans when he suggests a new dress code: a collared shirt and tie one day a week, and blue Jordan High polo shirts the rest of the time.

“Don’t worry about the cost,” he tells the boys. “I’m paying for the shirts out of my pocket.” He doesn’t seem to recognize it’s not the money that’s the problem.

Three years in, the boys haven’t stopped complaining about the gender segregation. “I hear it all the time,” Strachan says. “ ‘Can’t we get some girls in here? Or at least a couple of cute female teachers?’ They protest, and I listen. But I think adults need to make the decisions.”

By adults, Strachan means the principal.

His detractors complain that he is passion run amok. He has raised the hackles of some teachers, who say he micromanages and dictates when he should collaborate.

“We fight like cats and dogs sometimes,” says social science teacher Alla Norris, a nine-year Jordan veteran who has seen three principals come and go. “He’s mellowed a lot in the last three years. But he still has these flights into autocracy.”

Strachan doesn’t apologize. “You can’t come into a school that’s broke looking for help,” he says. “I can’t have three visions trying to run things. I have to run this school.”

He views the upheaval on his staff as an opportunity for instructional change.

The majority of the replacement teachers he has hired are young; many are, like their students, black or Latino.

He would like more experienced teachers, he says, but it can be hard drawing them to a school like Jordan. Strachan takes prospects on a tour of the neighborhood, past barracks-like housing projects, boarded-up storefronts, ramshackle homes and noisy scrap metal yards. Many never come back.

“They’re surprised,” he says. “But they need to see the community these kids come from” -- where half the parents never graduated from high school and 99% of families live in poverty.

His students’ choices are shaped by what happens off campus: Girls who drop out pregnant at 16. Boys who quit school to help support their families. Hardworking students who handwrite essay assignments because their parents can’t afford computers and it’s too dangerous to go to the library.

Strachan marvels at their resilience, recalling the three boys waiting for him when he arrived at 6:30 one morning, camped out in his office crying because they had seen their best friend shot to death. “And they came to school,” he says, wonder in his voice.

Strachan grew up poor in Miami’s tough Overton ghetto. “But I never had to walk over dead bodies on my way to school,” he says. “We owe these kids so much.”

THIS year he’s giving his all-boy class a chance to take one elective -- with girls. The first week of school, he visits to talk about their schedules, asks if there are any problems with their new classes.

A hand goes up. Strachan braces for a complaint about lunch menus or polo shirts. Instead, the boy asks if he can change his elective from the computer class he had requested.

“I’m having trouble with math,” he tells the principal. “Can I take another algebra class?”

Strachan swallows hard and smiles, but his voice never changes. “I think we can arrange that. An algebra class.”