Secure in their studies

Times Staff Writer

All of a sudden, Markham Middle School, a habitually violence-plagued campus that sits amid seven street gangs, can boast of some surprisingly homey touches: a washer and dryer to clean students’ clothing; new furniture in the teacher lounges and the police office; board games and foosball for students in the multipurpose room.

And the students -- all 1,600 -- are wearing coordinated uniforms with new, matching white sneakers. They’re wearing the shoes to play basketball during lunchtime, which used to be marred by constant fights.

Such changes, and others big and small, are substantially the work of Michelle McGinnis, a persistent substitute teacher turned prosecutor who decided that something more than law enforcement was needed at the Watts campus.


“We set out to create a safer campus,” said McGinnis, who is on special assignment from City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo. “That has meant creating a more functional school.”

By nearly all accounts, the school became notably more secure after McGinnis united government agencies, private groups and community members behind her effort. It’s far too early to know if such measures will improve the school’s dismal test scores.

Security is an early step in boosting a school’s academics, an essential prerequisite, said Pedro Noguera, a sociology professor at New York University who has long studied urban reform. “Students can’t learn and teachers can’t teach in an atmosphere where they’re afraid. Once you establish an orderly environment, it’s easier to address conditions for teaching and learning,” including attracting and keeping quality teachers, he said.

Second-year Principal Verna Stroud and her staff are determined to capitalize on the improved security; they meet regularly to pore over data and develop an academic turnaround strategy.

The Los Angeles Unified School District “cannot do it alone,” Delgadillo said. “We cannot do it alone either. But it feels like there’s something of a tipping point here, and the fulcrum is public safety.”

Markham, in fact, has become a hopeful model for the sort of all-embracing community approach to school reform championed by L.A. schools Supt. David L. Brewer. And it’s exactly the concept advocated, too, by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose reform “partnership” will take over at Markham and five other schools July 1.


Before McGinnis arrived a year ago, the city attorney’s office already was running its “Scared Straight”-style anti-truancy program. But its efforts were hindered by the widespread feeling that Markham simply wasn’t safe.

Last year, for example, the school suspended 278 students for “attempted physical harm,” 196 for defiance, 19 for assaults against staff, 14 related to theft or robbery, nine for sexual harassment and six for marijuana possession.

Markham is surrounded by four low-income housing projects, with the residents of each hostile to those of the others -- a reality that is difficult to keep outside.

The initial returns on the security push are mixed. The number of students arrested has dropped 19% this year for such crimes as assaults, threats, robberies and vandalism. But so far, total suspensions are running ahead of last year. Stroud attributes that to four additional counselors she hired. They’re addressing problems faster, but, she said, they need to master more progressive discipline techniques.

Punishing or removing troublemakers -- on and off campus -- was partly the prescription, but to do more than tamp things down, McGinnis figured she couldn’t labor alone. The nonprofit service group City Year currently donates 40 hours a week to lead sports and table games to fill free time during school days. The school gets additional help from city recreation staffers, normally based in the projects, who go to campus. Anti-gang workers -- some paid, some volunteer -- have arrived as escorts to and from school.

More than $300,000 in donations paid for 71 computers, library materials, uniforms, shoes and two bungalows for the first Boys & Girls Club on an L.A. Unified campus. It’s one of several after-school programs among expanded offerings that have pushed daily participation from more than 100 students to close to 200.


Staff teamwork was evident recently at one of a series of periodic meetings during which McGinnis reviews “incidents” with administrators, police, a probation officer, anti-gang workers, recreation directors and counselors.

Before having such meetings, “everyone was doing their job, but there was no collaboration,” McGinnis said.

One student’s name came up several times -- once for acting as a lookout for older gang members who had planned to jump a Jordan High student.

“I told him, ‘I’m not here to get you in trouble but to keep you out of trouble,’ ” said gang intervention specialist Reginald Sims.

Assistant Principal Kenyatta Steiger had discovered that the student sings in a gospel choir on Sundays: “His mother couldn’t believe how he was representing himself.”

Salvaging this student would be a challenge, but at least his mother is an ally.

In contrast, some families have multi-generational gang ties. Officers have had to break up fights on school grounds between parents called in because their children were battling.


To break down territorialism, sports teams for the in-school activities are chosen by homeroom, forcing students from rival housing projects together as teammates.

McGinnis also organized a one-week day camp last year that included sessions at the Museum of Tolerance and a trust-building “adventure” in Culver City, in which students had to bridge racial divides to complete obstacle-course challenges.

Terrell Singleton, 13, said he feels safer.

“It’s cool to have more support in school,” he said. “We have more people coming to help.”

He was thrilled to try on the new sneakers, distributed last month.

“You have dirty shoes and people will joke on you,” Terrell said. “And now they can’t joke on your shoes because they’re new, and they got them on too.”

McGinnis arranged for each student to get two free uniforms, and Stroud summoned the parents of those who didn’t wear them. Some families resisted, saying it was hard to keep uniforms clean. That’s what prompted McGinnis to bring in the washer and dryer.

“Michelle gets things done -- whether she has to use a boot or finesse,” said school police Officer Carl Loos.

These days, Loos’ modest, refurbished office features new windows and paint, a new computer, desks and refrigerator. It’s become a magnet, he said, for officers looking for a place to write a report or for respite -- although Los Angeles police officials have committed to extra patrols, particularly in light of recent gang shootings in the area.


The sprucing up has extended to computer labs for students and to two teacher lounges.

“If you don’t feed the teachers, they eat the students,” McGinnis said matter-of-factly. In the lounges, she also hung a poster of faculty members who had accompanied her on a tour of the housing projects to get to know school families.

The mission resonates for McGinnis, an L.A. native. Her mother, Maxene McGinnis, ran the Jacqueline Home for Girls, raising 210 wayward youths in trouble for using drugs or committing crimes.

“They came to her as neglected, mistreated children,” McGinnis said. “She looked at them through the lens of whom they had the potential to be.” Maxene McGinnis died in November at 81.

The Markham experience also takes Michelle McGinnis, 37, full circle to three years as a long-term substitute teacher paying her way through law school at the University of West Los Angeles after graduating from UCLA with a degree in political science.

She was prosecuting drunk drivers and vehicular manslaughter cases when headquarters unexpectedly summoned her because of her background and teaching credential.

“This effort for me brings together two careers,” McGinnis said.

Like her mother, she said, she has difficulty giving up on a child. Perhaps half the troubled youth targeted are now on a better track, according to staff estimates. About 25 others departed Markham unchanged -- they graduated or disappeared or were transferred or arrested.


One troubled, insecure and sometimes belligerent special education student left campus early last year after being arrested, suspected of being the triggerman in a fatal drive-by shooting off campus.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Arline, a studious 13-year-old, said he isn’t ready to let his guard down.

“I think someone’s going to come from behind and hit me,” he said.

“That’s why I turn around every 30 seconds.”