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Shaping up -- no thanks to LAUSD

It’s almost 8 a.m. on 111th Street in Watts, and here’s a scene that could make a cynic faint:

A teenage boy is hustling across the street toward Locke High School while tucking a white shirt into his khaki uniform pants. He wants to pass inspection at the gate.

I’m visiting what might as well be called Dropout High to see if things have changed in the early going since Green Dot Public Schools took it over from Los Angeles Unified. Too soon to tell, for sure. We’re only into the third week of summer school, which tends to be mellower than the regular school year and serves only 700 kids instead of the usual 3,000.

The first thing I see after I park and walk onto campus are roughly three dozen tardy kids lined up against a fence just a couple of minutes after the hour, with Assistant Principal Charles Boulden giving them what for. On a megaphone, no less.

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“Ladies and gentlemen,” he barks, “school starts at 8 o’clock; 8:02 is like 8:14 to us.”

Two kids roll their eyes when I ask what they think of their new drill sergeant.

“Nothing’s going to change,” one tells me while the other nods in agreement.

But they’re wearing uniforms. That’s a change. And they’re about to be marked tardy, then led to their classrooms in small groups.

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Other students say this clearly is not the Locke they knew last year.

Sure it’s different, says Charles Brown, who will be a senior this fall.

“It’s very radical,” he says of the uniforms and the discipline.

Senior Lee Jones agrees it’s a new day. “There’s tighter security and it’s more strict” in classrooms and on the yard, with security people everywhere. “They won’t even let you in without your shirt tucked in.”

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There hasn’t been a fight yet, says Michael McElveen, another senior. Two weeks without a fight is a good sign at Locke, his pals admit, even if it is usually quieter in summer. The students also agree that the uniform has its advantages -- you don’t have to waste time and money on the fashions of the day.

Zeus Cubias, who has taught at Locke for 14 years after graduating from the school and going on to UC Santa Barbara, says the early indicators are encouraging. There were skeptics who said the uniforms alone would doom the experiment. Not only has there been compliance, but only a couple of the boys seem to feel bold enough to test the ban on sagging pants.

But will higher pockets mean higher grades?

“Part of it is setting the right tone,” says Cubias. Right off the bat, you step onto campus knowing there’s control, discipline and high expectations, and the reality is that’s something most kids wanted.

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“We had to step up our game, too,” Cubias says. “I’m wearing a tie every day now.”

Cubias is one of the Locke teachers who originally felt insulted by Green Dot chief Steve Barr’s claim that he could do a better job than L.A. Unified. Cubias spoke up about it, telling Barr he and other teachers had made strides despite great challenges.

“Steve Barr’s response was that that was exactly the kind of passion he was looking for,” says Cubias, who became a convert during the long, acrimonious battle that ended with Green Dot winning support for a takeover.

When school starts in September, only 40 of last year’s 120 teachers will still be there. Some left of their own accord; others weren’t hired back.

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Green Dot has hired 80 new teachers, created a separate and more intensive program for ninth-graders and divided Locke into several academies.

With the help of private donations, class sizes will be kept at about 28 instead of 40. Teachers will have more say on curriculum and teaching methods, and the Green Dot model is thin on administration.

In many ways, it’s the antithesis of L.A. Unified, the listing Battleship Bureaucracy, with its staggering dropout rate and glacial pace when it comes to change.

Locke High represents Green Dot’s biggest risk and greatest challenge yet. It didn’t start a new school with students who chose to attend, as it has in the past. It adopted a massive dysfunctional mess, and if it can turn things around, maybe the lessons can be broadly applied.

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Wayne Crawford, longtime Locke dean and head football coach, was another early skeptic even though he felt strongly that with fed-up teachers and inept district leadership, LAUSD was never going to save Locke. Could Green Dot do any better, he wondered, given that it had no history of taking in the most difficult children of derelict parents?

“This summer school is one of the best I’ve ever had at Locke,” says Crawford. “The kids are in class, and it’s more structured.”

He excuses himself to fill in briefly for a teacher, taking charge immediately and sternly when a student gets up from his desk while others are giggling.

“Have a seat, and don’t get silly,” he orders the student. “Excuse me, young people. If you’re taking a test in here, you should all be focused.”

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They clam up instantly.

While Cubias is escorting me across campus, he suddenly stops and points to something that can’t be seen.

“Serenity,” he says.

That’s something new. Teachers are letting students out for brief breaks, but the uniformed kids are orderly and quiet. Teacher Tobin Paap says this is a dramatic difference from his Locke teaching experience from 1999 to 2001, after which he left the profession, burned out and demoralized.

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“I felt like it was at the height of the craziness,” says Paap, 34, who briefly went home to Boston to work for a suburban YMCA. He needed to decompress after the madness at Locke.

“There were hundreds of ditched kids who’d hang out. They’d sit right here,” he says, showing me the ramp to the bungalow that was his classroom back then. “They smoked weed, played radios, spray-painted the walls and climbed on the roof.”

I figure he’s kidding, or at least exaggerating.

Not in the least, Paap says. He documented and reported all of it, but nothing ever happened to the young thugs.

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When he returned to teaching in L.A., Paap says, it was with Green Dot. He knew every kid and every counselor -- as well as most of the parents -- so there were consequences when a student acted up. This fall, he’ll be stationed in Inglewood. But he thinks Locke is going to be much better off than in the past.

Time will tell, and I’ll keep an eye on the progress. But given the tagging and pot-smoking chaos Paap described -- and a dropout rate for which LAUSD should be ashamed -- how can Locke not be better off?

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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