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Jordan High’s staff shakeup puts students on better track

As a student at Jordan High School in Watts, Shanell Blackmon had flunked chemistry, ditched class and didn’t think she would ever graduate.

Along came Evan Dvorak, a 24-year-old physics teacher fresh out of college. He broke down the forbidding subject with patient explanations and fun experiments. He was inspiring: “Nothing less than your best. No excuses.” He talked Shanell out of dropping his honors class, insisting she could do the work — and she did, finishing with a B.

In June, Shanell’s hard work paid off when she proudly donned her blue cap and gown and walked across the stage to receive her diploma. The 18-year-old hopes to attend community college and become a nurse.

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Photos: Making changes at Jordan High School

She credits her turnaround to Dvorak and a raft of new teachers hired by a nonprofit that took control of the failing campus in 2011.

Jordan students recorded the highest gains in test scores among all traditional high schools in the L.A. Unified School District in 2012. The vast majority are still way behind, but the percentage of students at grade level in math tripled to 9%, and in reading nearly doubled to 20%.

Whether those gains can continue is unclear. But the effort to turn around the campus is considered a critical component in the city’s move to redevelop the nearby Jordan Downs housing project and revitalize the Watts area.

The city’s Housing Authority has begun a bold, $600-million experiment to transform the neighborhood, long beleaguered by poverty and violence, by turning the aging complex into a mixed-income community of up to 1,400 apartments and condominiums, shops, restaurants and gardens.

As part of that effort, the agency is pursuing a $30-million federal grant to rebuild the neighborhood with better housing, businesses and schools. The grant requires a plan to revitalize schools; city officials have asked for help from the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, the group started by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that is working on Jordan High.

“Education is huge in transforming our community,” said John King of the housing agency. “It’s the only way we can break the cycle of poverty.”

Parents such as Tamica Donwood are encouraged by the school’s improvements. Like Shanell, Donwood and her daughter, Niea Ulmer, live in Jordan Downs, whose residents have an average annual income of $14,500, one-fourth the Los Angeles County average, and two-thirds lack a high school degree.

“It’s way better than before,” said Donwood, a 1991 Jordan graduate. “The kids are more interested in learning, and the teachers are helping them get into college.”

The improvements are seen as a testament to the advantages of selecting the right leaders, hiring and training effective teachers and building collaboration among all of them.

“When they give you good teachers, you go to class, you do the work and you pass,” Shanell said.

Jordan’s transformation began after then-L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon Cortines invoked federal law allowing overhauls of failing schools and divided the campus, giving half to the Partnership and half to Green Dot Public Schools, an independent charter operator.

Their first and most critical task: a massive staff overhaul.

“Recruiting talent is our No. 1 priority and teacher development is our anchor strategy for turning around schools,” said Colleen Oliver, the Partnership’s chief academic officer.

The most important hire was Principal Sherri Williams. The dynamic administrator had revamped nearby 99th Street Elementary, boosting student achievement and parent participation.

Her first visit to Jordan shocked her.

She said she saw scores of students roaming the campus. Teachers were yelling at students or ignoring them as they tapped on computers or chatted on phones. School floors were “caked with gunk.” About a third of the students had been enrolled in too many electives and too few academic classes to graduate.

There were pockets of good teaching, but not nearly enough, Williams said.

“It was like LAUSD had forsaken Jordan,” she said.

The 75 teachers were required to reapply for their jobs. Just over half did; only nine were rehired.

To attract talented instructors, the Partnership recruited nationally, offering referral fees, signing bonuses and an idealistic message: “Inequitable education is the social justice issue of our time, and they would be soldiers in a mission to make a difference in the lives of inner-city children,” according to Phyllis Bradford, who oversaw hiring efforts.

Thirty teachers were selected from 265 applicants. Oliver said the partnership sought passionate teachers who were willing to collaborate, embrace feedback and use testing data to monitor their effectiveness. They had to believe, unequivocally, that all students could learn and hold them to high expectations.

And Williams said she looked for teachers with hobbies or talents they could use with the students. Dvorak, for instance, started a robotics club.

Then a newly graduated engineering major from the University of Pennsylvania, Dvorak said his first semester was a disaster, as he was unprepared for student defiance and disruptions. But he improved after consulting with veteran colleagues and figuring out new ways to motivate his students. He also volunteered for the Partnership’s teacher evaluation program and traveled to Chicago to observe “master” educators.

On a morning last month, the lanky teacher greeted each student in his classroom, which features a hanging slinky and toy roller coaster, class projects, stars for good quiz scores, notes scrawled with student goals, a mission statement, a list of rules and consequences. He fended off jokes about his wrinkled shirt and lack of a girlfriend.

As Dvorak roamed the class checking student work, Shanell and her friend Imani Earl wrapped wires around magnets to make headphones. Shanell said Dvorak had boosted her confidence with extra help in the math needed for honors physics; Imani said he motivated her with cartoons connected to physics and rewards for good practice-test results.

“Before, I didn’t care about school at all,” said Imani, who also lives in Jordan Downs. “The teachers let you do whatever. Now the teachers come and help. I don’t ditch at all. I need to graduate.”

Students say Dvorak has made physics come alive. They watched the space shuttle Endeavour being carried through the sky in its journey to Los Angeles and then went to work figuring out the forces on the transport aircraft. They learned about electrical circuitry by making a cardboard house and wiring it with lights. Students started asking him how to determine the velocity of their soccer or lacrosse balls, suddenly aware that “everything you do is physics,” said Erwin Zelaya, 18.

Another popular new teacher is Erica Duh, who studied biology and chemistry at Duke University. She too adjusted in her second year with less lecturing and more hands-on activities. In a recent class, students tested whether milk, soapy water, vinegar and lemon juice were acids or bases after watching a video clip about the corrosive effect of acids in the hit TV show “Breaking Bad.”

Students said their academic skills have improved through classes to prepare them for high school exit exams, double doses of English and math, self-paced computer programs. Although several complained that school spirit plunged after the campus was split with Green Dot, they praised a cleaner, more orderly environment.

Walter Rich, a 16-year veteran and teachers union representative, said some staff were annoyed by top-down Partnership decisions, such as an expansion of online learning.

But he credits the nonprofit with excellent staff selections, which he said have boosted camaraderie among teachers and administrators. Teachers plan lessons together, socialize outside work and stay evenings to help students with college applications.

Williams and Carlos Montes, the popular assistant principal, embrace teacher suggestions — agreeing, for instance, to retool test proctoring and allowing instructors to plan their own trainings, Rich said.

“Morale is way up,” Rich said. “Last year was my favorite year of teaching in my career.”

The question is whether Jordan can sustain the progress. After a major back surgery midyear, Williams stepped down; Montes is interim principal. Jordan’s declining enrollment is reducing money needed for a richer array of classes.

Pass rates for the high school exit exam dipped slightly in the spring over the previous year, and no one is expecting large jumps in state standardized-test scores, scheduled for release next month.

Research suggests that transforming high schools is a slow, difficult slog that takes as long as seven years, Oliver said.

And Dvorak still sees too many students who give up easily, filled with apathy and self-doubt.

“That’s the Holy Grail of teaching — not just communicating content but changing student mindsets about what they’re capable of,” he said. “That’s still the culture of Jordan: doing the bare minimum.”

But for some students, the reconfigured faculty fundamentally changed the school — and themselves.

Under the previous staff, Shanell failed to enroll in classes needed for admission to a four-year university. But the new counselors and teachers got her back on track to finish her high school requirements and make plans to transfer to Cal State Dominguez Hills from a community college.

“My teachers helped me a lot,” she said. “Without them, I probably wouldn’t have graduated.”

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com


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