At Crenshaw High, those left behind are skeptical of changes
Alex Caputo-Pearl strides across the blue-and-yellow tile floor at Crenshaw High School, eyeing the teachers standing in a group and the empty lockers lining the hallways he’s walked for the last 13 years.
There’s the teacher who leads the award-winning debate team who now needs a new job. Another, who after 37 years at the school, was not allowed to return. And the long-term substitute who was asked to come back but can’t bring himself to do so.
School is out for the summer. Students won’t show up at Leimert Park campus for a couple of months. And more than half of the teachers won’t return at all, including Caputo-Pearl.
Because of persistently low test scores and graduation rates, Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy is rearranging the storied campus into three magnet schools — a move that required teachers to reapply for their jobs. Those not rehired can search for openings within the district; if they don’t find a position, the district will place them.
“I knew I was a target,” said Caputo-Pearl, 44, a history instructor and vocal teachers-union leader. “But I feel good. I feel really grateful to have built the relationships I have built at Crenshaw, and I know those aren’t ending — I live down the street, I see people around the neighborhood.”
For most of its 45 years, Crenshaw High has served as a landmark in L.A.’s African American community — a neighborhood hub known for championship athletics teams and arts programs and for sending graduates to top colleges.
But the South Los Angeles campus has declined in recent years. It had the lowest Academic Performance Index score, a rating based on standardized test results, in the district. Deasy called it one of the district’s biggest disappointments.
Efforts to improve achievement have largely failed.
The most recent attempt, called the Extended Learning Cultural Model, involved training teachers on the culture of their students and assigning more relevant projects. It attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside financial support.
District officials believed the campus needed more aggressive change.
At a Board of Education meeting in January, Deasy spoke sharply about the school. “It is a civil right for students to be able to read and do mathematics. It is a fundamental right to graduate — and it is not happening at Crenshaw,” he said.
Many at the school view Deasy’s revamp as a deliberate attempt to get rid of outspoken veteran teachers and an attack on the union. Along with Caputo-Pearl, union rep Cathy Garcia wasn’t asked back.
They see the restaffing of Crenshaw as part of a counterproductive effort nationwide to turn around long-established schools in low-income, minority areas. And they view it as a push for a more compliant faculty.
The superintendent and his staff, however, say they are trying to change the culture of low achievement on the campus, which is now 29% Latino. They say the new faculty must be accountable for the success of students and rebuild a strong neighborhood school.
George Bartleson, an L.A. Unified School District official who is overseeing the change, said the idea that certain teachers were targeted is false. Community members and parents participated by sitting on panels that interviewed candidates. Crenshaw Principal Remon Corley had final say.
Corley, who was the principal last year, himself interviewed for the new position in charge of magnet schools. He was chosen from a pool of applicants by Deasy.
Caputo-Pearl has long been an outspoken critic of the district’s changes on campus. He helped organize student protests and brought community organizations together to rally on their behalf.
His detractors, however, contend that he’s been an impediment to progress.
In 2006, he was involuntarily transferred from Crenshaw for allegedly blocking reform efforts by driving out a highly regarded principal at a time when the campus was struggling to regain its long-term accreditation. He was reinstated after a massive outcry from the union and others.
At the time, he called his transfer “an attack on people of color.” Caputo-Pearl is white, but he said he was referring to the Crenshaw community.
His reputation with some as a disruptive force on campus is unwarranted, Caputo-Pearl said. He said he always advocated on behalf of students and encouraged them to participate in civic issues.
Caputo-Pearl is among United Teachers Los Angeles activists who have long pushed the union to be more politically assertive. The group is underwhelmed with the leadership of current President Warren Fletcher but have stopped short of open rebellion, choosing instead to pressure Fletcher to take on traditional political organizing and present a broad vision.
“Our union has been operating issue by issue and school by school; and in this political climate, that’s a losing strategy,” Caputo-Pearl said. “It’s like trying to cover the holes in the dam one by one.”
Some in the activist group, Caputo-Pearl said, are planning to run for leadership positions in the next UTLA election. Though he said he would be involved, he declined to be more specific.
At school, many of the students laud the teacher known as “C.P.” as someone who has their back, makes the curriculum accessible and cares about them.
Elijah Simmons, 17, an incoming senior, said Caputo-Pearl pushed for him when he clashed with other teachers and was on the brink of being expelled. Now he averages A’s and Bs and is on track for college.
“He doesn’t just care about you just getting an education, he cares about how you’re doing outside of school,” Elijah said. “Most teachers don’t come in with that passion — that’s what a lot of students are going to miss out on.”
Tauheedah Shakur, 17, visited campus recently to say goodbye and to help Caputo-Pearl clean his classroom.
In a poem she wrote, she describes Room 203 as a place where students would find “a funny white man invested in his students’ learning.” With walls adorned with posters on black and Latino history, she said, “You’d think he was a person of color himself.”
Tauheedah said she was considering transferring to Hamilton High School out of disappointment with the classes being offered at Crenshaw. Caputo-Pearl encouraged her to stick it out.
“Crenshaw,” he said, “needs leaders like you.”
Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this story.
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