The lesson was polling. Math teacher Fernando Avila acted as pollster, the students as respondents and the four corners of the classroom their opinions: strongly agree, slightly agree, slightly disagree, strongly disagree. The topic: How Locke High School in Watts had changed since being taken over by charter operator Green Dot Public Schools.
Were the school uniforms of chinos and polo shirts a good idea? The students shuffled into their chosen corners. Many hated the uniforms; some liked them; some were indifferent. And so it went, the students distributing themselves among the corners for each question -- until they were asked whether teachers cared more about them and their education this year, and the entire class crowded into “strongly agree.”
Nearly three months into the school year, the changes at Locke are obvious. Last year, when it was still run by the Los Angeles Unified School District, Locke was known for student brawls, rampant graffiti, ditched classes and a dropout rate so high that the senior class was routinely one-fourth the size of the freshman class.
This year, the halls are virtually empty during class. Teachers and aides say the campus is almost graffiti-free, and fights have diminished from one a day or so to less than one a month. Tardiness and ditching are down, now that both of those bring detention. Student attendance for September and October averaged 92%, close to that at suburban high schools.
“The teachers care a lot more,” chorused several juniors when asked about the changes at their school. “They ask you things,” one boy added in an awed voice, as though this were a strange new behavior among teachers. What kinds of things? “Like whether you’re OK, and do you understand what they taught.”
Locke High School represents the kind of transformation that can take place practically overnight under committed, energetic new leadership. As the school struggles with crowding and early signs of student backsliding, however, it also illustrates the pervasive and persistent difficulties that challenge urban schools.
Math teacher Carlos Perez believes he has a special understanding of his students. He grew up in the neighborhood but made good, attending UC Santa Cruz. At that rustic campus, he remembers the wonder of waking up and seeing deer outside his window instead of graffiti. He returned to Watts determined to help its teenagers. This is his third year at Locke, and he thinks there’s more “student buy-in” to what school is all about. But when he tries to tell students that they can achieve what he did or even more, most don’t believe him.
To a visitor, his geometry class looks chaotic. In the front, groups of students are noisily practicing their skills with congruent figures; in the back, others are quietly but obviously engaged in social chatter. Girls are plucking boys’ eyebrows; meanwhile, the first groups finish their work and borrow a deck of cards from Perez, shouting and cursing as they play. Perez ignores the bluster, moving from student to student, quietly conferring to see if anyone needs help. When he reaches the laggards, they pull out their papers and get to work, and when he wants the class’ full attention, he stands in front of the room and speaks in his quiet, gentle voice. In just a few moments, the students settle down.
In Perez’s eyes, it’s all about appreciating what different students need, especially given their almost universal fear of math. He doesn’t worry about the loud ones, because they’re always on top of their work. It’s the quiet ones who have trouble understanding and avoid tackling the problems, and he allows them to delay -- for a while. He won’t ask for an answer from a student who’s unlikely to know it; public embarrassment, he is certain, is not the way to teach them.
Though everyone completes the geometry practice, the class defies conventional logic. No student spent even half the period on task; wouldn’t they learn more if they were engaged in their subject more of the time? Eventually, test scores will tell, but in the back of Perez’s classroom, one sophomore thinks she has the answer. She doesn’t like most of the changes at Locke, she says. The tight security means “I don’t get to ditch no more,” and the uniforms are ugly. But she’s certain that she’s learning math better and faster than she was last year.
Each morning at Locke, some students show up without their uniforms; they’re sent to the loaner rooms. At each bell, walkie-talkie-equipped staff members position themselves at strategic points on campus to urge students toward their next classes, order their shirts tucked in and keep watch against taggers.
The campus of more than 1,800 students is divided into smaller “academies.” Two are for freshmen, who are coached intensively on algebra and other high school skills. Another offers “credit recovery” to students who are so far behind on the courses needed to graduate, they need self-paced online classes to catch up. And one is devoted solely to students who are “back from camp” -- recently released from juvenile hall and a potential disruption to regular classes.
After a tightly controlled start to the new year, some plans are unraveling slightly. An enrollment battle with L.A. Unified ended with Locke being forced to accept extra students. The two main academies on campus, for sophomores through seniors, were supposed to be capped at 650 students each and now have 800, many of whom didn’t show up until October.
Less than two weeks ago, someone started a fire in a bathroom. After two months of high attendance, absenteeism rose substantially in November. About 40 students stopped coming to school altogether; many of them returned, but now more have gone missing.
At its other charter schools, Green Dot can control against such frustrations. It caps enrollment at 500 and has waiting lists of motivated parents and students who want exactly what Green Dot has to offer: safer campuses, more academic rigor. But in its boldest experiment, taking over a large urban school, it no longer has these luxuries. Locke is the neighborhood school and educates most of the neighborhood’s students. Ronnie Coleman, director of the two biggest academies, hopes for rising test scores this year but predicts that Locke’s scores will substantially drag down the Green Dot average.
Still, in ways, the school has come far academically. Avila remembers burned-out teachers who sat in the back of their classrooms reading or snoozing. This year, the school is staffed with idealistic young instructors. Ask to meet an older teacher and you’d probably be steered to Avila, who at age 30 and with eight years at the school is a senior figure. Some students sense the inexperience in their new teachers, but what they lack in classroom years, they make up for in zeal.
They need it. Working with students who haven’t developed academic habits, or an understanding of why they should even bother with school, requires utter patience.
Coleman reinforces this dozens of times a day. Between classes, she directs one of her “trouble children” to tuck in his shirt. The student tentatively pushes one corner of the hem toward his belt, ever so slowly, clearly hoping Coleman is too busy to wait for him to obey, or possibly to provoke a reaction. “I’m a patient woman, sir,” she says. Half-an-hour later, the student is walking across the quad with his shirttail out. Coleman sighs, noting that if teenagers have to rebel, it’s better if it’s about something as innocuous as a tucked shirt. Similarly, in a meeting with the Spanish faculty, she advises teachers not to bother lecturing students about classroom profanity; it just escalates into a confrontation with those who resent authority figures and wastes instructional time.
Yet in Lucrecia Nava’s English Language Development class, expectations for behavior are high, and the students meet them. Every moment of the 90-minute class is devoted to intense instruction, reading, writing and speaking in English, each task checked off on a large list tacked to the wall. The mental effort is palpable as the students struggle to construct sentences in an unfamiliar language.
Nava speaks loudly and enunciates distinctly as she leads the class through a persuasive five-paragraph essay. Ready ready ready? she asks. Is it better when the two academies have lunch together or, as they usually do, separately? Give three reasons why. The students vote for separate lunches. There’s more space; the lines are shorter; and “we avoid problems,” one boy says, meaning there’s less chance of a fight.
After class, Nava is asked what will happen to these students, who can barely read an English sentence aloud, when they have to take the high school exit exam. “Absolutely, they can pass,” she says. And then, as though she is speaking for all the teenagers and teachers at Locke, she adds, “They just have to work harder. They’ll always have to work harder at everything.”
To read previous editorials in this series, go to latimes.com/locke-high.