From ‘camp’ to class

The students are rapt as they watch a seven-minute video about Josef Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death reviled for his cruel pseudo-experiments on concentration camp inmates during World War II. Seeing this, they can better understand the atrocities experienced by Elie Wiesel and chronicled in “Night,” his sparely phrased but haunting account of death and life under the Nazi German regime.

“Oh my God,” one girl gasps at the sight of emaciated survivors. “This is horrible.”

In the book, they read about newly imprisoned Jews who want to fight their captors, though it will certainly mean their own deaths. A debate ensues. What would these Watts youngsters do if they were in the “selection” lines supervised personally by Mengele at Auschwitz-Birkenau that night? Fight, or try to live to fight another day?

“He was throwing babies in the gas chamber,” one boy says. “I would stab him in the head.”

Teacher Frank Tarczynski acknowledges that this is one option. But wouldn’t another Nazi be assigned to take his place? “Then I’d stab him too,” the boy says. “I’d stab them all in the head, and then I’d stab Hitler in the head.”

The theme most commonly inferred from Wiesel’s semi-memoir is the loss of faith and even humanity in extreme circumstances. But Tarczynski is hoping to make another point today. He notes each carefully considered step the Jewish teenager in the book takes toward saving his life on that first night: He lies about his age, saying that he’s an 18-year-old farmer rather than a 15-year-old student, so he will be seen as old and strong enough to work.

“Instead of using his fists or yelling or screaming,” Tarczynski quietly observes, “Elie thought about it a moment and then took action.” He pauses to let the words sink in.

There is a lesson more important than literature here. Tarczynski’s students have a history of fighting before considering the consequences. In their neighborhood, too many have died because they acted on the emotion of the moment.

‘They don’t know how to smile’

The Opportunities program, part of the Green Dot charter takeover of Locke High School, provides a transition back to schoolfor freshmen and sophomores who have recently returned from what’s euphemistically called “camp” -- juvenile detention. The 35-student academy also takes in teens whose behavior created problems in other Locke classrooms.

These are teenagers with tough reputations. A couple of sophomores started their first high school classes just a few weeks ago; they were incarcerated as middle-schoolers. “I don’t know what they’ve done” to land in trouble, Principal Nerine Vernon-Burnside says. “I don’t want to know.” They arrive with the burdens of mental illness, poverty and other vulnerabilities. Some are quick to act belligerent; others cry easily. “When they first come, they don’t know how to smile,” Vernon-Burnside says. “The littlest thing sets them off.”

Months in detention have left them with a fear of being seized, arrested, dragged away and locked up. Several times during this school year, the campus has been locked down because of incidents in the neighborhood. The Opportunities students were nearly hysterical, and needed constant reassurance that the lockdown was intended to keep them safe, not imprisoned.

One 15-year-old is perpetually anxious because, with both parents dead, she lives with her ailing 80-year-old grandmother, her only family bulwark. Students sometimes go hungry outside of school. Vernon-Burnside has found that something as simple and cheap as a hot cup of instant noodles is enough to draw them to school and get them ready for the day.

These are familiar situations that threaten to overwhelm many students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Generally, the most problematic teens are sent to continuation schools, some of which run excellent programs with smaller class sizes, higher security and specially designed curricula. At Locke, although the formula is similar, the timing is turned upside down. Continuation school is where troubled students tend to finish their high school years. The Opportunities program is where they start; the goal is to teach them, within one year, enough social, personal and academic skills to join the rest of the students.

To be sure, some of the behavior here is rough around the edges. There’s more than a little foul language. Some students are jittery; they jiggle their legs, fidget and get up as often as possible. One girl beckons a teacher by saying, “Hey, cuz, over here.” Yet these same students can be so polite, they could teach etiquette. A gentle-voiced 15-year-old girl graciously holds out a hand to welcome a reporter, then later confides that she served time for drug sales and robbery.

On a recent Friday, the students are rewarded for good behavior by being allowed to spend their lunch break at the adjacent handball court, where they play with smooth speed. Because the court is on the “regular” campus, on the other side of a fence, this is a symbol of trust -- though they are monitored every moment by Vernon-Burnside and other staff. Afterward, they file back to “their” side, each one greeting the principal with a fervent, “Thank you, Miss.”

In previous months, when the students were allowed on a shared basketball court, the scene was testy. “It was right out of ‘West Side Story,’ ” Vernon-Burnside says, with students from rival gangs cautiously circling each other. She had a basketball hoop set up in the Opportunities area so the boys could play outside their classrooms.

As math teacher David Garner gets algebra class going, one boy has to be asked several times to remove his earbuds. It’s as though he has to put on a show about not doing it, because after Garner gives him some time to think about it, he grins and complies. One girl nervously circles a corner of the classroom repeating, “I need a break. I just really need a break.” “And you deserve a break,” Garner says encouragingly. He’s not just humoring her; she’s been pulling A’s. Garner teaches a brief lesson on quadratic equations, and the girl slides into her seat to listen.

The unexpected aspect of the Opportunities program is the intensity many of the students bring to their classes. After the algebra lesson, they pull out textbooks to work on equations. Some start to sing together; others talk so noisily, they sound like they’re shouting. But no one yawns or looks blank. You would think distributive properties were the latest craze, watching the students pencil their way through the problems and seek Garner’s help.

The math teacher, wearing a business suit and sneakers, quiets the loudest students with a finger to his lips and a smile. He walks the room the entire time, checking on the students’ progress and tutoring them. The words “incorrect” and “wrong” don’t appear to be part of his vocabulary. Instead, he says things like, “You have it perfect right up to this point, and that’s where you start to go off track.”

Like most Locke teachers, the faculty here are young, energetic and impassioned. Garner came to Opportunities from the Compton schools. Committed to teaching urban students, he saw in the Green Dot takeover a chance to transform young lives in more meaningful ways than public schools had allowed him. Tarczynski is new to teaching; he was in a theater group before this academic year, experience that serves him well when he has to keep students engaged.

He bristles slightly at a question about whether he wanted particularly to teach these kids. They’re simply kids, he says.

Outside the fence

Like kids anywhere, they’re avidly interested in what’s for lunch -- Green Dot scored instant points with them by contracting with a private caterer instead of serving the subsidized meals that the teens derisively call “county food.” They throw a football during lunch break; the school’s premier skateboarder shows off some moves.

Right outside Locke’s fences, though, gang members and other troublemakers wait for school to let out. Some students fear leaving the campus; Vernon-Burnside wishes Opportunities were a boarding school.

In English class, these teens feel a certain kinship with Elie Wiesel. They understand what it’s like to be a 15-year-old in a dangerous place, surrounded by malevolent forces beyond their control. Whether African American or Latino, they too have experienced prejudice. They wonder aloud whether Wiesel is still alive, and are amazed to learn that he’s a professor at Boston University.

“He should come visit us,” a girl says. “He could tell us more things.” A boy snorts at the thought that such an illustrious man would fly out from Boston to visit a group of Watts teenagers, but the girl will not abandon her idea. “Why not?” she insists.

The boy asks how Wiesel got out of the concentration camp alive. “Read, man, you’ve got to read,” Tarczynski replies. The girl urges the teacher to get on with the next part of the book.

“I want to see what happens,” she says.

Previous editorials in this series can be found at