Jordan has made big strides in academic performance. There is more to achieve, but its progress is plain to see.
By Sandy Banks, LA Times | http://lat.ms/TSPaH3
Jordan High students Devin Perkins and Esmeralda Diaz are high-achieving seniors who are a part of the success at the campus. (Christina House / For the Los Angeles Times)
December 7, 2012, 7:15 p.m. :: I was prepared for the dog-and-pony show — the choreographed "reveal" of a school makeover that's been in the works for years.
I didn't expect much beyond a grown-up version of show-and-tell. But I came anyway because I have a soft spot for Jordan High in Watts.
I've spent a decade tracking the school's efforts to improve; watched reformers arrive with big plans and leave with broken dreams.
The school's problems, they'd say, are too deep and expensive to fix; too intertwined with a neighborhood that will always be warped by dysfunction and poverty.
But on Wednesday, state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson visited the school with certificates announcing its improvement. Jordan's 93-point jump on the state's academic performance index was the biggest of any urban high school in California this year.
That's why Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa showed up after working "56 hours straight" on trade missions and labor deals. "No way I'd miss this," he said. His Partnership for Los Angeles Schools is the architect of Jordan's reforms.
And it's why philanthropist Melanie Lundquist, whose $50-million contribution keeps the partnership going, showed up ready to celebrate the return on her investment in this city's struggling schools.
We spent the morning visiting classrooms, talking with teachers, oohing and aahing over pristine hallways and perfectly manicured grounds.
But what moved me most was what I heard from students on a campus that, for generations, hasn't been able to shake its "failure" label.
"It used to be 'Why are we here at Jordan?'," said one 12th-grade girl. We knew what she meant:
Their school was nothing but a holding pen. Their neighborhood had been written off. Their lives would never change.
That's how it was for years, she said. "Now everybody is seeing the change, in the school and the community."
I don't know that everybody is seeing a difference. "Change" here has been a popular but failed refrain.
Two years ago, the school was failing so persistently, it was essentially dissolved — reconstituted, in edu-speak. Its students and campus were divided between two groups, Green Dot Charter and the mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.
Both schools on the campus posted gains this year. But the partnership's jump — from 515 to 608 on the state's academic performance index — surprised even its most ardent supporters.
Still, 608 isn't scholar status; scores at the best public high schools are more than 200 points higher. And Jordan isn't out of the woods. Its enrollment dropped this fall, after a charter school with "college" in its name opened up nearby.
The students I talked with understand that Jordan's reputation may be its biggest hurdle. And they intend to change that by succeeding, returning as mentors and spreading the word.
"We know that we're the ones that have to make the difference," said senior Esmeralda Diaz. She was Student of the Month in her chemistry class — for her good work and for helping classmates with theirs.
She's not sold on all the changes at Jordan. She misses the pep rallies, the socializing, the school spirit that disappeared when her campus was divided in half and its student body shrunk.
But students have pulled together and gotten to know each other better. Now they email about homework assignments and text each other for help.
"You see kids working on homework during lunch and nutrition," said a senior in a UC Berkeley sweat shirt. "They care about their grades. You never used to see that back when we were freshmen and sophomores."
Esmeralda remembers coasting through classes. "I used to not care if I got a C. That's passing," she said. But her teachers cared enough to push. "Now," she said, "an A-minus isn't good enough."
The students gave most of the credit to their teachers, many of them young and new to Jordan.
"They actually stay after school to help," one girl said. I heard wonder in her voice. "They give us their email so we can reach them. Teachers never used to do that. ...
"Now they're always asking us 'What college do you want to go to?'"
As our group talked with students in the library, I realized I'd never been inside that room in years of visits to Jordan.
I guess I'd spent most of my time roaming the campus looking for fights, or staking out classrooms where teachers were fumbling and kids were cutting up.
We see what we are looking for — and that sends a message to students at schools like Jordan. They know we don't expect much of them.
I realized on Wednesday that it matters to these kids when big-wigs come to see them — even if I might write off the gestures as self-indulgent politicking.
"It makes me feel like people out there actually care for you," said a soft-spoken girl in a Hollister jacket, who wants to be a police officer after college.
So I stifled myself and listened, while the mayor went on and on about his life story: single mom, bad grades, redemptive teacher, college, law degree, their city's leader.
And the superintendent, a former science teacher and cross-country coach, handed out advice about setting goals and reaching them.
And the millionaire philanthropist posed the obligatory touchy-feely "How do you perceive yourself?" question.
Senior Devin Perkins, who plans to major in physics and music and play football in college, had an answer ready for that.
And when he spoke, I became a believer — at least for an instant, a teary-eyed dreamer.
There was something about the pride in his voice, the resolve in his words:
"I perceive that I can step into any university and succeed," he said. "Don't underestimate us."
smf: I was at a program Thursday evening at Cal State LA presented by the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs: “School Discipline and the Future” where, after Dr. Raphe. Sonenshein - the Executive Director of the PBI - mentioned that it was Pat Brown’s dream that no student in the UC/CSU system would ever have to pay tuition (!) - Jordan High School became a specific topic of conversation among the panelists …unfortunately as a model of bad discipline policy at an urban high school.
Panelist Ingrid Villeda from UTLA described the security procedures at Jordan – with guards everywhere and students and visitors conducted through sally ports with gates opening and closing when passing between classes. Dr. John Schindler, a Cal State professor and a professed expert on school discipline said the school as described can never succeed academically or socially: Discipline success cannot be imposed. A third panelist, Manuel Criollo, of The Labor/Community Strategy Center agreed that schools like Jordan are little more than entry points on the school to prison pipeline.
[smf: These are not direct quotes – this is what I heard, not necessarily what the speakers said.]
Jordan is located in the Jordan Downs Housing Projects, The kids at Jordan are probably safer at school than they are at home, and they are probably least safe traveling to and from school. But Ms, Villeda made it clear that some – if not a lot – of teachers at Jordan do not feel safe.
I’m familiar with Jordan, though I haven’t been there since the PLAS/Green Dot/Alliance for College Ready Public Schools reconstitution/takeover/giveaway. I mean no disrespect to either program but I have visited the Juvenile Hall and County Probation Camps Schools. They too do good work and kids listen and pay attention and do their class work. They have 100% attendance. Some kids excel. I don’t know if they have standardized tests and what the results are – but the program says more for locked tight security and a captive audience than for the quality of pedagogy.
I appreciate that Sandy Banks did find what she was looking for in the school library; it’s always the best place to start to look.
LAUSD has done a horrific job in the past at Jordan – and if PLAS and Green Dot or ACPS can do a good job over time I will stand in line to congratulate them. But I absolutely refuse to be easy to please. Warm+fuzzy/poster child stories of achievement and a single-year spike in test scores at one of the three schools isn’t success any more than Mayor Tony’s law degree is. (You’ve got to pass the bar!)
Elevated security is no more a discipline policy or a model for the future than a can of pepper spray is .