Monday, March 12, 2007


smf: I am a fan of Franklin HS’s former principal Sheridan Liechty – if only because she was the first to recognize the late John Liecthy’s genius in educating and advocating for youngsters: She married him! In a world with true justice John would be Superintendent of LAUSD today. Bob Sipchen’s article points out what I’ve suspected; Sheridan has a worthy and excellent successor at Franklin … if they can just keep the ink-stained-wretches-from-the-press out of the principal’s office!

By Bob Sipchen - Monday's SchooolMe! Column | LA Times

Mar. 12, 2007 - Luis Lopez traveled north from Guadalajara, Mexico, and crossed illegally into Southern California. Fifteen years old, he was the sixth of 10 children. Figuring he'd need to speak English to get a job, his parents enrolled him at Franklin High School in Highland Park.

Now he runs the school. I'm tagging along with him as part of a program called Principal for a Day. Before I can send a single kid to detention, Lopez is hauling me from class to class to evaluate teachers.

In one room, a veteran instructor shows off essays on Sandra Cisneros' story "Geraldo, No Last Name."

In another, an overhead projector displays questions for an essay on "The Great Gatsby":

"What is the American Dream?"

"To what extent is it stable and enduring?"

"How can the dream turn into a nightmare?"

The theme hangs before me like a red, white and blue pi–ata, and I can't think of a better place than Luis Lopez' Benjamin Franklin High to take a thwack at it.

Lopez' father came to the United States as part of the bracero farm labor program but eventually moved to Los Angeles to work at Frisco bakery, making sourdough bread. His mother and a succession of the children followed, gaining U.S. citizenship during the 1986 amnesty program.

At first, English befuddled Lopez. But the teachers wouldn't let up, using any trick — including acting out the words they wanted him to say — and by his junior year the boy was taking college prep courses.

He wound up at nearby Occidental College, became a teacher himself and started working his way through assignments at Los Angeles schools. Still living in Highland Park, he married his college girlfriend, raised a family of four children and talked about someday returning to Franklin.

By the time he became principal two years ago, his alma mater was struggling with sub-mediocre API test scores in the high 500s and the stigma of being a "program improvement school" — meaning it could face state takeover if it didn't improve quickly.

But as we tear around the campus, walkie-talkie chattering, the students and staff are upbeat. The Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, Lopez says, has just finished a review of Franklin's beefy self-improvement plan and decided to reaccredit the campus for the maximum six years.

What's cool about the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce's Principal for a Day program is that it shoves dozens of know-it-all corporate leaders and a few smarmy journalists up against a cherished piece of conventional wisdom: that any private-sector person with a pulse could easily turn a poor-performing school into a finely tuned education factory.

In the two years that I've participated, the program's wrap-up lunch has concluded with the business bigs confessing — surprise! — that this school-running stuff ain't as easy as it looks.

As it happens, I've visited Lopez at Franklin before and was as impressed then as I am now with how much he seems to enjoy his mission. Today I watch him pick up Doritos bags, order kids to put down their hoods, take notes on how his staff is teaching, wrangle with an energetic teachers union rep over the selection of deans and work with a committee of vice principals to come up with a training session to massage the improvement plan deeper into every teacher's psyche.

Looking at the nearly 90-year-old school from the outside, a visitor sees that three of the main building's four floors are emblazoned with the word "welcome" in Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Italian, German, Armenian, Zulu, Gaelic and 38 other languages that students at the school spoke when Lopez's ethnically eclectic class of 1984 had the walls lettered as a senior gift.

Today the 2,600-student main school (Franklin also plays host to a magnet school) is 90% Latino, and although most speak English, many of their moms and dads don't. When we stroll into a prefab bungalow for Lopez' monthly meeting with parents and community members, the language is Spanish.

Just a few weeks earlier, suspected gang bangers shot and killed a 15-year-old student in a nearby neighborhood — there's one nightmare — and today folks anxiously grill Lopez with questions about violencia … grafiti drogas….

With wide hand gestures and soothing words, Lopez assures the parents that the campus remains safe. If he seems evangelical, it makes sense.

Franklin was his salvation. Teachers steered him clear of gang influences, hustled him on college tours, drove him to SAT tests and even taught him the "proper" use of utensils; then took him to his first fancy restaurant. It's where his parents went for information about citizenship.

He knows that people get touchy about the term "assimilate." It doesn't bother him. He credits teachers' efforts with the fact that all his siblings attended at least a two-year college. And now that he's in charge of the school, he's not about to forget the opportunities or values that were passed on to him as "American," he says.

He and his staff are drawing in local organizations to help establish the school as a community hub again. They've printed their own recruitment fliers — "build your future at Franklin" — and are working to find housing for new teachers so they'll be part of the changing neighborhood as well as the school.

Forgive me for ham-handedly steering all this back to that first tricky essay question, but come on: Isn't what's unfolding in Highland Park a pretty good answer?

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