ACADEMY CHEERED BY GRADS: Students say Harbor Teacher Prep fostered relationships as well as academics.
by Melissa Pamer, Daily Breeze Staff Writer
June 19, 2998 - The 64 graduating seniors at Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy are far more eager to crow about the community they've built than the multitude of academic accomplishments they've achieved.
At a commencement ceremony held Thursday evening in Narbonne High School's auditorium, the red-robed students couldn't contain their emotions.
The $1 million in college scholarships the class of 2008 has earned over the next four years - as well as the fact that 70 percent of them received associate's degrees from Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington before they were given their high school diplomas - came in for hearty cheers.
But it was the friendships that got the strongest response.
Student speaker Minerva Esquivel, bound for UCLA, described the dread she felt at coming to the academy, expecting not to fit in.
"It took me almost two years and several reality checks to accept who I was," Minerva said. "I was no longer an oddball. I was part of the HTPA family."
Eric Romo, who will attend Harvard University in the fall, reminded his classmates that he was a "reserved geek" when he came to the school. He became someone who can't shut up in class, tells bad jokes, and dresses like George Washington at the prom.
Maybe he's still a geek, he admitted. But it's the chance to become who he wanted to be that mattered.
"Anyone who's ever visited our school can attest that there's something special there," Eric said. "It makes the best of everyone."
For the beleaguered Los Angeles Unified School District, the 313-student school is a bright spot. The academy was founded in the 2002-03 school year with the intention of sending students, who would earn associate's degrees by taking Harbor College courses simultaneously with high school classes, on to the teaching program at California State University, Dominguez Hills. It was hoped that they would complete their bachelor's degrees and return to LAUSD as instructors.
That remains a goal, but, with the school's initial graduates just now beginning to finish college, it's unclear if that target is being achieved, academy administrators said. At the graduation, Eric said he guessed only 10 of the seniors would become teachers.
"No matter what we're going to do, we're all going to be teachers," said Eric, whose five brothers and sisters attended Narbonne High School in Harbor City. "If you're an engineer you're always going to be instructing someone else. Whatever I do, I want to make teaching part of my life."
Since Harbor Teacher Prep first opened the doors of its "campus" - a handful of cramped trailers parked on the tennis courts at Harbor College - the school had earned a wall full of awards for academic achievement and has shown high scores on standardized tests.
Peer tutoring and mentoring are a crucial part of the school's plan, and students are encouraged to take "ownership" of the success of fellow kids, administrators said.
"If you struggle, we're not going to let you drown," said Minerva, who worked as a teaching assistant in a sociology course for underclassmen.
Part of the school's ethos, Minerva said, is that "you don't really know something until you can teach it to someone else."
The academy is part of a growing national "Early College" movement to create small high schools on college campuses. Harbor Teacher Prep receives support from the Middle College National Consortium, a group of 31 schools that embrace college-campus secondary education. The school has also won grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has funded the Early College movement.
The academy outpaces all other early-college high schools in graduating seniors with associate's degrees, said Terry Born, who advises and evaluates schools for the consortium.
"They have created a community that does not permit failure," Born said of the academy.
This spring, more than 250 eighth-graders applied for just over 100 slots in next year's freshmen class.
The school gives preference to those who say they want to become teachers, said Principal Mattie Adams, a 26-year veteran LAUSD administrator, counselor and teacher. Overall, officials seek to select students who are motivated and capable of working hard, not just those who are the most academically qualified, she said.
"This being LAUSD, we're not allowed to cream the top," she said. "Even low-achieving students can be successful if they work hard."
School officials interview every student who applies, making clear to the kids that work at the academy will be challenging.
FUTURE AS TEACHERS UNCERTAIN | `EARLY COLLEGE' MOVEMENT GROWS | CULTURE OF HIGH EXPECTATIONS
"We've shaped this culture of high expectations from the beginning," said Adams, who presided over small learning communities at both Narbonne and Banning high schools. "The kids know we are not accepting failure; we are not accepting laziness."
The school makes it easy for students to build relationships with one another - and teachers - in weekly student-run meetings called "advisories." The Friday sessions are a sort of emotional homeroom where students can share and get advice on things that are troubling them.
That sense of community - along with a culture of high expectations - is something that should be a model for other LAUSD schools, according to school board member Richard Vladovic, who was instrumental in the academy's creation and who backs the expansion of "small learning communities" within the massive district.
"It's an amazing story, but it can be replicated," Vladovic said.
Himself a former LAUSD teacher and administrator, Vladovic supported the creation of the academy in hope that it could provide instructors to area schools.
"I'm hoping we get more teachers," Vladovic said. "But if we've got to save a kid, I'm not going to mind if he doesn't end up being a teacher."
GRADUATION DAY AT LOCKE HIGH: For the Few Who Persevered at the Troubled L.A. School, It Was Time to Celebrate. For Those Behind Them, Change Is Coming.
Editorial from the Los Angeles Times:Photo Francine ORR
June 20, 2008 - In a week of culminating glory for high school graduates and their parents, few have more bragging rights than the 300 or so seniors who walked the stage Thursday at Alain Leroy Locke Senior High School. The graduates of Locke are exceptional in the most literal sense. Of the 1,558 freshmen who started out almost four years ago, these were all who managed to reach Thursday's ceremony.
The numbers are so startling, they beg to be placed next to each other so we can grasp them: more than 1,500 freshmen, about 300 graduates. Some of the latter didn't even receive their diplomas, as they haven't yet passed the high school exit exam. That's not surprising in a South L.A. school at which 11% of students test as proficient in English and 2% in math.
Parents and school officials in Irvine or San Marino would be breaking down school wallsgiven these kinds of numbers. Why haven't we heard the shouts of outrage about Locke from one end of the Los Angeles Unified School District to the other, and especially in the boardroom?
Maybe now it's easier to understand why so many parents in the Locke neighborhood pleaded for the Green Dot charter organization to take over, and why enough teachers signed a petition to bring that about. With the school year over, Locke now shifts to Green Dot, to make what magic it can at a campus beset not only by low academic achievement but vandalism, violence and a pervasive sense of lassitude. Many teachers have tried through the years; there has even been faint progress on scores. But numbers as humiliating as Locke's demand dramatic, not incremental, intervention.
Nor was this year's graduation rate unusually abysmal. In the previous five years, Locke has enrolled somewhere from 1,200 to 1,400 freshmen, according to the state’s database. From there the numbers dwindled with each higher grade. Perhaps 600 to 800 sophomores. Maybe 500-plus juniors. And about 300 seniors.
In fairness, not all of those missing students dropped out. Close to 200 of the missing this year are seniors who need a few more courses to graduate; they might pick those up this summer. Some were held back a year. And Locke is located in a part of the city with a high rate of transience; some moved elsewhere.
Strange, though, isn't it, that hundreds of students supposedly moved out, but none moved in to take their places? Could it be that part of the reason for the transiency is that families left to find better educations for their kids? That maybe they would make more of an effort to stay in the neighborhood if it had a good school? Or even a safe one?
Locke made headlines last month when a fight grew into a brawl involving hundreds of students. At that point, it was revealed that the district had all but abandoned the school after the charter petition succeeded. Security had been cut by half. Fights were common. And when Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines walked the campus, he found teachers screening movies for their students and presiding over classroom card games instead of teaching.
A bad year
If you had spent the last 10 months at Locke, seeing each day what these teenagers saw and experienced, you would marvel anew at the graduates' -- and their teachers' -- resilience. There was tension between teachers who favored Green Dot and those who opposed the change. Some teachers who didn't want to join the charter operator, or couldn't get a job with it, grew apathetic about the school, and it didn't help that the district's payroll system was dysfunctional. Principal Frank Wells, who had improved campus security, was gone -- escorted off campus after supporting the Green Dot takeover.
With the reduced security force, students with a bent for trouble knew they were unwatched much of the time and took advantage. They gambled openly in the quad, brazenly roamed the halls during class time and covered everything with graffiti, enough to cost the district several hundred thousand dollars to paint over -- and over. One teacher tells about a water fountain near his classroom that was painted at least 20 times during the school year.
The Fire Department responded to calls three times, twice to extinguish major blazes that damaged classrooms. Teachers say that doesn't count the hallway fires they put out themselves.
And the fights, the fights -- usually small, but a recurring part of campus life. They were staged in out-of-the-way spots, behind buildings where staff seldom thought to look, but they also broke out in class, right before teachers' eyes. And when teachers called security, there was a good chance no one would come. Little wonder that one-third of the school's teaching force turns over in a typical year.
Bruce Smith, an English teacher who circulated Green Dot petitions and who is staying on at the school, said weapons checks at the front gate grew spotty this year. And in the past, there were times when security was handled so clumsily that it was more the problem than the solution, he said. Case in point: Smith's class on "The Odyssey."
Smith had spent five weeks coaching his ninth-grade students through Homer's epic. They were on the final, passionate verses. Odysseus and Penelope were romantically reuniting when security guards marched in, announcing: "You have been selected for a randomized check for weapons." They called selected students to the front of the class and waved a metal-detecting wand over them.
A good day
The graduates of Locke, and their friends and families, are deeply aware of how rare they are. So although there were about 300 students in the seats set up on the athletic field Thursday afternoon, they were cheered on by a crowd that filled the bleachers on both sides despite the searing sun overhead. Cousins, uncles, neighborhood pals, holdingflowers and giant balloon bouquets. Close to 10 fans for every grad.
One young man, carrying a stuffed Winnie the Pooh and a vase of stargazer lilies, said he was there to watch his wife graduate. A middle-aged man had come to see his niece graduate. He remembered that in his days at Jefferson High, most students took a diploma. What's happened since then, he wondered.
Even the guest speaker, Councilwoman Janice Hahn, alluded to it. In a typical commencement speech in which she urged the graduates, "If you have a dream, follow it," she also took a moment to note that "you are here while so many are not."
The very existence of these teenagers in their white caps and gowns, cheering as an angel-voiced girl sang the national anthem, marked something extraordinary at Locke.
A few days before the graduation ceremony, in a portable building tucked out of sight, Ronnie Coleman was plotting the future. Locke's new principal, fastidious about selecting the right teachers -- she insists on watching them teach a class to see if they have the intangible quality it takes to reach students -- was behind on her hiring. She was figuring out how to provide advanced electives online during summer school and laughing about all the conversations with students it took to calm their biggest concern about going Green Dot: the uniform of khaki pants and a polo shirt.
She also worried about the seniors who celebrated Thursday without having passed their exit exams. Would they attend Green Dot's summer school to prep for another try? Letting such students "walk" for graduation can be a mistake, Coleman said. Many seem to think the important part of graduation isn't the diploma but the ceremony, the cap and gown and the pictures taken by thrilled grandmothers.
Meanwhile, Green Dot founder Steve Barr strolled the campus, talking about the new turf he hopes to fund for the athletic field, the school newspaper he wants to start, the video cameras that will be planted in the hidden nooks to cut down on crime. A teacher reminded him that graffiti vandals won't just go away and that neighborhood transiency is a fact of life here. With a confident grin, Barr replied that the kids would be watched every moment and that if he can make this school good enough, no one will want to leave the area.
But Barr has never attempted a challenge like Locke -- a school of more than 2,000 students that draws almost solely from its surrounding neighborhood. What will he do with the parents who show up on the first day of school with no idea that they were supposed to sign up their children beforehand? Public schools can't turn those people away. What about the kids who just don't try? Up to now, Barr has opened 500-student schools that were sought out by involved parents and their motivated children. Locke will face the true test of a charter school, if it strives to turn around the same failing campus with the same students.
As Barr walked to the street, he sighed. "They're such good kids," he said. He squinted up at the school's name, in narrow silver letters over the security-gated front entry. "We can pull this thing off, right?"