Saturday, December 13, 2008


Sandy Banks

Under Stephen Strachan, students wear uniforms, it takes a C to pass and a 'fifth-year senior' program is bringing dropouts back.

Sandy Banks| Columnist in Los Angeles Times


LAUSD, principal, Watts

Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times: Stephen Strachan, principal of Jordan High School in South Los Angeles, is surrounded by students during lunch period on December 10.

December 13, 2008 -- You can blame the failure of Los Angeles' latest school superintendent on racial politics, an incompetent school board or a bureaucracy impervious to reform.

But you can't sell that to Stephen Strachan.

Strachan is the principal at Jordan High in Watts. Like Supt. David Brewer, Strachan thinks big and is brimming with self-confidence.

But unlike Brewer, Strachan has managed to move beyond summits and slogans to remake a high school long considered one of the district's worst.

I met Strachan two years ago -- about the time Brewer arrived in Los Angeles. I visited Jordan High because I wanted to know what it was like running a school that bordered one of the city's most dangerous housing projects.

Back then, I found a school in the beginning stages of change, thanks to a $1.5-million Gates Foundation grant, a committed faculty and staff, and a principal who is as tough as the school's bulldog mascot suggests. This week, I went back to Jordan to find out what has happened on the campus in the two years Brewer has been at the district's helm.

:: In Alberta Henderson's math class, the window shades stay down. "You look out that open window and you see the projects," she explained. She wants her students to think of where they can go, not where they are from.

Her classroom is plastered with mathematics posters. One wall headlined "Habits of the Mind" is full of students' essays about the importance of managing impulsive behavior in class and life.

I watched her teach a ninth-grade algebra class -- an area in which Jordan students do better than the districtwide average. Last year, 78% of Jordan High ninth-graders passed algebra, compared with less than 50% of students at schools with similar demographics.

With her broad gestures and corny jokes, Henderson radiated enthusiasm from the front of the class. And if her students didn't seem quite so delighted -- it is algebra, after all -- they were polite, engaged and on-task.

Each student had a small, white dry-erase board to work equations and answer questions. When Henderson gives the cue, they raise their boards for her to check. She passes out raffle tickets at the beginning of class and when she asks a question, she reaches into a glass jar for a ticket stub, then calls out the winner's number for an answer.

Henderson came to Jordan two years ago because she wanted to teach the kind of student she once was. She grew up "in the hood" in St. Louis. "I was a teenage parent, had a husband who was in a gang, my mother got shot when I was 13," she said. "These kids are wounded. I know what that means."

A mother of two grown children, Henderson spent 21 years in middle management at Kaiser before becoming an elementary school teacher six years ago. Moving to Jordan was "a culture shock," she said.

"I wanted to quit almost every day for the first few months. I thought, 'Are they sending me all the incorrigibles?' . . . Dr. Strachan convinced me to stay."

When I left Henderson's class, I roamed the campus. That alone is a sign of Strachan's confidence; there are few things more dangerous for a principal than an unescorted reporter on a mission.

In the school's College and Career Center, I found student body President Zindy Valdovinos and yearbook editor Valeria Vega, both 17-year-old seniors with their sights on college. Valeria hopes to attend Mount Holyoke; Zindy is still deciding.

I asked what changes they'd seen in four years at Jordan.

"Now, there are a lot of teachers here who say, 'You can be something,' " said Zindy. "They encourage you to come to school, give you a reason to come to class."

Teachers are accountable to their students, Valeria added. "If they're not doing what they should, you can complain and Dr. Strachan will do something about it."

Valeria's younger sister attends Markham Middle School, where an assistant principal was charged last spring with sexually assaulting a student. "That couldn't happen at Jordan," she said. "There was this one teacher here who made inappropriate remarks. The students complained and it stopped."

Strachan told me he tries to empower teachers and students. "In assemblies, I tell the kids, 'You have a right to be respected, just as you have to respect your teachers and you have to respect each other.' "

But the principal is no miracle worker. Students told me that some classes are still rowdy, there are too many pregnant girls on campus and it's hard to get the schedule you want.

"But we have a lot more clubs than we used to, and students are more involved," Valeria said. She tutors classmates after school "and it's crowded sometimes. Kids actually want to learn. They'll say, 'Give me another problem!' because they get it. They like that."

Strachan ticked off a list of changes on campus in the last two years: Students wear uniforms. Teachers have common planning periods. It takes a grade of C -- no Ds allowed -- to pass a course. A "fifth-year senior" program is bringing dropouts back.

And the all-male academy idea that Brewer spent two years studying and planning to implement? Strachan launched his four years ago. In June, every student in the program graduated, and all but one went on to college.

But those are not just feel-good stories. Jordan's test scores are rising much faster than the district's average. Yet they still have so far to go.

In last Saturday's column, I took Brewer to task, wondering how much he really cares about the students in the district he was paid to run. I'll never really know because he will be stepping down at the end of the month. He talked a good game, but his record is painfully thin.

Yes, Brewer had obstacles: a financial crisis, a micromanaging school board, an uncooperative union and a mayor hellbent on seizing control. What he lacked was a sense of urgency.

Maybe if Brewer had seen the fallout from failing schools up close and personal, he would have realized what's at stake. If he had sat through a student's funeral, gone to court to keep a girl out of jail, counseled grieving boys after their friends got shot, or wooed back one dropout who'd given up, he would have known -- as Strachan does -- that two years is too much time to waste.

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