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by Laura Vanderkam | City Journal | Spring 2008 vol. 19, no. 2
A quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute,
May 31 - The statistics say that 17-year-old Rocio Sazo should have dropped out of school by now. In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), outside studies show that fewer than half of ninth-graders graduate from high school within four years. Only 16 percent of Hispanics like Sazo, who constitute the majority of students in this vast and sprawling district, graduate having passed the classes needed to apply to one of California’s public universities. But Sazo is defying those odds, too. She earns top grades, teachers rave about her leadership skills, she says she might become a math teacher, and she has applied to seven colleges. Now, she proudly relates, she is “waiting for acceptances”—acceptances, not decisions.
Sazo credits a big part of her success to her magnet school. Magnet schools are public schools that draw their students from outside traditional neighborhood zoning boundaries, usually requiring them to apply to get in. The schools also have specialized curricula or themes—math or science, say—and often operate within larger schools. Sazo’s magnet at Reseda High School has an unusual theme—law enforcement—and a surprising sponsor: the Los Angeles Police Department.
L.A.’s six police magnets—five high schools and a middle school—have only partly fulfilled their original mission of recruiting and training more homegrown minority cops. But with four-year graduation rates that nearly double the LAUSD average, these innovative schools have done something far more important: preparing at-risk minority kids for college and sending the majority of them there. As the national school-reform movement contemplates how to spend the $100 billion in new education funding authorized by the Obama stimulus bill, the LAPD schools deserve a close look. Why do they work? And can we replicate the model?
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The police magnets require four years of phys-ed classes far more demanding than those in the public schools.
Courtesy of Reseda High School, Police Academy Magnet
The idea for “LAPD High” can trace its origins to the 1991 Rodney King arrest and subsequent 1992 riots, which left 53 people dead and over $1 billion in property destroyed. Following the violence, the LAPD began a major push to diversify its ranks, seeking to burnish its image among the city’s minorities. The proportion of minority officers rose from 37 percent in 1990 to about 46 percent in 1996. But the force was still “having a heck of a time recruiting homegrown cops,” remembers Roberta Weintraub, a member of the LAUSD school board at the time. LAPD recruiters were traveling “not only all over the U.S. but all over the world to find officers”; many of the new cops were good, but some struggled to grasp the city’s local dynamics.
So Weintraub approached then-mayor Richard Riordan with an idea: magnet high schools, affiliated with the LAPD, where active-duty officers would mentor and help instruct students and where the curricula would reflect criminal-justice themes. The hope was that some of the kids enrolled in these schools would later pursue careers in law enforcement in Los Angeles. With the help of outside grants, the first police magnets opened in 1996; by 2001, programs were running in Dorsey, Monroe, San Pedro, Reseda, and Wilson High Schools and at Mulholland Middle School in Lake Balboa. Today, the program enrolls about 1,300 students, most of them Hispanic.
LAPD chief William Bratton had pondered a similar program to boost local minority recruitment as New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s first police commissioner back in the mid-nineties, but he left before he could get anything under way. When he took the top cop job in L.A. in 2002, he enthusiastically embraced the magnet program. “It was a dream I had in New York,” he says. “I came out here and found the dream was being actualized.”
The magnets differ starkly from typical urban schools. True, most faculty members are regular LAUSD teachers, and they offer the usual history, geometry, and composition instruction; students must take the classes required for admission to California’s public universities, including four years of English, three years of math, and two years of lab-science classes. Each school, though, has one or two active-duty LAPD officers on site, mentoring students and assisting teachers in some classes. The officers talk to students about what a police career entails, share stories, and even pinch-hit to keep the schools running smoothly (by, say, driving students home after sports practices). LAPD brass, including Bratton, make frequent visits to do student-uniform inspections and give motivational speeches.
The curriculum reflects the law-enforcement theme. Science classes, for example, detour from the usual quizzes and worksheets to emphasize high-tech police work. At Reseda, young CSI fans enjoy the use of a forensics lab. Under the tutelage of forensics teacher Barbara Andrade, students attack different types of glass with hammers to see how they shatter, and they study soil, just as detectives do to figure out if the clumps on a dead body are from the location where the body turned up or from somewhere else. The kids analyze fingerprints under a microscope and hair samples, too—when I visited, Alise Cayen, the Reseda magnet’s coordinator, had recently let students cut off a chunk of her hair to use in class.
Perhaps the schools’ most noticeable curricular feature is a relentless emphasis on physical fitness. Though modern police work requires more brains than brawn, physical stamina helps, and the cadets accordingly take four years of physical training that is a far cry from the halfhearted lap-running that many schools call gym class. At Reseda, the kids’ mile times—mostly seven to eight minutes, some as short as five and change—reflect the drills that coach Fernando Fernandez, a sub-three-hour marathoner, puts them through. The cadets lift weights, dart through obstacle courses, and crank out vast numbers of push-ups, sit-ups, and chin-ups. They graduate in the kind of shape that puts the rest of California schools—in which 35.4 percent of Hispanic children are overweight—to shame.
Discipline is strict, a communal priority. Reseda organizes cadets into squads of five to eight, each supervised by a student leader. The leaders make sure that their cadets get their work done, keep their grades up, behave in class, and dress neatly. If a cadet falls continually out of line, his squad leader can wind up demoted by a more advanced student leader or—at Reseda—by Sazo, who is the school’s captain (top-ranking cadet). She takes her enforcement duties seriously. “I set them aside and tell them, ‘You haven’t been doing your job, but if you get it together, you have the opportunity to get it back,’” she says. Peer pressure is powerful; the schools have figured out a way to use it for good.
Cadets must also clock dozens of hours of community service per year, and many log more (one student graduated with 1,800). Students often do their service in police stations, naturally. Cadet Edwin Flores volunteers at both his local Watts station and one in Beverly Hills—learning exactly what police officers do and what skills he’ll need to become one.
So far, the police magnets’ original purpose of getting more homegrown minority cops on the force is, at best, a work in progress. Part of the problem is that African-American students have been less enthusiastic about the program than have Hispanics. In 2006–07, 70 to 95 percent of cadets were Hispanic, depending on the school. But according to LAUSD records, all five high schools enrolled only about 50 African-American students. Even though Los Angeles is only 11 percent black, that’s still disappointing.
Timing is also a challenge. Students graduate from high school at 17 or 18 but can’t join the LAPD until they’re 21, preferably after getting a two- or four-year college degree. A lot can happen in the intervening years, including other jobs. And for urban young people, college completion rates are as abysmal as the LAUSD’s graduation statistics; in California, only a third of associate’s degree students finish in three years, and about a third of bachelor’s degree candidates still haven’t finished after six.
Nevertheless, a few early magnet graduates are joining the force. Cesar Corrales grew up in L.A.’s Koreatown neighborhood. “Initially, I never thought of becoming a police officer,” he says. But he had thought about becoming a lawyer, and he learned about Reseda’s police academy magnet from his older siblings, who were bused to Reseda High School. He graduated from the magnet in 2003 and, after a stint at a junior college, transferred to California State University, Los Angeles. The whole time, he worked as a police aide, logging time with the detective division, working as a Spanish translator, and helping set up the city’s sex-offender registry, among other things. “They always worked with my school schedule,” he says. His officer colleagues helped convince him that police work wasn’t as dangerous as his mother feared and that he could be promoted as early as five years after joining. In other cities, he says, “you have to wait until somebody dies or retires.” So after graduating from California State in December with a degree in political science, Corrales completed the initial physical test and the LAPD’s background questionnaire. When we spoke, he had a polygraph test scheduled. After that would come an oral interview and then, with luck, an academy start date.
But the police academy magnets are unequivocally succeeding at a more crucial educational goal: keeping kids in school. Cayen reports that of the 50 to 60 students enrolled on day one of freshman year, only five to eight will leave by sophomore year, with one to three leaving over each of the next two years—a graduation rate of 70 to 90 percent. Most of the leaving students, moreover, transfer to other schools rather than drop out of school entirely. A more impressive statistic still: of Reseda’s 2008 graduating class, 100 percent enrolled in a two- or four-year college or joined the military by fall. The magnets aren’t an educational utopia—test scores remain mediocre—but as Bratton tells me, “Here’s something you can almost fail-safe predict to a parent: if you put your kid into this program, he’ll get a high school education, be capable of going on to college, and have the potential of getting a meaningful job in the police department. Why would you not be interested in something like that?”
How are the LAPD magnets doing it? And is “it” replicable? More than half a decade after the federal No Child Left Behind law started designating schools as making adequate yearly progress or failing, the question of what makes a school effective continues to bedevil educators and the public. With billions in new federal education spending coming—some of it designated for rewarding better performance—the question has become even more urgent.
Some of the LAPD schools’ success is clearly due to selection. The magnets have minimum admissions requirements. Reseda kids, for instance, must have earned at least a 2.0 grade-point average in middle school and not have major discipline incidents on their records.
Further, because students choose to attend the magnets, the program inevitably draws a more motivated group of young people than neighborhood schools that must take all comers. “Kids have to want to be here,” says Cayen. Indeed, sometimes they go to astonishing lengths to be there. Brianda Aguilar, a Reseda junior who might like to be an LAPD fitness trainer, boards the bus every weekday at 6:30 am and spends an hour getting to school; after activities, she often doesn’t get home until 8 pm. But she’d rather have the long commute than attend the school near her San Fernando Valley neighborhood, where her mom works as a special-education aide. She attended summer school there before her freshman year and found her classmates’ conversations disturbing. “All they were talking about was how much weed they had,” she says.
But the magnets’ students don’t come from privileged backgrounds. Most qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, hard-luck stories are common, and a fleet of buses carts many of them in from rougher parts of town. Take Flores, who lives in Watts, where other teens sometimes warn him that he’s “in the wrong neighborhood” when he wears his school uniform (which resembles police blues). Or the young woman who managed to earn straight As and gain admission to UC Berkeley—but said that the best thing that had ever happened to her was her father’s death. The man had been an abusive alcoholic who tormented her mother and four sisters. The family survived on her mother’s piecework income from sewing jackets in the garment district. When the student graduated with many honors, her mother decided that she couldn’t spare the three hours of income to attend graduation.
These sad stories would be a perfect excuse for failure. But the fact that the police academy magnets don’t use them as an excuse—and still manage to post impressive graduation statistics—means that their educational approach likely has a lot to do with their success. Consider the demanding physical training, which gives students—many burdened with chaotic, unstructured home lives—a daily lesson in setting goals and working to achieve them.
Lowering your mile time by 30 seconds isn’t easy. When you run enough laps and lift enough weights to pull it off, you learn that effort pays—and perhaps that other hard things are possible as well. Daniela Gurrola, who graduated from Reseda in 2003, certainly learned that lesson. She won the girls’ Toughest Cadet Alive designation as a student (clocking a sub-six-minute mile). Currently a student at Mission Community College, she hopes to transfer to Cal State in the fall. Meanwhile, she’s working full-time as a 311 dispatcher for the city, directing community residents to whichever office can solve their problems. It’s a tough schedule, going to school in the morning and working from 3 to 11:30 pm most nights. But the lessons she learned at the police academy magnet have helped her deal with it all. “They teach you a lot of determination in yourself,” she says. “Basically, you can do anything as long as you stick to it.”
It’s also worth noting that urban schools where at-risk students learn about the adult world (for instance, what’s involved in a law-enforcement career) can often keep graduation and college enrollment rates high. To take one example, the Cristo Ray Network of urban Catholic schools, which asks students to work one or two days per week at jobs in local businesses to earn their tuition, has a near-100-percent graduation rate. Add to this future-oriented approach the motivated teachers whom the Los Angeles police academy magnets attract, and their success starts to make sense.
Encouragingly, the Obama administration’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, may be open to at least some of the lessons of these surprising schools. He served as director of the Ariel Education Initiative, whose flagship, Ariel Community Academy in Chicago, is a magnet school serving poor minority children. It embraces educational ideals similar to those of the LAPD schools: a school-uniform policy, high standards, and a focus on thematic education (in Ariel’s case, financial, investment, and entrepreneurial instruction).
Of course, not everyone wants a police-influenced education or a career in law enforcement. But there are many worse ways to spend education dollars than on institutions like “LAPD High.” As Bratton says, “What’s the worst-case scenario? We’ve produced a productive citizen who is of the city, lives in the city, who will have good thoughts about us.”
Laura Vanderkam, a New York City–based writer, is the author of Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career Without Paying Your Dues.