Nearly 40 years ago, the L.A. Unified school was more like a battle zone. But now, it is a model of success.
By Jervey Tervalon | L.A. Times Op-Ed | http://lat.ms/momajk
Foshay Learning Center music teacher Vince Womack was named the recipient of the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation Award in 2010. The honor recognizes music teachers who instill a love of music in their students with their dedication, passion and leadership skills. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
May 22, 2011 - It's not pleasant to return to a place where, as a child, you were almost always afraid. So, a few years ago, when I stepped onto the campus of the James A. Foshay Learning Center, its familiar grim, Depression-era facade made my heart pound.
I spent some of the unhappiest days of my life at Foshay, back when it was Foshay Junior High. And when I graduated 38 years ago, I hoped I would never return. In the 1970s, the school was at the bottom of the education barrel. At 13, I felt I must have committed crimes I didn't understand to have ended up there, because I was certainly being punished.There were fights everywhere. Teachers were beaten and chased out of classrooms by angry students. Once, a food fight became a full-scale riot that ended only when the rest of the school day was cancelled and kids were ordered to leave campus. Sometimes we'd see rival gang members charging the school perimeter and hopping the fence. We assumed they were armed, so we fled like wildebeests.
It would have been impossible for me to explain to my parents how bad things were at Foshay, so I didn't try. I worried that if I did, they would just move me to another school, and I assumed all schools were just as bad as Foshay, and all neighborhoods just as dangerous. I hunkered down and endured.
This is what I remembered of Foshay, and it was nothing I wanted to return to.
But then, four years ago, I happened to be flipping through Newsweek's issue on the best high schools in the country, and I was startled to see Foshay Learning Center included on the list.
I had taught at Locke High School for five years, and I believe in public education. But I am a cynic by nature, having seen firsthand how education "reform" is often just smoke and mirrors. Before I could believe in the momentous changes at Foshay, I needed to see them with my own eyes.
I received an invitation to visit and tour the campus from Roger Estrada, then Foshay's vice principal. Estrada had been at Foshay for all of its 13-year transition from atrocious — one of the 31 schools in the state facing receivership — to an education success story. He spoke movingly of Howard Lappin, the principal who had started the charge.
The first thing I noticed on entering Foshay's familiar halls was how quiet they were compared with my time. I turned to a security aide sitting at a table signing folks in and out and asked: Was it always so quiet? He nodded.
Estrada pointed out a biology class where students were sitting at rapt attention as the teacher discussed fish habitat. He proudly showed me the newly renovated library. What caught my attention there was the charming section dedicated to the youngest students of Foshay, the 180 elementary kids. One of the biggest changes in the school since I was there, and there are many, is that it's no longer a junior high. Foshay now educates children from kindergarten through 12th grade, currently the only K-12 school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Foshay may have 3,300 students, but somehow it feels more like a little red schoolhouse.
Things aren't perfect. Although they have improved dramatically, the school's test scores are still well below the state average. But in 2008-09, Foshay's graduation rate was an impressive 88%.
Moreover, in the years since I attended Foshay, it has become an integral part of its community. The school involves local residents in its governance and demands that parents support its efforts with time and energy. Estrada pointed out the well-appointed computer room with new laptops, where a lesson in computer literacy for adults was going on. "The parents wanted this," he said, and "we provided it for them." A campus medical clinic is open not just to students but to the neighborhood.
After my tour of Foshay, I knew that I wanted to be involved with its continuing transformation. And not too long after I had a fortuitous meeting with Kim Thomas-Barrios, executive director of the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative, a university outreach program that aims to provide the kind of academically rigorous support that students, teachers and the community need to realize the dream of higher education. Many program participants are from Foshay, and almost every child who stays with it until graduation goes on to college. About 35% of them go to USC, with full financial aid, and of the students who have gone on to USC, 92% have graduated, a higher rate than USC students as a whole.
At Thomas-Barrios' invitation, I became involved with NAI's Foshay students. We started the Literature for Life program and hosted the first USC Young Writers Conference in April. We are now planning a range of literary resources on the Web for educators. It has all been immensely satisfying to see that the dark days at Foshay are over.
Not every L.A. Unified school has the leadership or the talented teachers that Foshay has, nor the support offered by USC's Neighborhood Academic Initiative. But Foshay's achievements nevertheless stand as a model of educational transformation. Are other schools, and more importantly is LAUSD, paying attention?
Jervey Tervalon is the director and founder of the Literature for Life project. His new novel is "Serving Monster."