LENNOX — This small town, wedged between Inglewood and Hawthorne in one of the county's poorest areas, seems an unlikely setting for a success story.
Once a white, blue-collar bedroom community, Lennox has changed in the past 15 years into the "Little Tijuana of the South Bay" as waves of immigrants replaced the postwar residents who died out or moved away.
Now an endless chain of jetliners screeches overhead on the way to landings at Los Angeles International Airport, and the outside world hears about the town mostly as a graffiti ghetto inhabited by violent youth gangs and rapacious drug dealers.
Many of the immigrants--people from Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, Asia and the South Pacific --live and sleep in shifts in homes that shelter several families. It is said that beds in Lennox never get cold.
No City Government
There is no city government; the unincorporated community is governed by a faraway county board. The only bastion of law and order is a sheriff's substation, and its officers must watch over a much wider territory than the 1.4 square miles of Lennox, where only about 25,000 people live.
Yet the local schools, which might be expected to reflect the surrounding community, present a different picture.
The Lennox elementary district is one of the gems in California's school system, according to state and county officials.
"Lennox is a remarkable example of a school district that has overcome enormous disadvantages," said Stuart E. Gothold, superintendent of schools for Los Angeles County. "You could hardly imagine a worse environment for schools.
"But the staff and the board there have a contagious attitude that nothing is impossible when it comes to educating kids. The results have amazed people who are familiar with the district."
Gothold credited Lennox, which has a 97% minority student population, with originating a number of teaching programs that are used as models in other districts. "They've been in the vanguard in finding innovative ways to adjust to rapidly changing pupil populations," he said. "What Lennox has faced is now the trend throughout the county."
Gothold's office gave top honors this year to Lennox for its teacher training programs, and he said he often advises other districts to "go see Lennox" when they have problems in areas such as student discipline and developing a bilingual curriculum.
Officials on the state level agree with Gothold's assessment. "Lennox is definitely a success story," said Ron Temple, a state Department of Education consultant who works with schools in the Los Angeles area.
What made the difference in Lennox, when other districts with similar problems have failed?
People Make Difference
"It's the people who make the difference," said Lennox School District Supt. Kenneth Moffett. "Right from the start we went out aggressively looking for the best teachers and administrators available, and we made them think they had really earned it if they got a job in Lennox.
"We also tried to encourage a few people who were here that maybe Lennox wasn't the place where they should be teaching. As a result, we have a bright, energetic staff that welcomes the kind of challenges we face and most of all loves to teach kids."
Lennox was well on the way to becoming a predominantly immigrant community in 1976 when Moffett left his job as an assistant superintendent in the Inglewood schools to head the smaller district here.
"Our worst immediate problems were poor discipline and run-down facilities," he recalled. "The kids were terrible. We had fights all over the place. So, I sat down with the staff and said, 'Look, we can remain like this and maybe get worse, or we can do something about it. Probably nobody out there cares about us, so our task is to take care of each other and make this a good place to work and to educate the kids in the community, which is our job.'
"We've preached that all along and we've tried to make it happen."
To restore order to the district's five campuses, Moffett adopted the "assertive discipline" tactics of Lee Kantor, a Santa Monica-based consultant who advocates setting up uniform rules of behavior supported by an elaborate system of reward and punishment.
The two struck a deal in which Kantor trained a group of Moffett's teachers "at a very low cost," Moffett said, in exchange for using the Lennox schools as a testing ground for his ideas.
"It really works," said Linda Sugano, a teacher at Lennox for eight years. "It's very unusual for the kids here to talk back or use bad language. They know exactly what is expected of them and if they cause a problem, there are specific consequences. They never think, 'Well, if I do this, what will happen?' "