Although the 10th-graders here outperformed all other Los Angeles Unified high schools on a standardized exam, their scores were only average nationally--at the 53rd percentile.
Now ninth-grade results have come in--below national averages. At the 41st percentile in reading and the 38th in spelling.
"I'd like to see if we can brainstorm about how to lift the scores," Gwin asks the student leaders. He wants input on how to get the freshmen to "buy into" the test.
The assistant principal alternately nods his approval or gives a quick "I like that" as the students offer ideas.
Idea No. 1: Prepare the freshmen for the test more thoroughly.
Idea No. 2: Reward those who score high.
Idea No. 3: Hold a pep rally.
Friday: Time for the Big Game
Finally, it's Friday.
At Granada Hills, the junior varsity cheerleaders have cast off their silly outfits for the official uniforms--short, bouncy skirts and sweaters in the school's trademark green, black and white.
Up at Oakmont, the campus is quieter than usual. Many students have gone to a Shakespeare festival in Oregon, others have high-tailed it to Disneyland.
Six from Mrs. Myles' world studies course have endured a venture into one of California's current fads: team projects. They had a month to complete their report on Southeast Asia--a mock newscast--but waited until the last moment to videotape it by the hot tub at one girl's hillside home. They squabbled, the sound was terrible, they forgot to explain the Vietnam War. ("We didn't cover that," one boy shrugs in class.) The teacher notes that they were heavy on facts, light on analysis. The result: a 76.
"If the purpose of this was to learn about Southeast Asia, it was a bust," admits Paul Cervantes, 15. "But I think that I learned more about group work maybe because there was so much conflict."
At Taft Union, the library is almost empty. A tall youth with a buzzcut on the side and ponytail in back sits alone, hunched over not his homework but "The Monster Guide." Welty Cook uses it to find personalities for his lunchtime game of Dungeons and Dragons.
Cook's goal is to become a kindergarten teacher.
Ask Californians about schools at a distance, nationally and statewide, and they're critical--71% told The Times poll that the state's schools are fair or poor.
Ask about the ones in their own backyard and they're far kinder: 43% say their local schools are excellent or good.
And though 10% of Californians do send their children to private schools, that percentage has remained stable for a decade--and it's below the national average of 11%.
So goodwill is one thing California's schools have going for them. There's a sense that, whatever their schools' problems, those cheerleaders will survive their day of humiliation, Mrs. Myles' group will survive its ignorance of Vietnam and Welty Cook his infatuation with dungeons.
But for others, you can't assume survival. Schools may be their only lifeline, however precarious.
For immigrants such as Marco Medrano, a junior at Katella High, public education still stands for the opportunity to join America on an equal footing.
You'd never know it seeing him in class, because he's often dozing and his homework is missing.
Here's why he dozes, he says: He works 30 hours a week for $5.75-an-hour at Del Taco to help his mother pay the rent. On most nights, he gets home after 11 p.m.
Although Marco has a middling grade-point average, he got an A in English. And before he heads to work, he uses a school computer to cruise the Internet, researching a science report on potassium. Three years after arriving from Mexico, he says: "I want to go to college." He wants to study computer graphics.
With the schools in survival mode, it's too easy to lose a youngster like Marco--or Ricky Duff.
At Manual Arts, it's game day. So as the sun goes down, and most of California's 8,000 schools lock their doors, the week's not over for Ricky, the 6-foot-6 phenom on the basketball team headed to the Sports Arena to face Westchester for the Los Angeles title.
By all odds, Ricky wouldn't be here, preparing to blaze up and down the court before thousands of fans. He would be a dropout, a bum on the streets or a murder statistic.
He never knew his father. His mother was a crackhead, school officials say, who renounced her legal rights as a parent when he was 5. He wound up living with his great-grandmother, who also took care of two of his aunts and a mentally impaired uncle in a house near 20th Street and Central Avenue in South L.A.
His educational path was no smoother. In seventh grade, he was held back because he was so far behind.
The next year, the school district jumped him up to the ninth grade and bused him to high school in Woodland Hills. As Ricky tells it, the bus was always full when it got to his stop--so he stopped going.