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But, Teacher, My Homework Got Run Over at the Taco Bell Protest

The Los Angeles Leadership Academy Is a Taxpayer-Supported Middle School That Is Dedicated to Social Justice. But Can It Raise Both Its Students' Consciousness and Their Test Scores?

October 05, 2003|Richard Lee Colvin | Richard Lee Colvin, a former education writer for The Times, is director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University.

At a passing glance, there was a certain familiarity about this Los Angeles public middle-school classroom. The students definitely looked the part--they were still sweet, still relatively innocent, the boys barely aware of the girls, the girls only barely able to tolerate the boys. And there was a teacher standing in front, talking about the video that was playing.

A closer look, however, revealed that most of the students were in the back of the room making protest signs. The few 11- and 12-year olds watching the screen saw Guatemalan villagers exhuming the skeletons of victims of that Central American nation's bloody civil war. And the social studies teacher made it clear he thought the U.S. had been on the wrong side.

"That's a mass grave--you've heard about them," Shawn McDougal told the class. "The U.S. supported the government and they were our friends. We gave them weapons so they could kill their own people."

By contrast, the guerrillas fighting the government were, apparently in his view, valiant heroes. "What's a guerrilla movement?" the teacher asked, then quickly answered: "People fighting for change, right? For economic and political reforms, right? And they opposed the military government."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 26, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo illustration -- A photo illustration on the cover of the Oct. 5 issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, showing a boy writing "We shall overthrow" on a school chalkboard, was not a photograph taken at the Los Angeles Leadership Academy charter school. Although the image was identified as a "photo illustration," some readers said they mistook it for an actual photo from the school.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 09, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 14 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
A photo illustration on the cover of the Oct. 5 issue, showing a boy writing "We shall overthrow" on a school chalkboard, was not a photograph taken at the Los Angeles Leadership Academy charter school. Although the image was identified as a "photo illustration," some readers said they mistook it for an actual photo from the school.

He shushed the kids in the back of the room, then continued: "Remember how we talked about Afghanistan? About how the U.S. gave money to arm Osama bin Laden?"

If you believe, as many people do, that left-leaning lectures and graphic images such as these are appropriate for middle-school students, then the curriculum at the Los Angeles Leadership Academy, a novel charter school, can be seen as enlightened and progressive--giving youth the kind of unfettered truth they are denied in more oppressive societies.

But if you believe public schools should present a more balanced view of history, and that students far, far behind in basic reading, writing and math skills should not be spending class hours preparing to picket a nearby Taco Bell, then you might say something is terribly wrong with a system that would approve and support such an effort--especially given that charter schools exist to provide an alternative to the failings of regular public schools.

The lesson given on this autumn day a year ago was typical for this taxpayer-supported school--where the war in Iraq is wrong, capitalism is suspect, immigrants are almost always taken advantage of by their bosses, and the United States and its government are, if not the enemy per se, then at least misguided.

Those messages mirror the beliefs of the school's founders, Roger Lowenstein, a 60-year-old former attorney-turned-TV writer, and Susanne Coie, a 33-year-old teacher. They conceived of this school as having a dual purpose: giving inner-city students from ethnically and economically diverse backgrounds a college-prep education, and exposing them to immigration, criminal justice, labor relations and other social issues. They would learn community organizing and study law and public policy. Their field trips would be street protests.

Lowenstein and Coie had persuaded the Los Angeles Board of Education that their focus on social justice was appropriate for middle-school students and would inspire them in ways conventional classrooms had not. The board agreed, and last September the academy opened its doors as one of more than 400 charter schools in California, one of about 2,700 nationwide. Each of those schools has a special focus its founders hope will connect with students. It might be rigid academics, or the arts, or multiculturalism, or military discipline.

Or social justice. The Leadership Academy's founders believed their mission a noble one, even if so unusual that it is shared by just a handful of other charter schools in the U.S. So with the blessings of the Los Angeles Unified School District and $950,000 in taxpayer dollars, Lowenstein and Coie set forth last year to do their part in fixing American education.

But when the academy welcomed its first class of 120 boys and girls in the sixth and seventh grades, the average student was only reading at slightly better than a second-grade level. One thing quickly became obvious: It's tough to start a revolution when most of your troops need remedial training.

And all year long, the school would struggle with the fine line between teaching social justice and the force-feeding of political indoctrination.

The Los Angeles leadership academy rents space at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church near the old Ambassador Hotel in the mid-Wilshire neighborhood. It's in a densely populated area where middle schools bulge with as many as 3,400 students, most of them immigrants, and have to operate year-round. The high school that serves the surrounding Pico-Union and Westlake areas is Belmont, which, with 5,500 students, is among the nation's largest. And 900 high school students and 1,500 middle school students are bused from the area to the western San Fernando Valley.

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