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This King/Drew, a Magnet School, Is a Robust Success

April 27, 2005|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

It is the holy grail of urban education: an inner city public high school that works. A school where students, most of them poor, almost all of them black and Latino, learn together in safety and harmony. Where almost no one drops out. Where an overwhelming majority of students go on to four-year colleges, and where at least some make it to the most prestigious and selective universities.

Few such places exist.

One that does is located in one of Los Angeles County's most impoverished and dangerous neighborhoods, and takes its name from an institution better known these days for scandal than success.

But then, King/Drew Medical Magnet High School has always prided itself on exceeding -- no, shredding -- expectations.

"Everybody has a stereotype that if you grow up in Watts, you're not going to succeed," said senior Omunique Falls, who applied to 12 colleges this year and was accepted at 11. "That just motivates me to do better. I use it to my advantage."

That attitude and smart, dedicated students such as Falls are among the reasons that King/Drew routinely sends more African Americans to UCLA than any other high school. This year, 20 King/Drew students were accepted at the Westwood campus, eight of them black, the rest Latino. Students were also accepted by Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Duke, Cornell and four other University of California campuses.

King/Drew was second only to Garfield High School in East Los Angeles for having the most Latino, Chicano and African American students accepted by UC Berkeley, according to Richard Black, assistant vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment.

"King/Drew is just this jewel," said Phyllis Hart, a UCLA official who works to encourage qualified minorities, in the post-affirmative action era, to select UCLA over other schools. The school is, she said, "this wonderful place where you see all the things that people say you can't get done, getting done."

Hart led a delegation of nearly a dozen UCLA officials to King/Drew on Monday to meet the students who were accepted to the university -- and to practically beg them to attend.

"We would love to have you walking around our campus, making it a more flavorful place," said Soncia Lilly, an assistant vice chancellor.

King/Drew's principal, J. Michelle Woods, said the secret to the school's success was simple: a relatively small, close-knit group of students (King/Drew's enrollment is a little less than 1,700, compared to 4,000 or 5,000 at many high schools); staff that didn't let youths slip through the cracks; and high expectations.

At a time when the L.A. Board of Education is considering whether to require a college prep curriculum for all students, King/Drew is already there.

It demands that students take the rigorous courses meeting UC and Cal State system requirements. That means, among other things, four years of math, two years of science and two years of foreign language.

King/Drew actually goes further and requires a third year of foreign language and four years of science.

The campus in Willowbrook, just south of Watts, isn't alone among Los Angeles public schools in making tough demands on its students. It has, in fact, a mirror institution: Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet, near County/USC Medical Center, which also requires all students to meet the UC entrance requirements and sends a similar percentage of students to college.

Still, Hart, who has been tracking how well schools prepare minorities for college, said such campuses were exceptions.

In an interview, she cited high schools in L.A. and Pasadena where fewer than a third of black students took a college-entry curriculum. At some, she said, less than 10% of African American boys were on a college track.

Board of Education President Jose Huizar and trustee Jon Lauritzen introduced a motion Tuesday that would make the college prep curriculum a graduation requirement throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District, beginning with the freshman class of 2008.

As a matter of equity, Huizar said, the district should set "high expectations for all our students, not just some."

Anticipating an opposing argument, he added: "A lot of people think that if we set a higher bar, we will have higher dropouts because our children cannot perform. That is false. Our students can perform if we give them that opportunity in our schools."

For years, that opportunity has been available at King/Drew.

The school began life in 1982 in a few bungalows on the campus of nearby Jordan High School in Watts. Like so many institutions in South L.A., it was the fruit of a struggle by local activists, who saw the need for a place that would encourage minorities to become doctors and nurses. Many of King/Drew's graduates have done just that.

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