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COLUMN ONE

Success? That's not an elective

A no-nonsense principal in Watts has drawn fire for his style. But he sees progress, especially in the faces of two dozen boys.

November 02, 2006|Sandy Banks | Times Staff Writer

IN his first year as principal of Jordan High School in Watts, Stephen Strachan ordered 743 suspensions -- 600 more than the principal the year before -- to punish students for fighting, defying authority, defacing the campus and disrupting classes. His second year, he suspended students 596 times.

Strachan lost 30 teachers -- almost one-third of his staff -- to other schools and different jobs at the end of that first year, and 16 more the next. Some blamed the departures on his hard-nosed style.

Since his arrival in the fall of 2004, Strachan has seen Jordan's test scores rise dramatically, then fall unexpectedly. He has been yelled at by parents, cursed out by students. He's ignored whispers that he might not be the school's salvation, just another in a long line of flops.

Still, he works 12 or 14 hours at a stretch, often skipping breakfast or lunch. He spends his evenings going over school reports and his weekends at Jordan's dances, fundraisers and football games.

He has chased would-be truants over the school's chain-link fence. He's gone door-to-door in the neighboring housing project, rousting sleeping teenagers on a Saturday morning because they didn't show up for the bus he rented to take them to a college fair.

He wages a never-ending war against graffiti. Some days it seems he spends more time playing cop -- confiscating students' cellphones and cigarettes -- than shaping curriculum.

And when he needs to recharge his batteries, Strachan retreats to a classroom filled with boys: his all-male academy, a daring, unofficial experiment that he will not allow to fail.

FOR generations, Jordan High has been synonymous with failure.

When Strachan took the helm, only one in 100 students was proficient in math, more than half were not fluent in English, one in six was enrolled in special education and only half of ninth-graders made it to graduation.

Now, the building blocks for improvement are in place. The campus has been reorganized into the kind of small learning communities that are supposed to keep students in school and engaged. A $1.5-million Gates Foundation grant funds a special, personalized program for ninth-graders. A new schedule gives students more chances to make up failed courses. There are intervention classes, Saturday school, remediation programs.

Yet progress has been unsteady. Attendance has improved substantially, and the graduation rate has inched up, from 51% to 58%. But state test scores, which made a dramatic 54-point leap in Strachan's first year, took an unexpected 24-point dive last spring. So much attention was paid to freshmen and to juniors and seniors close to graduation that 10th-graders fell between the cracks, he says.

"Those who just look at test scores said, 'They're not doing a thing,' " Strachan says. But the school's state-appointed monitor cried when she saw the scores, "because she knows we worked so hard."

AT Jordan, as at many urban schools, boys are more likely than girls to cut classes, fall behind, fail, drop out and wind up as adults in dead-end jobs -- or, worse, prison cells.

"Our men are going to be extinct in the inner city if we don't do something," Strachan says. Prodded by his sense of desperation, he built his experiment on research that suggests boys can thrive in single-sex classes.

His first year at Jordan, he picked 30 freshmen boys at random -- half black, half Latino -- and assigned them to take all their courses together, with no girls in their classes.

The boys were not happy. Some parents were wary, "but they were open to anything that would save their sons," Strachan says. "I got very little push-back when I explained what I was doing."

Some teachers balked at the extra work the project required. "I needed teachers willing to go above and beyond. Stay after school, tutor the boys during lunch hour, show up at their games."

The first two years were up and down.

The boys separated themselves by race, reflecting neighborhood divisions. But gradually, they learned to get along. "There have been no fights in that room at all," the principal said.

Several of the boys did clash with tough male teachers. Strachan experimented with teaching assignments, seating arrangements and lesson plans, and found that behavior problems could be reduced with lots of structure and predictable routines.

"I got just what I expected when I went into this," Strachan says. "A lesson."

The boys are now in 11th grade. Their number has dropped from 30 to 24. One boy is incarcerated, two had to be moved to different schools because of gang affiliations, one was transferred to another campus by his mother, two were pulled from the program because they fell too far behind or were disruptive.

But a brewing culture of success seems to propel the group forward. Last spring, 85% of them passed the state's graduation exam, compared with 24% of Jordan's other sophomores. This year, their curriculum includes Advanced Placement courses and college-level math, science and literature.

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