Some people think Vince Carbino, a former cop, is too hard-edged to be a principal.
I wonder about that as I watch a young man hurl a projectile at a fellow student at the South Los Angeles high school also known as the Santee Education Complex. The object hits the metal lockers and skitters across the floor. The student lunges, unaware that Carbino has stepped into the hallway.
"Hold on there, my man," Carbino barks.
The missile this time is a juice bottle cap. The grappling is innocent tomfoolery.
But the clunk of plastic on metal no doubt takes Carbino back a year to a very bad day just after this new campus opened. It was a pivotal moment for the new school, the legacy of outgoing Supt. Roy Romer, and Santee's 3,479 students.
School Police Officer Juan Romo remembers Dec. 7. He and his partner went to break up a fight between two girls on the quad. In an instant, he said, trashcans soared through the air and students swarmed onto his back, wrestling for his gun and ripping his uniform. Santee's melees raged for two days. Thirty-four students were arrested and 10 were taken to hospitals, mainly to be treated for pepper-spray-related injuries.
My colleague Erika Hayasaki returned to Santee three months later to see if the school had its act together. It didn't. It was the district's No. 1 campus for crime. The headline on her story read: "Chaos Reigns at a Model School."
Carbino was one of two principals then. On July 1, he took charge of the whole shebang.
Santee, with its five "learning communities" focusing on such subjects as culinary arts and finance, was supposed to be the district's symbol of hope, the school that proved the pedagogic establishment could overcome societal circumstances and maybe even begin to close the so-called achievement gap. When Carbino took over, the campus was another embarrassment.
The son of a second-grade teacher, Carbino grew up being told he, too, should teach. When he was 16, though, he went on an El Cajon Police Department ride-along. In an act of rebellion, he later signed up with the Coronado Police Department. Busting young gangsters taught him something: "They had not made attachments to the educational system."
After three years, Carbino returned to college and earned a credential. In 1992, he started teaching in San Diego, and in 1994 L.A. Unified recruited him to teach special ed.
It's hard to say how much of what's happening at Santee is Carbino's idea and how much came from Romer, who began shoveling ideas at the school long before it opened and pumping in extra resources when it foundered.
Carbino does seem to have imprinted himself on the school, though.
Keep kids interested in class and they may not wind up in the back of a police car, he figures. He says he has seen how gangs serve as surrogate families for many young men, how fatherless kids struggle with feelings of abandonment, how living in an urban war zone can leave kids with post-traumatic stress.
So three young psychiatric social workers are on hand full time to talk to students and their parents. Their problems, Carbino figures, may have nothing to do with the school but just might be affecting the teenagers' ability to sit quietly in class and deconstruct equations or take notes on pozole recipes.
Santee has the second-worst test scores in the district. The only reason it's not vulnerable to state takeover is because it's so new. Carbino says one of his key goals is proving wrong the people who say that the stigma of state takeover is just a matter of time.
This year the school sent incoming freshmen to Cal State Dominguez Hills and the Museum of Tolerance for a week of conflict resolution and inculcation into Santee's budding academic can-do "culture," something that didn't exist when students first swarmed in from schools that did have cultures -- often study-averse cultures.
The school recently held a daylong retreat for teachers, in part to coax them into a fuller embrace of the new ethos. At the staff's request, the school is bringing in an outside group to help improve teaching skills.
Carbino sends attaboy letters to students and their parents. And he encourages teachers to call five parents a night to chat about how their children are doing.
"Every kid who does not get a diploma, I'm going to sit with the parents and show them everything we did to try and help their kid graduate," he says.
Connie Rice, a longtime observer of the schools, says she wishes the district could clone Carbino: "Boy, did he get the right formula."
L.A. Councilwoman Jan Perry meets regularly with the school's student-created Peace Committee. She joined Carbino and local students, parents and community members Wednesday night to watch jazz bassist Christian McBride jam with musicians from Santee and other schools in the campus' beautiful 912-seat auditorium.
"He runs that school with firm authority," Perry says of the principal, "but also with a great deal of warmth and intelligence."
Not everyone sees those qualities.