All of a sudden, Markham Middle School, a habitually violence-plagued campus that sits amid seven street gangs, can boast of some surprisingly homey touches: a washer and dryer to clean students' clothing; new furniture in the teacher lounges and the police office; board games and foosball for students in the multipurpose room.
And the students -- all 1,600 -- are wearing coordinated uniforms with new, matching white sneakers. They're wearing the shoes to play basketball during lunchtime, which used to be marred by constant fights.
Such changes, and others big and small, are substantially the work of Michelle McGinnis, a persistent substitute teacher turned prosecutor who decided that something more than law enforcement was needed at the Watts campus.
"We set out to create a safer campus," said McGinnis, who is on special assignment from City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo. "That has meant creating a more functional school."
By nearly all accounts, the school became notably more secure after McGinnis united government agencies, private groups and community members behind her effort. It's far too early to know if such measures will improve the school's dismal test scores.
Security is an early step in boosting a school's academics, an essential prerequisite, said Pedro Noguera, a sociology professor at New York University who has long studied urban reform. "Students can't learn and teachers can't teach in an atmosphere where they're afraid. Once you establish an orderly environment, it's easier to address conditions for teaching and learning," including attracting and keeping quality teachers, he said.
Second-year Principal Verna Stroud and her staff are determined to capitalize on the improved security; they meet regularly to pore over data and develop an academic turnaround strategy.
The Los Angeles Unified School District "cannot do it alone," Delgadillo said. "We cannot do it alone either. But it feels like there's something of a tipping point here, and the fulcrum is public safety."
Markham, in fact, has become a hopeful model for the sort of all-embracing community approach to school reform championed by L.A. schools Supt. David L. Brewer. And it's exactly the concept advocated, too, by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose reform "partnership" will take over at Markham and five other schools July 1.
Before McGinnis arrived a year ago, the city attorney's office already was running its "Scared Straight"-style anti-truancy program. But its efforts were hindered by the widespread feeling that Markham simply wasn't safe.
Last year, for example, the school suspended 278 students for "attempted physical harm," 196 for defiance, 19 for assaults against staff, 14 related to theft or robbery, nine for sexual harassment and six for marijuana possession.
Markham is surrounded by four low-income housing projects, with the residents of each hostile to those of the others -- a reality that is difficult to keep outside.
The initial returns on the security push are mixed. The number of students arrested has dropped 19% this year for such crimes as assaults, threats, robberies and vandalism. But so far, total suspensions are running ahead of last year. Stroud attributes that to four additional counselors she hired. They're addressing problems faster, but, she said, they need to master more progressive discipline techniques.
Punishing or removing troublemakers -- on and off campus -- was partly the prescription, but to do more than tamp things down, McGinnis figured she couldn't labor alone. The nonprofit service group City Year currently donates 40 hours a week to lead sports and table games to fill free time during school days. The school gets additional help from city recreation staffers, normally based in the projects, who go to campus. Anti-gang workers -- some paid, some volunteer -- have arrived as escorts to and from school.
More than $300,000 in donations paid for 71 computers, library materials, uniforms, shoes and two bungalows for the first Boys & Girls Club on an L.A. Unified campus. It's one of several after-school programs among expanded offerings that have pushed daily participation from more than 100 students to close to 200.
Staff teamwork was evident recently at one of a series of periodic meetings during which McGinnis reviews "incidents" with administrators, police, a probation officer, anti-gang workers, recreation directors and counselors.
Before having such meetings, "everyone was doing their job, but there was no collaboration," McGinnis said.
One student's name came up several times -- once for acting as a lookout for older gang members who had planned to jump a Jordan High student.
"I told him, 'I'm not here to get you in trouble but to keep you out of trouble,' " said gang intervention specialist Reginald Sims.
Assistant Principal Kenyatta Steiger had discovered that the student sings in a gospel choir on Sundays: "His mother couldn't believe how he was representing himself."