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A YEAR AT LOCKE

Graduation day

For the few who perservered, it was time to celebrate. For those behind them, change is coming.

June 20, 2008

In a week of culminating glory for high school graduates and their parents, few have more bragging rights than the 300 or so seniors who walked the stage Thursday at Alain Leroy Locke Senior High School. The graduates of Locke are exceptional in the most literal sense. Of the 1,558 freshmen who started out almost four years ago, these were all who managed to reach Thursday's ceremony.

The numbers are so startling, they beg to be placed next to each other so we can grasp them: more than 1,500 freshmen, about 300 graduates. Some of the latter didn't even receive their diplomas, as they haven't yet passed the high school exit exam. That's not surprising in a South L.A. school at which 11% of students test as proficient in English and 2% in math.

Parents and school officials in Irvine or San Marino would be breaking down school walls given these kinds of numbers. Why haven't we heard the shouts of outrage about Locke from one end of the Los Angeles Unified School District to the other, and especially in the boardroom?

Maybe now it's easier to understand why so many parents in the Locke neighborhood pleaded for the Green Dot charter organization to take over, and why enough teachers signed a petition to bring that about. With the school year over, Locke now shifts to Green Dot, to make what magic it can at a campus beset not only by low academic achievement but vandalism, violence and a pervasive sense of lassitude. Many teachers have tried through the years; there has even been faint progress on scores. But numbers as humiliating as Locke's demand dramatic, not incremental, intervention.

Nor was this year's graduation rate unusually abysmal. In the previous five years, Locke has enrolled somewhere from 1,200 to 1,400 freshmen, according to the state’s database. From there the numbers dwindled with each higher grade. Perhaps 600 to 800 sophomores. Maybe 500-plus juniors. And about 300 seniors.

In fairness, not all of those missing students dropped out. Close to 200 of the missing this year are seniors who need a few more courses to graduate; they might pick those up this summer. Some were held back a year. And Locke is located in a part of the city with a high rate of transience; some moved elsewhere.

Strange, though, isn't it, that hundreds of students supposedly moved out, but none moved in to take their places? Could it be that part of the reason for the transiency is that families left to find better educations for their kids? That maybe they would make more of an effort to stay in the neighborhood if it had a good school? Or even a safe one?

Locke made headlines last month when a fight grew into a brawl involving hundreds of students. At that point, it was revealed that the district had all but abandoned the school after the charter petition succeeded. Security had been cut by half. Fights were common. And when Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines walked the campus, he found teachers screening movies for their students and presiding over classroom card games instead of teaching.

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A bad year

If you had spent the last 10 months at Locke, seeing each day what these teenagers saw and experienced, you would marvel anew at the graduates' -- and their teachers' -- resilience. There was tension between teachers who favored Green Dot and those who opposed the change. Some teachers who didn't want to join the charter operator, or couldn't get a job with it, grew apathetic about the school, and it didn't help that the district's payroll system was dysfunctional. Principal Frank Wells, who had improved campus security, was gone -- escorted off campus after supporting the Green Dot takeover.

With the reduced security force, students with a bent for trouble knew they were unwatched much of the time and took advantage. They gambled openly in the quad, brazenly roamed the halls during class time and covered everything with graffiti, enough to cost the district several hundred thousand dollars to paint over -- and over. One teacher tells about a water fountain near his classroom that was painted at least 20 times during the school year.

The Fire Department responded to calls three times, twice to extinguish major blazes that damaged classrooms. Teachers say that doesn't count the hallway fires they put out themselves.

And the fights, the fights -- usually small, but a recurring part of campus life. They were staged in out-of-the-way spots, behind buildings where staff seldom thought to look, but they also broke out in class, right before teachers' eyes. And when teachers called security, there was a good chance no one would come. Little wonder that one-third of the school's teaching force turns over in a typical year.

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