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Renowned teacher makes South L.A. his own final exam

Nearing retirement after decades of shaping the rich, Phil Holmes wants these students to meet his standards.

June 21, 2008|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Phil holmes, one of the great English teachers of his generation, is standing before a class of high school seniors, trampling all over their self-esteem.

It is a Thursday in October, not long into the school year. Holmes gazes out at his class, his proper prep school face set off by white hair and rimless spectacles, and tells his students, all of them black kids from South Los Angeles, that the first grading period is ending "and most of you will be getting Fs."

The students stare, dead silent. For perhaps the first time today, he has their full attention.

"This is not a good start," Holmes continues, his tone stern but even. "But on the other hand, it's not unusual."

Class dismissed.

Holmes spent 35 years building his reputation at Harvard School for Boys and its successor, Harvard-Westlake, which attracted some of the best, the brightest and the richest students in Los Angeles. His teaching methods, his curriculum, his empathy, his intensity, his relentless demand for clear, well-ordered thought, changed kids' lives.

More than that, he shaped wave after wave of young teachers, many of them now working at some of the most influential educational institutions in America.

But when he and a colleague wrote a book describing their teaching method, publishers scoffed. Of course their method worked! Their classes were filled with bred-for-success overachievers! Who couldn't teach them?

So in 2002, at a time when most people his age were sliding toward retirement, Holmes accepted a teaching job at View Park Preparatory High School, at Slauson and Crenshaw boulevards.

A public charter school founded by Mike Piscal, one of Holmes' Harvard-Westlake colleagues, View Park wanted to find out if high-quality teaching could make a difference in the lives of underperforming black students.

Holmes offered the school a gold standard. If a View Park student got an A from him, Principal Robert Schwartz figured, it would mean they were ready to compete with the best of the best.

But what if they got only Fs?

Watching Holmes teach over the course of the school year -- which would be the last in his 41-year career as a classroom teacher -- the answer came slowly into focus.

That Thursday in October began with students filing into the 12th-grade English composition classroom that Holmes shares with a younger View Park colleague. He was dressed in a suit, green dress shirt and tie, black loafers, his hair neatly trimmed, his bearing attentive.

Just before the bell, one of his students poked her head in, hoping to get excused from class. "We're taking a makeup test in AP history today," she said. "Do you mind?"

"Yes, I do mind," Holmes said. "We're doing something very important in here."

Holmes had nothing unusual planned. He considers every lesson, every minute of class time, to be important, and, at age 66, he often stays up past midnight preparing for the next day's lessons. There are 26 students enrolled in this class, which was designed to give them the skills they would need to write college papers. All were dressed in some variation on View Park's uniform: khaki pants, a maroon sports shirt.

Holmes asked them to take out a homework assignment -- a critique -- that was due.

The assignment called for the class to analyze a student's college application essay. In the course of the next 90 minutes, Holmes led the class in dismantling not just the essay, but one student's critique of it, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word.

There's a hanging detail, he said at one point -- why is it a problem?

"It's too vague," a boy answered.

"What's vague about it?" Holmes demanded.

The boy couldn't answer at first, but Holmes was relentless, forcing him to think. In the end, they hammered out an answer.

At another point, a single word -- resourceful -- launched Holmes into a discussion of Odysseus, and how his resourcefulness ("He found a way to blind the giant") could be a source of inspiration for the students.

The entire class was like this, Holmes leading a discussion in which no point, no word was insignificant. He could be brutal, dismissing one student's argument as "mindless." And he could be generous, if guarded, with praise.

Outside after class, Khadijah McCaskill said the students don't mind the tough talk, or the tough grades. This is her second class with him.

"His toughness helps the class concentrate and makes it easier to learn," she said.

"He's a phenomenal teacher," she added. "He's phenomenal because everything he does connects together. And even if you don't know it then and there, it will . . . be connected to a larger thing later on."

View Park Prep is no blackboard jungle. For many View Park parents, the choice was not between the charter and a traditional public school -- say, Crenshaw or Dorsey High -- but between the charter and a private school.

Still, the 15 miles that separate View Park from the rolling Coldwater Canyon campus of Harvard-Westlake might as well be 15,000.

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