More than 96% of the students at View Park are African American, and studies show that even middle-class black students tend to do worse in school, on average, than comparable students of other races. Moreover, roughly half of the students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
"At first, it was a shell shock," Holmes said, "because of three things. I wasn't prepared for the students to be so far behind in their reading development. . . . We were reading "The Odyssey," and within one or two days I knew we couldn't move through it like we did at Harvard-Westlake. Second, these students had no training in classroom discipline. At Harvard-Westlake, I could ask kids to start writing an essay in class, and I could go upstairs, get my mail and come back and they'd just be quietly working. If I walked out of class at View Park Prep, it would be total pandemonium.
"And the third problem. . . . I was a white man -- and, as Mike Piscal said to me, I was not just white, I was very white. I had several times when I had students say, 'Why did you even come here?' They themselves could not believe I could have an authentic reason for coming to their school."
Piscal, who is himself white, adds another problem: "Phil is not connected to the popular culture at all," he said. "You say '50 Cent,' he'll take two quarters out of his pocket."
Holmes grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, the son of a physician. Young Phil was a good student, although his favorite subject was math, not English. He was a good enough baseball player, a catcher, to be recruited by a Dodger scout while still in high school, and he spent portions of his winters training with the team at the old Wrigley Field at Avalon Boulevard and 42nd Street, catching the likes of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
His baseball career ended in his freshman year at USC, when he tore his rotator cuff. But two professors had already ignited a love of English, and he went on to earn a master's degree and complete most of the work on a doctorate before being hired to teach at the Harvard School.
At a party for Holmes after he left Harvard-Westlake, Barton H. "Buzz" Thompson Jr., now a law professor at Stanford, recalled being a student in the first class Holmes taught in 1966 -- a sacred studies class that had been something of a joke on campus.
Thompson said he could barely remember a thing he learned in college or graduate school. "But I can remember every detail of what I was taught in that sacred studies course at Harvard School. Most important, I was taught to actually think. Furthermore, I was treated for the first time as somebody who actually could think."
At the center of Holmes' teaching is a slender red-bound book titled "The Uses of Argument," first published in 1958 by British philosopher Stephen Toulmin, which sets out a steel-trap method for structuring an argument.
Creative writing, Holmes believes, is a frill for most high school students. How many, after all, will become poets or novelists? But virtually all will need to write some form of persuasive essay, in college and in their careers. That is Holmes' central focus.
By midyear, Holmes' students were showing progress.
"Can you state," Holmes asked his class one day in January, "what is the writing goal for the whole View Park Prep curriculum?"
Mister Searcy raised his hand.
"Writing a sustained case, free of mechanical errors, in a readable style," he said, repeating the mantra that Holmes has been chanting all year long.
By this time, everyone in Holmes' class knew the formula for a sustained case: Claim, clarification, evidence and warrant, cemented by "backtracking," a practice in which the writer re-reads and challenges his own work and answers any questions that arise.
The method works, as any number of View Park graduates can attest.
Skye Williams, now at Clark University in Atlanta, said Holmes' lessons "really helped us in college -- in history, biology, anything."
But Williams said that English composition was the least of what she had learned from Holmes. "He didn't just teach us about English," she said. "He taught us about life."
No graduate gives Holmes greater pleasure than Jamilla Thomas, one of his most difficult students. "She was angry here for four straight years," he said. He said he never once saw her smile. "I was not a bad child," Thomas said, "but I had, like, a bad attitude."
Thomas had Holmes for the first time in 10th grade. "I was horrible to him," she recalled.
When she was in 11th grade, in the 2005-06 school year, Holmes was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He was out for most of the year. Along with many students, she sent him a letter.
"Dear Mr. Holmes," she wrote. "I hope you get well soon. I know that we have been throw ruff times the past couple of years, but I have come to control my attitude. Everyone has come to see how much I've change except for you."