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Locke High suffers growing pains

District has neglected school, official says. It will become a charter.

May 24, 2008|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

The impending transition from a traditional school to a charter school has left Locke High in a difficult purgatory, said students, parents, teachers and administrators, and may have contributed to tensions that boiled over into a campuswide melee involving about 600 students earlier this month.

The rioting occurred after months of turmoil as the district prepared to hand over the troubled Watts campus to Green Dot Public Schools, which is poised on July 1 to become the first nonprofit organization to run a traditional school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Inattention from the school district made the transition period all the more difficult, recently hired Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said.

"We did neglect Locke," Cortines said in an interview with Times reporters and editors. "And we neglected it as it related to security. . . . I would suggest we abdicated our responsibility."

In the middle of last year, Locke was a low-performing but relatively calm campus in a gang-plagued neighborhood. Third-year Principal Frank Wells was generally well regarded for his ability to control students without alienating them.

But the district yanked Wells in May after he openly sided with Green Dot's effort to build faculty support for making Locke a charter school, thereby removing it from direct district control.

To replace Wells, officials brought in retired Principal Travis Kiel, who lacked Wells' knowledge of the campus and its student body.

Many students protested Wells' removal. And after his departure, campus vandalism and graffiti rose dramatically.

"A few days after he was pulled out, there was kind of like a mini-riot," said 18-year-old senior Veronica Zuniga. "A lot of students felt they had nobody to restrain them. They started going wild in the hallways."

The school has had persistent problems with students wandering halls and grounds, not bothering to get to class on time, several teachers said. Nearly 20% don't show up at all on a typical day -- a long-standing issue at the school with an official enrollment of 2,600 students.

Another challenge was that, last fall, Locke had an influx of students from a neighborhood dominated by Blood gang members, said teachers, security staff and Green Dot employees.

This proved a recipe for conflict at a school whose black students come primarily from neighborhoods associated with the rival Crips. The school also is plagued by Latino gangs, who are potentially hostile to one another as well as to the black gangs.

At the same time, the district cut the number of school-based police officers from three to two and temporarily cut the hours of unarmed security aides by about half, said teachers, current and former administrators and Green Dot. Graffiti became rampart, staff members said.

There also was a rise in the student display of gang colors, which the dress code prohibits, said one district security employee, who feared repercussions from supervisors if he was identified.

"The administration let it get out of control from Day 1," the security employee said. "I didn't feel safe going out at lunch."

The employee recalled a September incident in which more than three dozen Broadway Crips "came up to school for a fight. They know the police are undermanned." The security team hastily locked the front gates, then ran to bolt the back gates when the gang members headed that way.

"They didn't get on campus that day," but within a week, he said, a major fight occurred on the perimeter that involved black students from rival gangs. (Much of this month's brawl was black versus Latino.)

The district eventually dispatched another veteran administrator to help Kiel, and the team gradually assumed more control.

But the problem of sagging morale within some classrooms has been even more challenging.

Most of the school's faculty has no personal investment in the school's future. At best, Green Dot hopes to hire about 40% of the existing staff, and it hasn't reached that level yet. Green Dot has no interest in some teachers; others have doubts about Green Dot. Many opposed Green Dot's involvement.

Students have "had teachers saying, 'Green Dot is bad. Green Dot is bad,' " said cheerleading coach Marlo Jenkins. "The morale has really dropped because [staff members] don't feel like they have everybody behind them. . . . They're working on empty. It's just really disheartening."

Senior Cindy Romero, 18, said some "teachers don't care no more. Last year, teachers would force students to keep up with the work, but now they gave up."

Cortines said he was disturbed, during a recent visit, to see several teachers showing movies not related to instruction or letting their students play cards. He said he also observed good teaching and had no issue with Kiel's management.

Senior David Marshall, 18, praised teachers for "doing everything they can to help students graduate."

Even in this difficult year, Kiel said, there have been positive initiatives under the current regime, including teacher-training led by specialists from UCLA, he said.

"We had so many distractions here," Kiel said. "But there is a foundation of instruction here that's pretty good. And it needs to be built upon."

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howard.blume@latimes.com

Times staff writer Mitchell Landsberg contributed to this report.

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