To DePaz, the goal is to get the students reading and writing; ethnic studies is the means of building those skills. He also has the students in one class working on short documentary films. Friends of his donated computers for editing film; he wrote grant applications that brought in money for cameras. He inveigled filmmakers to talk to the class about their work, and is touched that most of the students came in voluntarily the previous Saturday to work on their projects.
This is real progress. At the beginning of the year, DePaz's classes revolved around teaching acceptable behavior. It took a couple of months just to get the students to sit through class instead of roaming around at will.
Gutierrez concedes that Locke can't be run by the standards of most other schools, or even other Green Dot schools. The charter operator normally requires a certain amount of parent involvement. Here, parents are often overwhelmed and sometimes uninterested. Some come in for conferences clearly under the influence of drugs; other parents are in prison.
After a promising start to the school year, dozens of new students enrolled. Some had just been released from juvenile detention, bearing gang tattoos on their necks -- at age 14. Staff found marijuana stuffed into the caps of pens. Graffiti made an appearance.
Gutierrez is committed to keeping as many students in school as possible, unless their behavior is downright dangerous; one student was kicked out for bringing a gun to school. She greets a reluctant student at the bus each day to make him feel glad he came. She arranges awards, including field trips, for students with good attendance. How can the school afford it? Gutierrez got married last August and, in lieu of wedding gifts, asked guests for donations to her school.
Animo Locke 2
Plastered on the pale-blue portables in a corner of the Locke campus are cheery motivational signs bearing the number 652. "Operation Proficient: 652," one reads. "652. We are on our way," another cheers. The number is the Academic Performance Index score -- the state's key accountability measure -- that the school hopes to reach. It's a long way from the 800 that represents a successful school, but it's an almost unimaginable leap from Locke's pre-charter score of 515, which placed it at rock bottom.
Principal Rachelle Alexander has more than test scores on her mind. Learning to become a decent person, she believes, is just as important as learning to parse sentences. At lunch, she tries to get the attention of one boy, who answers with a rudely intoned, "What?" Never mind that lunchtime ends and they both have places to go; Alexander pulls him aside for an earnest, 10-minute lecture about courteous behavior.
"Well, at least I have four years to work on them," she says afterward, laughing.
In algebra class, about half of the 22 students are actively involved in the lesson on quadratic equations, but others are looking off into space, desultorily marking their work sheets when the teacher delivers an answer, or resting their heads on their desks. The teacher urges them to come in for extra help. "I'm here today after school. I'm here Monday after school, I'm here Tuesday, I'm here every day."
The students seem more engaged in biology class, as teacher Paige Thompson drills them on the systems of the body. There's a constant buzz of talking, and some students loudly and repeatedly shout out answers -- or insults to other students -- but their heads are up and most seem eager to show what they've learned. Human anatomy is more real to them than multiple variables.
"How many of you have testes? Raise your hands," Thompson asks. Most of the boys' hands go up -- and a few of the girls'. One girl nudges the boy next to her, who has kept his hands on the desk. "The boys have testes," she yells. He grins sheepishly and sticks his hand in the air.
The formidable barriers to achievement give credence to those who contend that schools alone cannot overcome the poverty, crime and upheaval in these teens' lives. Transformation isn't as simple as switching to a charter high school, no matter how well it's run. What Locke's students have going for them now is this: They are in classes and safe during the school day. It's not college readiness, but it's a start.
Previous editorials in this series can be found at latimes.com/locke-high.