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Can Jordan High's experiment work?

Big changes at the Watts campus aim to increase students' academic success. But then there's their larger environment.

May 19, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • Jordan High School in Watts has been split between two operators trying to boost the academic success of students.
Jordan High School in Watts has been split between two operators trying… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

By the stats, Jordan High School in Watts is an abysmal failure:

Only 3% of its students are proficient in math and only 11% in English. More than half the students drop out between ninth and 12th grades. And almost 20% of those who make it through fail the state exam they need to graduate.

Even its physical plant is wretched. On last year's "Safe School Inspection," Jordan rated poor in every category, from fire safety to vermin infestation.

But this year, the struggling school is the scene of a high-stakes experiment.

The Los Angeles Unified campus has been split between two private groups, running separate schools that compete for students but cooperate in sports and extracurriculars.

The Green Dot charter group hopes to add its "Animo College Prep Academy" on the Jordan campus to its portfolio of inner-city turnarounds that push character education and college preparation.

The mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, meanwhile, is spending $1.2 million on its three-year campaign to make Jordan's "Partnership Academy for the Arts" a model of what public-private collaboration can accomplish.

Some see the competition as a way to spur improvement. Others see it as a way for L.A. Unified to wash its hands of a failing school. The two schools see themselves as a team, working together for all their students.

And what I see when I visit the Partnership's school, on the newly spruced-up Jordan campus, is how hard it is to untangle a school's persistent failure from the challenges of a struggling community.

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Jordan High is 80% Latino, 20% black and almost 100% children of poverty.

One-third of its students are still learning English. Others are from families who have lived for generations in the public housing project next door. Dozens come to school from group homes or foster care.

"New teachers, new systems ... it's all good," said Jordan High P.E. teacher and coach Van Myers. But he knows it's not enough.

Students remain unmotivated when they don't see in their everyday lives any tangible reminders of the rewards of academic success.

Myers has seen so-called turnaround teams come and go in the 20 years he has worked at Jordan. He's an alum who grew up in Watts; his father graduated from Jordan in 1964.

"Many of our students, their families, their home lives are in disrepair. These kids are in survival mode. And we have to understand that before we talk about fixing problems on this campus," he said.

Sherri Williams understands that. She grew up in Compton and spent most of her teaching career at schools in South Los Angeles.

She's the principal at the Partnership school on Jordan's campus; she has known some of her students since they were in elementary school.

Williams had never worked in a high school but had been labeled a miracle-maker in her last two years at 99th Street Elementary nearby, where she raised test scores by more than 100 points after courting parent participation and helping teachers focus on the needs of individual students.

That elementary school also had a terrible reputation when Williams was tapped by the mayor's Partnership to engineer its turnaround. "Everybody knew how bad it was. You'd hear it at the gas station, at the Boys and Girls Club," she said. Local families were leaving in droves — for charter campuses and church schools.

In Williams' first year, new classroom strategies helped test scores climb by 50 points. When school started the next year, in 2010, there were 107 new students waiting to check in. "They were lined up down the hallway like they were going to a movie," she said.

Jordan won't be so easy to turn around. Tutors and trophies and "Donuts With Dads" won't go far enough at a school where the average student enters ninth grade with sixth-grade reading and math skills.

Her first step was to bring in a new teaching crew. About half of Jordan's 80 teachers applied for jobs at the Partnership school. Williams rehired only nine.

The new staff is heavy on the young and enthusiastic, like Evan Dvorak, an Ivy League Teach for America recruit who will stand on his desk in physics class to keep the attention of his students.

But the reconstitution of teaching staffs — as it's called in reform-speak — isn't simple or a panacea.

Williams has had to teach rookies to stand up to rowdy, streetwise kids and prod veteran teachers to make concessions for kids who don't have computers at home and can't stay late at the library because the streets are dangerous after dark.

Some students say instruction is improving.

"It feels like the teachers want you to learn," said Karla Cervantes, a bubbly 11th-grader who is aiming for college. They spend a lot of time explaining state-mandated exams, encouraging students to, as she put it, "really try to get the answers right, instead of just picking their favorite letter."

"But they don't put enough focus on the SAT," Karla said. In fact, some of her classmates have no idea what the college entrance exam is.

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