As a student at Jordan High School in Watts, Shanell Blackmon had flunked chemistry, ditched class and didn't think she would ever graduate.
Along came Evan Dvorak, a 24-year-old physics teacher fresh out of college. He broke down the forbidding subject with patient explanations and fun experiments. He was inspiring: "Nothing less than your best. No excuses." He talked Shanell out of dropping his honors class, insisting she could do the work — and she did, finishing with a B.
In June, Shanell's hard work paid off when she proudly donned her blue cap and gown and walked across the stage to receive her diploma. The 18-year-old hopes to attend community college and become a nurse.
Photos: Making changes at Jordan High School
She credits her turnaround to Dvorak and a raft of new teachers hired by a nonprofit that took control of the failing campus in 2011.
Jordan students recorded the highest gains in test scores among all traditional high schools in the L.A. Unified School District in 2012. The vast majority are still way behind, but the percentage of students at grade level in math tripled to 9%, and in reading nearly doubled to 20%.
Whether those gains can continue is unclear. But the effort to turn around the campus is considered a critical component in the city's move to redevelop the nearby Jordan Downs housing project and revitalize the Watts area.
The city's Housing Authority has begun a bold, $600-million experiment to transform the neighborhood, long beleaguered by poverty and violence, by turning the aging complex into a mixed-income community of up to 1,400 apartments and condominiums, shops, restaurants and gardens.
As part of that effort, the agency is pursuing a $30-million federal grant to rebuild the neighborhood with better housing, businesses and schools. The grant requires a plan to revitalize schools; city officials have asked for help from the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, the group started by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that is working on Jordan High.
"Education is huge in transforming our community," said John King of the housing agency. "It's the only way we can break the cycle of poverty."
Parents such as Tamica Donwood are encouraged by the school's improvements. Like Shanell, Donwood and her daughter, Niea Ulmer, live in Jordan Downs, whose residents have an average annual income of $14,500, one-fourth the Los Angeles County average, and two-thirds lack a high school degree.
"It's way better than before," said Donwood, a 1991 Jordan graduate. "The kids are more interested in learning, and the teachers are helping them get into college."
The improvements are seen as a testament to the advantages of selecting the right leaders, hiring and training effective teachers and building collaboration among all of them.
"When they give you good teachers, you go to class, you do the work and you pass," Shanell said.
Jordan's transformation began after then-L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon Cortines invoked federal law allowing overhauls of failing schools and divided the campus, giving half to the Partnership and half to Green Dot Public Schools, an independent charter operator.
Their first and most critical task: a massive staff overhaul.
"Recruiting talent is our No. 1 priority and teacher development is our anchor strategy for turning around schools," said Colleen Oliver, the Partnership's chief academic officer.
The most important hire was Principal Sherri Williams. The dynamic administrator had revamped nearby 99th Street Elementary, boosting student achievement and parent participation.
Her first visit to Jordan shocked her.
She said she saw scores of students roaming the campus. Teachers were yelling at students or ignoring them as they tapped on computers or chatted on phones. School floors were "caked with gunk." About a third of the students had been enrolled in too many electives and too few academic classes to graduate.
There were pockets of good teaching, but not nearly enough, Williams said.
"It was like LAUSD had forsaken Jordan," she said.
The 75 teachers were required to reapply for their jobs. Just over half did; only nine were rehired.
To attract talented instructors, the Partnership recruited nationally, offering referral fees, signing bonuses and an idealistic message: "Inequitable education is the social justice issue of our time, and they would be soldiers in a mission to make a difference in the lives of inner-city children," according to Phyllis Bradford, who oversaw hiring efforts.
Thirty teachers were selected from 265 applicants. Oliver said the partnership sought passionate teachers who were willing to collaborate, embrace feedback and use testing data to monitor their effectiveness. They had to believe, unequivocally, that all students could learn and hold them to high expectations.
And Williams said she looked for teachers with hobbies or talents they could use with the students. Dvorak, for instance, started a robotics club.