Los Angeles School Struggles to Leave Violence Behind
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A year ago, Thomas Jefferson High School in south Los Angeles was rocked by riots. With almost 4,000 students, it's one of the city's most troubled and crowded high schools. Now, it's also the target of a major restructuring plan. The school district wants to break it up into small learning communities. On paper, the idea looks good. In practice, the plan has hit some snags as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
(Soundbite of crowd)
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:
Right in front of Jefferson High School, black and Latino teenagers are shooting craps. It's a dollar a throw. They want to know if I'm here to talk about last year's riot. No, I say. I'm here to talk about the quality of your school.
Unidentified Woman #1: It's ridiculous.
Unidentified Woman #2: Jefferson is great. Everything is (unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #1: After the riot, after the riot backed off, she got weak.
Unidentified Woman #2: It's cool, though, it's a cool school.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #2: But (unintelligible)...
SANCHEZ: Brianna Tubbs(ph), a tenth grader, her friends, Yosite Pearl(ph), and a kid who calls himself Nobody's Fool, can't agree whether Jefferson High is a good school or a bad school, and they really don't want to talk about it. But, big changes are coming to their school--changes that are supposed to wipe the slate clean, throw out every program and every policy that has failed these kids. How? That's what school officials are going to explain tonight in a meeting with parents.
(Soundbite of crowd)
SANCHEZ: No more than 30 parents show up. Most say they've heard the talk about restructuring before, and principal Juan Flecha knows it.
Mr. JUAN FLECHA (Principal, Jefferson High School, Los Angeles): You've probably been invited to this auditorium many time before, have been given promises, some of them kept, some of them broken. What is really different this time? What is the transformation all about?
SANCHEZ: Flecha, a youthful, but measured man, peers into the dimly lit auditorium, looking for a response. But, the room grows quiet. This is not unlike the meetings I sat through back in 1993, the very first time I visited Jefferson High, when educators introduced the first of many plans to turn the school around. Back then, it was considered one of LA's worst high schools. Thirteen years later, that dubious distinction has stuck like glue. Flecha says things are going to be different now.
Mr. FLECHA: We're going to have better graduation rates and we are going to have a very safe, calm environment where teachers (unintelligible) students can learn.
SANCHEZ: What this school needs, Flecha tells parents, is a renaissance--one that will reconcile the school's present with its glorious past--a past that literally hangs frozen in time on a wall near the entrance, covered with black and white portraits of extraordinary students who graduated from here: Ralph Bunche, Dorothy Dandridge, Dexter Gordon--artists, statesmen, athletes, entrepreneurs. But, to turn things around, Jefferson is going to have to shut down for the summer. When it opens in September, it will have nearly 2,000 fewer students than it has now, and the school, a cluster of fading art deco buildings, will be broken down into academies.
Unidentified Female: (Foreign language spoken)
SANCHEZ: Parents have lots of questions, but the big elephant in the room is the racial tension and the riots that nearly ripped the school apart last year. Finally, a woman in the back, the only black parent in the audience, steps to the mike.
Ms. TEZRA(ph) JACKSON (Parent of Jefferson High Student): As a parent, I would like to know, what steps is the district taking to help diffuse the tension? Is there anything that you can tell us as parents?
SANCHEZ: Tezra Jackson is a 37-year-old single mother. Her son, a highly recruited athlete, is graduating from Jefferson High this year. But, Jackson says, she wasn't always sure he'd make it, especially after watching blacks and Latinos rampage through the streets last year. It was a sign of a deeper problem, says Jackson.
Ms. JACKSON: There's a divide between cultures--between African-Americans and Latinos--and breaking up the schools in these little small learning communities is one thing, but you're still not teaching culture and respect.
SANCHEZ: Students have been listening to Jackson cut in to say that the deeper problems at Jefferson are not race-related. Victor Velasquez(ph), 18, is a senior. He tells Jackson, the big problem is the overcrowding.
Mr. VICTOR VELASQUEZ (Student, Jefferson High School, Los Angeles): I understand that you want to say that it's cultural and that it's this big cultural thing, and I don't feel that it is, because I...
Ms. JACKSON: I'm saying that we need to be taught.
Mr. VELASQUEZ: And we are being taught. As students, we're letting you know that we...
Ms. JACKSON: That needs to be part of the curriculum, a actual course...
Mr. VELASQUEZ: It was. (Unintelligible) that they mentioned...
Ms. JACKSON: ...that's given...
Mr. VELASQUEZ: ...like in--what was it?
Unidentified Speaker: Diversity (unintelligible).
Mr. VELASQUEZ: Yeah, diversity, democracy. That was part of them.
SANCHEZ: Victor is convinced that Jefferson's restructuring will work.
Mr. VELASQUEZ: So, that's going to be more personalized. You know, the teachers are going to be able to solve problems more easily. They're going to know what's going on.
SANCHEZ: Across town, though, Steve Barr is betting that Jefferson's restructuring will fail. Barr runs several charter schools in Los Angeles and is plotting to turn Jefferson High into one of his charter schools. To that end, he's holding a rally today to announce that he's gotten $6 million, mostly from private donors, to siphon off as many Jefferson students as he can.
Mr. STEVE BARR (Founder, CEO, Green Dot Public Schools): And I feel bad that we're actually at that position. I mean, I would've--I tried to push collaboration as much as I could and there was a lot of resistance to it. So, if, you know--and power's never given, you have to take it. So, we'll take it by taking their ninth grade. We'll give those parents a real choice and they will come to our schools, and in a year or two, we'll sue for Jefferson High School--the property. We'll never have this chance again. This is the one time to do it right.
SANCHEZ: In three years, says Barr, he'll go after the rest of the city's worst schools. He says he's simply tapping into parents' frustrations. But, he's also bankrolling the activities of parents like Tezra Jackson throughout south central Los Angeles.
Ms. ELIZABETH GAVARRA(ph) (Parent of Jefferson High School Student): (Foreign language spoken)
SANCHEZ: Elizabeth Gavarra says two of her sons went to Jefferson. Both dropped out. That's why she's fighting. And so, the battle for Jefferson has begun in earnest. Veteran teachers back at Jefferson say, Barr, and the parents whose efforts he's funding, spell trouble.
Ms. LAURIE FIDDLER(ph) (Teacher, Jefferson High School, Los Angeles): They came here and they said, you, the teachers of Jefferson High School, are failures. This is a prison system that you're supporting. How dare you!
SANCHEZ: Laurie Fiddler has been teaching at Jefferson for 28 years. She concedes that Jefferson desperately needs to improve.
(Soundbite of conversation and laughter)
SANCHEZ: Fiddler's students start arriving for third period art history. At the beginning of the school year, Fiddler says many of these kids were reading at a second and third grade level.
Ms. FIDDLER: Class after class, year after year, these kids get lost.
SANCHEZ: Because the school is bursting at the seams, says Fiddler--40, 50 kids per class.
Ms. FIDDLER: And whether they're the top-achieving, or they're at the very bottom with skills, they disappear. We need to rethink this.
SANCHEZ: Watching these teenagers, it's hard to believe that only one in three will receive a diploma three years from now. And so, I leave Jefferson High not knowing if, or how the restructuring is going to make it a better school. All that anybody knows, is that Jefferson cannot go another year, let alone another decade, failing so many kids.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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