David Starr Jordan High School sits smack within one of America’s best known ghettos–Watts. In the past, most of its students have consistently performed on par with the ambience of their surroundings.
At the corner of Alameda and 103rd streets, Jordan High has for decades been the last place in town any group of students or opposing prep sports team would want to visit. The old campus was foreboding for the non-resident, irrespective of race or ethnicity, who had never witnessed firsthand modern, big-city poverty. From the 1960s onward, the “gangs of L.A.” (the Slausons, the Farmers, the Crips, the Pirus, the Bloods) virtually emanated from Jordan and its surroundings. The paint was chipped, windows broken, walls cracked and Glenn Seaborg Field was rusty and run over.
Once inside, obsolete textbooks, worn-out furniture, inoperable lavatories and unreliable utilities (heating/air conditioning) deflated eager students and idealistic teachers alike.
Academic results have traditionally lagged far behind most high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), so much so that faculty and staff there have had some of the state’s highest turnover rates. The unsightly neighborhood includes the notorious Jordan Downs Housing Projects, where dilapidated “shotgun” homes and debris-ridden lots may have sat unchanged for a half-century.
Gang members, winos, drug addicts and prostitutes once gave salute to “tweens” and teens daily to and from campus. Despite these social barriers, Jordan’s history has produced a number of celebrity success stories, among them: actor Roger E. Mosley (“Magnum, P.I.”), Olympic gold medalist in track Florence Griffith-Joyner, jazz legends Buddy Collette (saxophone) and Charles Mingus (bass), singers Walter and Wallace Scott (“The Whispers”) and attorney Stan Sanders, who in the 1960s was the city’s first Black Rhodes Scholar.
By 2010, Jordan High was graduating a little more than three out of 10 students. The California Standards Test found one of 926 students tested as “advanced” in mathematics; only 2 percent of students had basic math proficiency. A mere 13 percent of kids were proficient in English–that is, the ability to read and write at grade level. During this time, Jordan achieved an API (Academic Performance Index) score of 560–far below the state-recommended 800 points. Jordan’s 92 teachers were usually hard-pressed to mold the character and cognitive skills of its 1,538 pupils.
Principal Sherri Williams is the latest in a series of administrators brought in to improve academic standards. The district’s old habit of replacing principals there discouraged long-term bonding between the administration and student body.
Mandatory school uniforms were suggested in 2010 by former LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines.
This proved impractical for the students, whose parents were mostly working-poor immigrant families and typically could not afford multiple outfits, agreed one representative from the mayor’s partnership.
Then the law got tough on truancy. The Los Angeles Municipal Code imposes a daytime curfew that gives police the power to detain and question (or “stop-and-frisk”) youth under the age of 18 for being off campus during school hours.
Manuel Criollo, lead organizer for the Los Angeles-based Community Rights Campaign–which fought in 2011 to get rid of that policy–said truancy tickets costing up to $250 were issued (not including court costs) which resulted in financial strain for impoverished parents. “Fine-based tickets have a real negative impact on family life,” Criollo said.
Another obstacle to learning was the noise, clutter and smell of auto junkyards, scrap yards, abandoned foundries and forges, recycling centers and big rigs at work along the venerable Alameda industrial corridor. Added to that are the rusty, steel skeletons of old industrial giants that signify the long-ago, faded era of Los Angeles industrial might.
What’s more, high-tech Los Angeles Southeast Regional High School (officially in South Gate where GM once made Chevys and Cadillacs) seemed to look mockingly across Alameda Street at the old Jordan campus. Residential and commercial improvements are taking place in the area (i.e. the huge La Alameda shopping center, refurbished Ted Watkins Park, the Alameda Corridor freight transit system, the nearby Blue Line, remodeling of King-Drew Hospital)–but nothing for Jordan High.
Those days are over.
No, the big corporations are not moving back to Los Angeles. The big news is that Jordan High School Educational Complex is in the midst of a $75-million renovation plan for not only aesthetic reasons, but for premium academics. This is where Principal Williams comes in. She has braved the tempest with ingenuity and academic innovation.
There’s open communication, accountability and a more engaging, “hands-on” school day which link Williams and her charges in a positive, uplifting learning environoment. During her tenure, test scores have climbed 50 points. Enrollment has increased yearly since 2009: “They were lined up down the hallway like they were going to a movie,” she beamed. Williams has a reputation of balancing the right measure of academics and social guidance in a valiant effort to produce new leaders from traditionally rejected youth. Today, 75.4 percent (702) of Jordan students are Hispanic, and only 20 percent are African American.
Jordan has hired new faculty, reconstituting the school with a focus on increasing the quality of the overall staff. Among the changes are new structures and protocols implemented to increase the positive culture among students, thereby fostering higher expectations; early implementation of “blended learning” (primarily for algebra and ninth- and tenth-grade English language arts) and the Pioneer Program, a peer-developed plan for faculty to self-assess their knowledge/skills using tools rooted in the teaching and learning framework. The Safe Passages program is self-explanatory: the neighborhood had been mired in crime for so long that parents and administrators organized chaperones mostly from Jordan Downs to safely escort students to and from school.
There will be 52 new classrooms within a series of two- and three-story buildings to accommodate two remarkable academies: Williams’ “Partnership Academy for the Arts” (inspired by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s pledge to improve secondary education by encouraging more collaboration between public /private interests) and “Animo College Preparatory Charter High School” (part of Green Dot Public Schools). Swinerton Builders (designer of most of the new school campuses opening throughout South L.A.) will handle the construction in time for a 2015 opening.
Also, the old administration building will be converted into offices as well as hosting eight new classrooms and a library. The girl’s gymnasium will comprise the performing arts facility (stage, footlights, choreography space, etc.) as well as three extra classrooms.
“Watts is worth it,” Villaraigosa said. “When we joined the Partnership, I said ‘give me the lowest-performing, most violent school’ and we’ll show you what can be done with fully-engaged teachers and extraordinary kids. We have a lot more gifted kids in Watts than was previously believed.”
The arts academy has seen in one year a 93-point gain in API scores; along with Roosevelt ESP (Environmental and Social Policy) in East L.A., Jordan is in the 99th percentile of API rankings and has shown the highest gains of any LAUSD school. Jordan has outperformed LAUSD standards in all subject areas, as well as besting various “partners” (private, religious or charter schools who work in conjunction with the district) in test scores. Suspensions are down 5.4 percent, attendance is up 2.4 percent and graduation rates have jumped 13 points (roughly 36.3 percent to 50 percent).
California state examination results show Jordan up 8 percent in English and 6 percent in math. Jordan, in one year, has witnessed the highest API growth among the LAUSD’s 146 high schools.
By utilizing “blended learning,” the school has increased learning interventions, which provide students with support in core subjects such as math, English and SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test).
The Parent College provides monthly workshops to parents/guardians to increase household participation long after the 3-o’clock bell rings. This localized approach is designed to make it easier for parental involvement in a child’s education.
Research demonstrates that teenagers become more responsible for their own learning and critical thinking when they are introduced to arts education. Renowned educator Howard Gardner posited this aspect of mental growth in his theory of multiple intelligences. Here, children are expected to naturally respond to exposure to seven key cognitive abilities (linguistic, logical-mathematics, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial intelligence, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence). The arts academy hopes to identify and nourish some of our next impresarios, from oil and canvas to the boards of Broadway.
“All kids can learn,” Villaraigosa continued. “The fact that you’re poor, you don’t speak fluent English, or that you come from an area with a ‘bad stigma’ has no bearing on the worth of a child. I came from such a background. We didn’t have much, but what we did have were good role models at home and good teachers at school. You know, when you talk about these kids here, you’re talking about me.”
Williams was a grade-school principal at 99th Street Elementary when she encouraged exposure to a “niche” or skilled proclivity in a child’s learning curve to heighten classroom results. The Jordan student body has the energy and desire for scholarship. Now they’ll have a first-class place to apply these mental gifts.
The Arts Education Partnership is operated out of Washington, D.C. It dedicates itself to serving young people through the arts, which its website says can ” … help kids learn, achieve and succeed.” A local auspice, Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, will operate the arts academy to heighten the development of essential skills/abilities needed for a productive life. Among these assets are creativity, imagination and innovation; problem-solving and critical thinking; communication and collaboration; academic achievement and school, social and civic engagement.
Educators, law enforcement and parental groups have long believed that the lack of such crucial elements of maturation is a reason why so many children of color perform poorly in class and have such low levels of self-esteem.
“We are so proud of these young people,” Williams said on the morning after Villaraigosa and a group of community leaders addressed an assembly of 300 boys. They were there to teach the boys how to tie a necktie, how to apply a firm handshake while looking a person in the eye, and even tout the merits of a high shine on your shoes and a crisp crease in your trousers.
“Some of the kids went home wearing the tie and told their parents what happened,” Williams said.
“This is new to many of them because they have no father figure at home. They were so proud of themselves . . . and they should be. We want to make sure that their learning experience at Jordan High will carry them far into a prosperous life,” said Williams.
The Green Dot (Animo) portion has already demonstrated strong API gains, besting 2011 scores by 23 points. Its principal is Veronica Coleman who, like Williams, plans to immediately implement the life-changing skill sets so vital to compete in the 21st-century economy.
The Animo mission statement seeks to “transform public education” in Los Angeles so that all children receive the education they need to be successful in high school, college, leadership and in life. This is accomplished via a “student-centered” environment that fosters life-long learning, cross-cultural competency, social responsibility and academic excellence. Animo College Preparatory opened last year on the Jordan campus with 413 pupils from ninth to 11th grades. Green Dot operates 18 campuses locally with a graduation rate of 85 percent and a college-acceptance rate of 91 percent.
There is high praise for the year-old Partnership at Jordan High. “These gains are a testament to the hard work and persistence of the thousands of students, parents, teachers and administrators who make up our Partnership,” Villaraigosa said. “Each and every one of them deserves recognition for this year’s outstanding success at the Partnership. I look forward to all of us building on this momentum and achieving even greater gains going forward.”
Despite leadership from City Hall, the LAUSD and the state Department of Public Instruction, the perks of the new Jordan High are best described by seniors Diana Castillo (copy editor on the school paper “Bulldog Times”) and her “BFF” (best friend forever), Andrea Castro, a reporter intending to major in journalism at Cal State Northridge. “It takes hard work and dedication to meet our deadline and put out the paper,” Castillo said proudly. “I want to be a reporter,” Castro explained, “so I can tell people the news. People need to know what is going on.”
There is plenty of good taking place in Watts and citywide among the most vulnerable students. In the coming years, Diana and Andrea will likely tell you so.