A student's challenges parallel his school's
With faculty in charge, Jefferson High is struggling to turn itself around academically. So is Jorge Garcia.
By Howard Blume
April 5, 2010
Jorge Garcia represents the past, the present and, potentially, the future of long-struggling Jefferson High School.
As a freshman in 2006 at the South Los Angeles school, he failed all his classes and was kicked out after starting two fights, one of them especially violent. Since then, he's survived five bullet wounds, dealt with his father's fatal illness and become a parent himself.
This year Jorge, 17, returned to Jefferson -- to set an example for his son.
Like the school itself, Jorge wants to turn things around. And like Jorge, Jefferson suddenly has a chance at redemption.
Last month, the Los Angeles Board of Education could have turned over the job of improving Jefferson to an outside operator. Instead, it chose a plan created by Jefferson's teachers.
With new authority, staffers at Jefferson have taken on the crucial test of whether they can fix one of the most historically troubled, low-achieving campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
For decades, Jefferson, with its iconic 1930s Art Deco architecture, served a predominantly African American community and produced such figures as diplomat Ralph Bunche, dancer Alvin Ailey and football standout Woody Strode.
The school, like the area around it, has become a hub for working-class Latino immigrants.
Neighborhood tensions spilled onto the Jefferson campus in 2005, through racially tinged campuswide fights. That year, its test scores were second lowest among L.A. Unified's high schools. The dropout rate jumped to 58% in 2007, according to district records.
Juan Flecha was named principal after the unrest. He restored order, raised test scores somewhat and made key hires, including social studies teacher Nicolle Fefferman.
"Mr. Flecha was honest with me," Fefferman recalled. "He said: 'We have teachers who are afraid of students. We have a lot of work to do. I'm looking for soldiers.' "
Flecha divided Jefferson into small academies, each with a special focus. But they varied in quality and in the commitment of faculty and students.
This year, Flecha became a principals' supervisor and L.A. schools Supt. Ramon Cortines appointed Michael Taft to lead Jefferson, impressed by a program he had run on campus.
Taft and many teachers say they expect strong progress, even while they acknowledge that some staff members have been too comfortable with academic failure.
"There is a committed group of teachers at this school," Taft said. "I think we've created a real sense of urgency."
Jefferson has many bright, hard-working students. More than 200 of its 2,100 are in Advanced Placement classes; 98 are in trigonometry or calculus.
But few excel academically -- about four of every 100 who enter ninth grade go on to qualify as seniors for admission to the University of California or Cal State systems, the most recent state data show.
Hundreds of students aren't trying or aren't succeeding. More than half flunked at least one class during the first semester; more than one in four failed at least three.
On a recent day, 15 of 24 students were present in Rodney Weber's sophomore English class. They quietly, although unenthusiastically, completed a worksheet on a portion of Frank Bonham's "Durango Street," a street-gang redemption tale.
"You can't say, 'Read this book and tell me about it next week.' That would be suicide," Weber said. "They can usually hang in there for five to 10 pages at a time."
Weber, a 25-year veteran at Jefferson, is hopeful but a little jaded after a succession of reforms stretching across decades: "Things are changing," he said. "The question is: Is all change good change?"
The school's new plan includes opening all classes to parent observation and having teachers monitor their colleagues' performance.
Another strategy is to avoid traditional suspensions. Sending a student home for breaking a rule leads to lost educational time, the last thing the faculty wants to see.
A parent conference can replace a suspension or preclude worsening behavior, Taft said. So can requiring parents to attend classes with their child.
Faculty members are making unannounced home visits to students who flunk three or more classes.
On campus, the staff has started tracking down students who aren't in classrooms. Tutoring or other educational activities accompany disciplinary detentions.
During a recent detention period in the auditorium, counselors asked students to choose a college major or career and write two paragraphs.
Freshman Christian Hernandez mumbled that nothing interested him.
He was in detention for sleeping late.
"What's a vocational school?" counselor Laura Baca implored cheerfully.
Not one of the 30 or so answered.
One student finally said he wanted to be a skater, eliciting derisive chuckles.
"Let's not laugh," Baca said. "Those are things people want to pursue, but can he skate for the next 50 years? No, but he can study business and run a skating business or study graphic design."
Christian suddenly started to write about his interest in automotive technology and microcomputers.
Baca and attendance counselor Cesar Martinez talked up a free trip to San Diego State to inspire them. Days later, 44 low-achieving students boarded a 7:30 a.m. bus -- no small victory. But two were arrested during the lunch break on suspicion of shoplifting.
This two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress also marks Jorge's journey toward graduation.
It took a couple of rough years before he decided that tagging is "pointless" and school isn't.
His problems at Jefferson began just weeks after his arrival. He started a fight with a rival tagger.
Then, before first semester ended, he and two friends jumped a student in the science building, sending him to the hospital. They believed he belonged to a gang that had killed a friend. Jorge escaped jail after an older boy took the rap.
Jorge later spent a few days in custody for tagging.
As for school, "it's stressing and it's hard," he said. "You want to pay attention and you want to do good. But when you're actually in school, you just don't feel like doing it."
On Halloween in 2008, long after Jefferson booted Jorge, the streets nearly claimed him. He'd been walking with his mother when he decided to hang out close to their apartment.
Gang members approached where he was standing -- an area near a gang gathering spot -- and one started shooting. Among the five wounded, Jorge got the worst of it: Two bullets went through his chest, one of which punctured a lung; one went through each upper arm, and one shattered his left forearm.
During his recovery, he had to care for his diabetic father, administering insulin. His father had become blind and was dying.
After his death, Jorge's mother suffered a mild stroke. He accompanies her to doctor appointments on the bus.
Caring for his parents made Jorge want to become a nurse, although for now he's earning some money at a car repair shop.
His motivation comes partly from his girlfriend, whom he describes proudly as a straight-A student. And also from their son, who is nearly 2.
"I really want to graduate because nobody from my family has graduated," said Jorge, 17. "Now that I have a kid, I'm trying to be somebody in life, to be a good example to my kid and also to give myself a good life."
He just earned a B in history through a Jefferson credit-recovery program at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College.
But old habits are hard to break. He's been in and out of school.
"You're so close," Baca told him during a recent visit to his home. "I know you're going to make it."
"These students do have dreams," Baca said later. "That's what we have to tap into."
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