New leadership, new rules at Locke High
The campus is calmer but will students get a better education?
Los Angeles Unified School District officials and their relationship to Locke High
Teachers don’t teach. Kids sneak textbooks out of the class. The best students leave and the worst students transfer in—that’s how things have been at Locke High School in Watts, one of the most troubled schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. But now, with new leadership and tougher rule enforcement, the district is trying to turn the school around, L.A. Youth has found after a six-month investigation.
Senior Lucia Ortiz described classes taught by substitutes, or by teachers who didn’t bother with lessons. Other students told her that some teachers slept in class or talked on their cell phones.
In an interview last summer, Lucia described the school as feeling like a prison with security cameras and guards watching them. But the strong security presence on campus didn’t seem to make them feel any safer. Lucia said, "The security doesn’t do anything. Every time a fight breaks out in school they just stand there and watch the fight and take notes … Students can’t do anything because if they try to step in and stop the fight they get maced or arrested."
Senior Rosa Cuevas said, "There are 27 cameras on the second floor alone and they are going to put up more cameras to supposedly make it a safer place, when really you feel more like a criminal."
Rosa added, "There is so much graffiti [painted out] that there is always wet paint on the walls, and you will always see students with paint on their clothes and backpacks because they don’t put up ‘Wet Paint’ signs."
Lucia and Rosa had gotten so mad that they formed a group called the Locke Student Union to protest, spoke to the school board during the summer and gave media interviews. They wanted to stop students from being mistreated and spied on by security.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, some of their classmates filed a lawsuit about the school’s improper weapons searches. Among the violations, they said, were that girls were patted down by male guards, and guards seemed to single out certain students for the searches, rather than choosing them randomly as district policy requires.
ACLU attorney Chris Tan said the goal of the lawsuit was to bring the improper searches to an end and to draw attention to conditions at the school. He said, "Locke is a model of disorganization. Often, students come and there’s no teacher or a sub, or there’s no books or [there's] rats. Bells ring randomly at times, and the P.A. comes on to tell everyone to ignore the bells. Hundreds of students roam campus freely which contributes to the chaotic, disorderly environment. Fights start and guards do nothing, or they call the cops and the cops use batons and mace."In a September interview, Principal Annie Webb called his remarks irresponsible, "When was he a visitor to this school? I tend to disagree with everything he said. I’m all over this campus and this campus is one of the most tightly supervised campuses in this district."
In a September interview, Superintendent Roy Romer said he was not sure if Locke High had violated district policy, but he defended weapons searches. "The rationale is we have to keep guns off campus," he said. The lawsuit has not been settled.
Lucia, Rosa and other members of Locke Student Union said that Locke’s administration, especially Principal Annie Webb, did not seem to want to hear their complaints. Former art teacher Amitis Motevalli, who worked closely with the student protestors, said she was fired in June because of her outspoken criticisms of school policies. She has since sued the school to clear her record and return to teach at Locke. Her lawsuit has not been settled.
Principal Webb declined to comment on Motevalli’s departure or the student protestors, but in September she defended her school and her policies, saying she had asked for more school police and cameras to keep the school safe. "Safety is one of our top priorities, second to instruction. If teachers and students don’t feel safe, you’re not going to have a good educational process. It’s critical to have a safe campus and I do believe we do have one."
Too much crime
At the same time, Locke clearly has a problem with crime.
Incoming freshman Braulio Castellon, 14, stood outside the school in September after signing in with his mom. He said he was sure he would get jumped by gang members. His mother, Carmen Castellon, said she would do anything to get him out of Locke but there was nowhere else for him to go. She complained that students sell drugs outside the school and that she had seen a car being stolen outside the school that morning.
The chief of school police, Wesley Mitchell, said that Locke had more crime last year than any other school in the district. For part of the school year, Mitchell posted seven police at the school. Most district high schools have one.
While students said they don’t like the feeling of being watched by security cameras, the principal stressed that the cameras are for their protection. "The cameras are for the students’ safety and to protect school property. Two years ago we spent thousands of dollars on paint [to cover graffiti] when we could have spent all that money on instructional materials. If a student is in a fight it’s hard to sort out who started it. You can pick out the parties if you have a video."
Principal Webb said it is an on-going challenge to keep out people who don’t belong on campus. "Our school is used 24 hours 7 days a week. Sometimes it will attract people who cause problems."
Although it was not her job, she also was working with local police to deter crime in the neighborhood, she said.
Webb also noted that she had filled all her teacher positions except one (compared with 16 vacancies the previous year) and that new lockers were being installed.
Superintendent Roy Romer stressed in a September interview that the district has not given up on Locke High. "Parents fear for their kids. An inner city school is a difficult and challenging place to maintain safety … There are special challenges in the urban areas but we can overcome them."
As the year went on, there was more bad news for Locke. When the results of the ninth graders’ high school exit exam were announced in October, only 6 percent at Locke passed the math section and 21 percent passed the English.
The California Dept. of Education listed Locke among the 13 California schools that the state may take over, if things don’t get better. The week of October 22, a team of state investigators visited classrooms, spoke to students, teachers, parents and administrators, and held a community meeting to hear feedback about the school, said Wendy Harris, who helped supervise the process. An early draft of their report obtained by LA Youth revealed a school in crisis (see article on page 11 for details of the report).
New principal, strict rules
Now there are major changes going on. Annie Webb has been transferred to an administrative post in Gardena. New principal Gail Garrett starts this month. For several months there has been a crackdown on tardiness, ditching and fighting that has made for a more organized campus. Students no longer roam the halls as they did last year. "Every time you go in the hallway, they ask, ‘Where are you going? Take that hat off.’ There are less fights now and it’s more strict," said Sergio Cortez, 16, a sophomore at Locke.
A beloved music teacher, Reginald Andrews, who had been transferred to another school earlier this year, returned to Locke this month following student and faculty protests including a community march in December. "This is a community victory. It’s the best thing that’s happened at Locke for the past five years," said Andrews in a phone interview from his home.
Students said that troublemakers get sent to other schools. "If you’re in a fight, as soon as you get caught, you’re transferred, even if you didn’t start the fight," said freshman Desirea Davis, 15.
Desirea added her dance teacher no longer lets them dance to Nelly—now they can only use Stevie Wonder songs. "Before it used to be more fun. I don’t want to go to class today… It was better before, we didn’t have so much rules. It’s no fun anymore—it’s boring."
The person behind all these changes is apparently Dr. Sylvia Rousseau, the new local superintendent in the South Los Angeles area. But when asked why she transferred Annie Webb and made other changes, she was vague. ""In specific I prefer not to discuss,"" she said.
But she noted with pride that the district has already created a detailed plan to address problems and will be reporting progress to the state every three months. "I think we just have an opportunity as well as a challenge. I think it’s exciting to try to accomplish some of the goals we have."
Students seem especially happy with Rousseau’s willingness to hear what they have to say. "She walks around the school and talks to students. I’ve seen her," said Lucia.
Sergio said that Rousseau had initially changed the start of the school day from 8 a.m. to 7:56, but agreed to change it back to 8 a.m. after students complained. Rousseau, a former principal at Santa Monica High, said, "I think it’s important to talk to students. Student voices are very important in shaping schools. I strongly believe in that, I want students to enjoy school."
School board member Mike Lansing, who represents Locke High, said, "I truly feel we are starting to move in the right direction and it’s about time."
Will the changes help?
But many people are skeptical about whether these changes are really going to make Locke a better school. "Locke High School has been on everybody’s list for the past 30 years but nobody has stepped up to do anything about it in a lasting way. A real change in a school is something deeper than an orderly campus," said school board member David Tokofsky.
Can a new principal really make a big difference? Was Annie Webb responsible for all the problems? Perhaps not, Tokofsky suggested. "My guess is the place is very difficult to run effectively, and I don’t know if there are principals who are saviors… Somebody has to lead the school but to say that someone is the demon or the savior doesn’t make sense."
A representative for the principals’ union defended Annie Webb. ""We think she was doing a fine job. She did need additional support which the district did not provide,"" said Dan Isaacs of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles union.
In a written statement in January, Annie Webb said, "While the local District Superintendent has chosen to reassign me, I am fully confident I could have lead Locke High School, especially with the additional resources that the District is currently providing. It is unfortunate that the District did not respond to my requests for additional support long before the Scholastic Audit Team arrived."
One teacher at Locke expressed doubt that the district could effect change. Assistant band director Tom King came to Locke during the summer in order to work with Reginald Andrews, only to find that Andrews was being transferred. King said he has consistently had problems with incorrect paychecks and that he is owed $2000 in back pay. "It’s very frustrating because I’m dealing with a school system that says they’re dealing with the problems but they can’t even correct my pay."
The new rules may not help the kids that much, said King. "I don’t question their sincerity, but I don’t have any faith in what they’re trying to do," he said. He said that district officials are "out of touch with the lives these kids live … I have a kid whose dad’s in prison because he killed his mom. A lot of these kids don’t have parents. I’ve seen a kid with a $1,000 bill—sure, he’s dealing drugs. He has no parents at home."
King admitted the campus is less chaotic with the new emphasis on attendance. "The campus was out of control. They didn’t go to class. They’re basically coming for the free breakfast and lunch."
But he added that a tough ditching policy cannot make up for gaps in education. "If they haven’t been going to algebra, now they’re so far behind, they can’t catch up. Most of my kids in band can’t read past the fourth or fifth grade level."
Teachers have become disillusioned, King said, with focusing on classroom management instead of teaching. "Half my time is spent saying ‘Get off the cell phone’ and ‘Put your CD players away.’"