"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A Reporter Who Thinks and Feels

Michael Winerip of the NY Times comes through again with another thoughtful and compassionate piece on school, students, and community in South Central L. A. Presented as he does here, one can begin to discern the utter stupidity of treating school problems as if they are divorced from the grinding poverty of the communities they serve. After reading just this short piece, can anyone believe that more threats and more testing of students are going to do anything to address the realities faced of the people in these communities? Not even likely, but perhaps there is no clearer way to plant the message in these children's and parents' minds that they deserve the failure that more testing assures, particularly with its ever-escalating targets.

LAST spring, not long after a ninth-grade girl was murdered in a drive-by shooting in front of Locke High School, Liza Levine, an English teacher, assigned an essay about what it was like being a student at Locke.

Teachers rarely know the full story behind their students, and this is particularly so at Locke, in South Central, one of the city's poorest and toughest areas. ''So much goes on away from school,'' says Ms. Levine, who loses students to homelessness, pregnancy, work, drugs and jail. She never knows which ones will make it through. Most don't. The ninth grade at Locke four years ago had 979 students; in June, 322 graduated.

The 657 who disappeared? Much of current education reform is aimed at developing a formula to accurately calculate their disappearance; creating programs and new schools to prevent their disappearance, and punishing schools that lose them.

But those who disappeared are teenagers and remain elusive, even when you can ask them why.

Ms. Levine's favorite ''Day in the Life'' essay was by Lesly Castillo, 15, who was repeating ninth grade, and, the teacher feared, on the verge of dropping out. The teacher liked the quiet honesty of the essay. Ms. Levine usually has three or four students in each class who cannot read and more who do not focus, but says, ''I can count on Lesly to be cognitively all there.''

Being physically all there is another matter. From Lesly's tattoos, Ms. Levine suspected she was a gang member. Lesly has a history of skipping, and has been taken to court by school officials for truancy. When she missed a few days early in the semester, Ms. Levine called home.

Lesly's mother came in immediately. The parents are Mexican immigrants who do not speak English, common at Locke, where two-thirds of the students are Hispanic, the rest black. Her father works nights for a demolition company removing asbestos, and her mother is a housewife. Lesly's younger brother and sister get A's in elementary school.

''Lesly has two responsive parents,'' Ms. Levine says. ''That's a big part of the battle. I told her mom, she's the kind of kid who can graduate, go to college.''

Lesly's attendance improved, which gave Ms. Levine hope. Her midterm grade was C. Then she disappeared the week the class was preparing for the final on ''Lord of the Flies,'' returning in time to try and bluff her way through.

''I gave her a mercy D,'' Ms. Levine says. ''Was it right to pass her? Probably not. But the course teaches them to write for the state test and she has the capability. If I gave her an F, it would have just put her five credits further behind.''

A Day in the Life. English, Period 3. Every morning I wake up around 6:30 and I tune in the oldies radio station My little brother runs to the bathroom first and he takes forever in there so me and my little sister just have to wait I wake up arguing with my mom for any reason, so I just can't wait to get to school, just not to be home any more. Once I'm in school I can't be there anymore. I get bored and sometimes that just makes me want to go back home.

When I get to first period it's boring throughout until third period, but not all the times, only sometimes when the lesson is hard to understand or sometimes it's just hard to concentrate in school when you have problems and you're thinking about when it's your next court date or after a whole day in court Or just thinking of a way to stay safe when you walk home.

Locke is one of the city's lowest performing schools, although the principal, Dr. Frank Wells, who is starting his second year, and several teachers say there have been gains in recent years. A new after-school program and night school give failing students the chance to make up credits; a second algebra class a day was added to help students pass the state test; a college-prep support program for midlevel students is credited with adding 100 graduates this year.

''Six seniors are going to Ivy League colleges,'' Dr. Wells says.

Even at Locke, the motivated find opportunity.

As with many city schools, a major obstacle to improving Locke is the exodus of veteran teachers. A quarter of Locke's teachers last year were new; three-quarters had been at Locke five years or less.

The principal is constantly filling vacancies. Lesly's summer school English course was taught by Ammarin Vacharaprusadee, 23 -- or Mr. V -- a recent college graduate, dispatched to Room 226 at the last minute. ''They just gave me the key the first day and said take the class,'' he says. ''They didn't give me a curriculum. No books. I'm making it up as I go.''

Several of the 23 students had their heads down much of the class. A few slept. They were supposed to do a half-hour of silent reading and write about it, but only a handful brought books. The rest, including Lesly, were allowed to write an essay on why it's important to bring your book. ''If I write, 'I ain't got it; that's why I don't got it,' is that worth points?'' asked one of three boys who taunted the young teacher the entire two hours.

Lesly arrived that day in late July having turned in only 5 of 11 assignments. In an hour she handed in the missing six, and Mr. V quickly gave her credit in his grade book. ''I was getting a failure and Mr. V said that boosted it to an A,'' she says.

Mr. V acknowledged that he barely skimmed the dozens of papers handed in that day. ''As long as they're turned in they get credit,'' he says.

THIS is why veterans like Ms. Levine, 47, who started at Locke in 2001, are so important. ''She's mastered her craft,'' says Dr. Wells, the principal, ''and I love her heart.''

Ms. Levine made a dozen home visits last year. When they read Elie Wiesel's ''Night,'' she took the class to the Holocaust museum in Los Angeles. When they read ''Romeo and Juliet,'' they translated it into modern speech. When a senior with a baby hadn't arrived to take the AP English test, Ms. Levine raced to the girl's home, dropped the baby off at day care and delivered the girl on time.

But it is hard to hold the Ms. Levines. At urban schools a major exodus comes by the fourth year, and Ms. Levine recently decided to leave, for a suburban job.

''I'm racked with guilt,'' she says. ''But you burn out. There's always this feeling that something else bad is going to happen to the kids that's out of your control.''

She was angry after hearing why Lesly missed the week before finals. ''I called the house,'' Ms. Levine says. ''She told me she'd gone to live with her boyfriend. She said, 'Don't worry, Miss, I'm not with him anymore, he's 24.' I said, 'Lesly, that's statutory rape, he can go to jail.'''

And Lesly? ''Didn't say anything,'' Ms. Levine says.

After fourth period is lunch and I like to kick back and just chill and talk about the problems we have and to find a way to fix them. We only get to kick it for a little while because sometimes we get searched just in case we have any type of weapons or drugs. Then the bell rings to go onto fifth period My friends have that class and we just make fun of the teacher.

At the end of the school day my mom picks me up and I go home and just talk on the phone until my dad gets home and starts ripping on me, then we all just start arguing over using the phone. Then around 5:30 me and my mom leave to go to the park to work out When I get home I take a look at my caller ID My boyfriend calls or just one of my friends calls to tell me about a new problem we have on our backs. Or I also receive calls from homies telling me that one of the homegirls or homeboys got shot or killed or just simply put in jail. Not long ago my homie Caprice, rest in peace, got shot and killed by the police It was all over the news.

The Castillos came from Mexico when Lesly was 4. As they struggled up the ladder, they moved eight times in 11 years. Her dad, Ramon, wanted to own a house, and the area he could afford was South Central. It is a small immaculate home on a street bordered by a freeway and junkyard. He says he hopes to sell for a profit, then move away, so his younger children do not have Lesly's troubles. ''Everything I do in this country is for my family,'' he says.

In eighth grade, Lesly says: ''My parents were real strict, they wouldn't let me go out. So I went out during school. I had a schedule. Monday I went to school. Tuesday to Thursday I didn't. Friday they gave tests; I went a half day and left after lunch.''

Lesly looks mature for her age and liked the attention of older boys, even if they were gang members. ''I was 13 they were 18, then like 20, 23, 24.'' She now attributes much of her trouble to her relationship with the 24-year-old gang leader. At one point, she was sent to court for truancy, another time for a fight when she kicked a girl's eye shut. She had her gang name tattooed in inch-high letters on her left breast. ''My dad wouldn't talk to me,'' Lesly says. ''He kept saying why did you do it? You have a family, why do you need them?''

Why did she? ''I don't know,'' Lesly says. ''I guess I was just hanging with the wrong people, doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.''

Moving in with the 24-year-old was a turning point. It was miserable, she says. He was lazy, wasn't around much, spent most of the time at the house of another girl he'd gotten pregnant. After a week, she returned home.

Recently, through a mutual friend, he sent back her love letters and photos. She tore them up. ''He has no power over me,'' she says. ''He can't force me to go back to him.''

I also have to go to counseling. Counseling is mostly given to you by court or your parents sign you up It's when you do bad in school or at home and in counseling they try to help you Personally I think it doesn't work.

When I get home I take a shower. I like to draw and listen to some oldies and start to worry on what you have done bad and the consequences. I also think on how to do things right and not to get caught doing bad things. I also try to find a way to stay out of probation, house arrest or do things right so I won't get locked up. After I get tired I put everything away and I go to sleep.

The guidance counselor told Lesly that she still does not have enough credits for 10th grade. Lesly says this fall she will go to after-school from 3:30 to 5 and night school from 5 to 8 to make up the credits. But Ms. Levine says it is a bad sign that Lesly dropped her second summer course, algebra.

''I hope she'll make it,'' Ms. Levine says. ''But I'm too much of a realist. I don't think so.''

Lesly's father, too, is guarded. He says he sees small signs of change, but wants to see the grades.

Lesly herself is not sure. ''Sometimes I think I can,'' she says, ''but I may not. I've been in ninth grade so many years. Ninth grade! What's hard about ninth grade? I think it's that I haven't been to school so much.''

The only person Lesly is allowed out with now is Stephanie Zamora, her best friend since seventh grade. Stephanie is in 11th grade with a B average and has plans for college. Stephanie takes Lesly to her church. Her boyfriend is a senior who plans to join the Marines.

''My boyfriend treats me right,'' she tells Lesly. ''He tries to help me in school. He shows me he cares about me. He's a serious person.''

''So serious,'' Lesly says.

''He cracks a little joke,'' Stephanie says.

''Only with you,'' Lesly says.

''Lesly's problem is she goes for the easy stuff,'' Stephanie says.

''I do.''

''She just thinks about the right now,'' Stephanie says.

''Yeah,'' Lesly says.

''I'm still worried she'll go back to this guy.''

''I'm not going back to him,'' Lesly says.

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