Alfonso Flores is small but fit, with thick, rounded shoulders and a certain way of holding himself that says he could control a lot of space around him — quickly, if need be. His soft voice and kindly brown eyes suggest something more complicated is going on inside.
In late fall 2012, Flores found himself standing on the curb near Jordan Downs Housing Projects in Watts, waiting for Pastor Maudine Clark, a tiny, gnome-like figure, to wave him over to an apartment where a local drug lord had agreed to meet with him.
Flores, 42, who was raised in Koreatown by a big, loving family of teachers, was curious rather than nervous. He served in U.S. Army Special Forces for six years, an "operator" who, among other things, trained guerrillas for U.S. allies. One of his key duties was to gain the trust of locals in hostile territory in order to achieve specific goals. The Green Beret warrior lost a kidney trying to save Rangers at the Black Hawk Down disaster in Somalia, fought in Colombia's coke wars and rescued Kuwaitis in the Middle East. He rose to leadership in Special Forces A Team, and got out alive in 1997 to marry the girl he'd loved since high school.
You could say this more or less prepared him to teach at crazy-making LAUSD, which he'd dreamed would be "fun" and "mellowing down." Instead, Flores encountered teams of teachers union lawyers protecting incompetent adults who had no business being around kids. He saw lazy teachers form alliances against weak principals to avoid teaching their reading, math and writing lessons. He saw gifted teachers close their doors to these betrayals and take their own students soaring.
LAUSD's entire, corroded system reminded him of something: "the Middle East."
In honor of his parents and grandmother, who instilled in him a powerful sense of social justice, Flores chose to teach at downtrodden Normandie Avenue Elementary School, whose student population is heavily black and Latino. He became a mentor teacher, running almost every special program, only to be wooed away, to Global Education Academy charter school near Figueroa and 41st streets.
"What I learned in LAUSD is that every stride you make gets canceled down the hall by a teacher like 'Mr. Q,' who had a little TV in a drawer and watched it all day — you can't get rid of the Mr. Q's," Flores says.
The charter school was highly rated, but for Flores, even it had too many pinheaded bureaucrats. He started following the news in 2011 about poor Compton parents fighting to take over disastrous McKinley Elementary School by using California's new Parent Trigger law. Under that law, if parents get signatures from half the parents at a school, they can force the district to fire the principal or teaching staff. Parents can even wrest the school away from the district and put out requests for competitive proposals from charter schools or other school operators, then hand the school over to whomever they believe has a great plan to turn it around.
"This group called Parent Revolution was helping Compton parents," Flores says, "and they had a job opening for community organizer. I applied, but I told them I didn't have any experience."
Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, was overwhelmed by Flores' résumé. "No experience as a community organizer?" Austin laughs out loud. "Oh, Alfonso! He persuaded Colombian villagers to get their kids out of the cocaine wars! He ran all kinds of crazy committees at his school and had people rowing in the same direction. No experience? Alfonso has this gut understanding of how to help communities fix things that've gone really, really bad!"
Which is why Flores was meeting the Crips gang lord, a guy he knew only as James. Flores and his Parent Revolution crew had rented a tiny house on 108th Street in Watts, not far from Weigand Elementary, after hearing from mothers that the school had suffered a major drop in achievement and test scores under new principal Irma Cobian. Under past principal Frances Pasilla, Weigand was on a three-year roll, its Academic Performance Index jumping 111 points. But by the end of Cobian's first year, the API dropped 31 points to 688, then flat-lined. Last week, Weigand's latest scores fell again, even as kids at other badly disrupted school sites — such as Miramonte Elementary — held steady.
To understand how far Weigand fell, on average 54 percent of the students across all grades were proficient or advanced in math under Pasilla; under Cobian, 33 percent are. Under Pasilla, Weigand was a 5 in the Similar Schools Rankings, in which 100 socioeconomically identical schools are compared on a 1 to 10 scale statewide.
But as impoverished schools continually improved statewide in recent years, Weigand fell back, plummeting to a 2 in the Similar Schools Ranking — which LAUSD Superintendent of Schools John Deasy calls "disastrous."