In a Desert of School Failure, 96th Street Elementary in Watts Soars by Rewriting the Rules

Kailee Brown, 5, visited 96th Street Elementary in Watts with her mom, Desiree, who hoped to enroll her there even though they don't live in the area.
Kailee Brown, 5, visited 96th Street Elementary in Watts with her mom, Desiree, who hoped to enroll her there even though they don't live in the area.
Photo by Ted Soqui

By all rights, 96th Street Elementary School in Watts shouldn't be busy on a summer morning. School doesn't start until Aug. 18, and the front door is hemmed in by construction fencing to boot. But parents keep popping by the plain brick complex under the roaring flight path of LAX. One mother wants her little girl to attend kindergarten here even though they don't live in Watts. Another mom calls through the fencing, asking if they're doing speech therapy. Inside the office, Tracy Mack, the school's intervention coordinator, is working in cropped sweatpants, her hair casually knotted — it's the middle of her summer vacation.

"This is a school of many veteran teachers who are here because they love it, who believe in our group approach of assessing the students regularly and assessing the success of their own teaching," Mack says. "Imagine that!"

Mack taught at 96th Street for years. Now she helps teachers rapidly identify children who start to lag, then re-teach them whatever is needed. It's done in a highly unusual way: Third-grade teachers constantly meet as a single team, sixth-grade teachers meet as a team, and so on. The collaboration runs deep, inspired by principal Luis Heckmuller, now in his eighth year at the school. For instance, if any first-grade teacher notices at lunch a first-grade child — including one who is not her student — struggling over a first-grade concept, the child is assessed in an oral or written test. Then the first-grade teacher team discusses how the child's teacher should best re-teach the lesson the child has failed to grasp.

Nobody takes offense, everybody pitches in. It's a radical concept in a school district where the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has fought the district for years over teacher evaluations, and where ineffective teachers are allowed to continue using the same techniques — in some cases for decades.

David Owens was among three 96th Street teachers selected to join 36 elite educators from around the United States for the Raytheon Foundation Scholarship Engineering Is Elementary program at Boston's Museum of Science. The program trains teachers who embrace STEM, a push for science, technology, engineering and math in public schools.

"At 96th, we do a lot of assessment and data analysis of how the kids are doing, and through that, sometimes, you don't necessarily see a child's need, but maybe the teacher is in need," explains Owens, a sixth-grade teacher. "You can say, 'OK, I am looking at all these student scores for reading comprehension and literary analysis, and there is a point where all of my kids took a dip. So there is the point where I, the teacher, need to do better.'"

Interestingly, the kids enjoy what is derided by some as "drill and kill"— such practices as memorizing multiplication tables, rereading book chapters and repeating skills testing until they get it right. Explains one 96th Street teacher with a small smile, "The union isn't strong here at 96th. We do what makes the kids succeed."

Tracy Mack, 96th Street Elementary's intervention coordinator: "The teachers are here because they love it."
Tracy Mack, 96th Street Elementary's intervention coordinator: "The teachers are here because they love it."
Photo by Ted Soqui

The kids know they're killing it. Edward Williams, a trainer for 24 Hour Fitness, who sometimes helps with the school's Boys to Men mentoring club, says his daughter was doing poorly in math. But after the school chose her for the STARBASE program — a five-day robotics and computer course for fifth-graders at Los Alamitos Joint Forces Military Training Base — "when she got back, she was more into math, and her math skills went up!"

Watts is a place of failing elementary schools. Of 15 grade schools in and near Watts, 11 consistently produce a majority of children who are below "proficiency" in reading and math. Each year, when these 11- to 13-year-olds complete sixth grade, many still read and do math at a third-grade level. They are fed by LAUSD into troubled Drew, Gompers or Markham middle schools. (Gompers and Markham are in the throes of an effort by the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools to halt their cycle of failure.)

Despite all the press given to the middle schools, where the violence and dropout problems begin, the real damage is done in grade school. That is where low-income children, born in America or not, English speakers or not, arrive knowing a fraction of the vocabulary words of middle-class children, according to seminal research by Stanford University and the University of Kansas. That research shows that the children's limited vocabulary creates a devastating, but fixable, intellectual deficit that must be corrected when they're young.

Third-grade teacher Sandra DeLucas, a veteran at 96th Street, recently got a student from Mexico who had never attended a school. She placed him with the kindergarten kids in intensive "guided reading," a group of about five children who break away from class to learn with the kindergarten teacher.

"You assess where they really are, testing carefully," DeLucas explains. "Then you pre-teach the vocabulary you will read together, then you re-teach the words they just read. This is something we did in schools a long time ago. If you do it correctly and daily, the child advances. I was so proud of him! Then you give them higher and higher materials. Their self-esteem goes up, their interest in reading goes up. And we test them every step — of course we do!"

You could say that Watts is a hotbed of education do-overs. Fifty years ago, teenagers — many left functionally illiterate by years of LAUSD schooling — helped fuel seven days of arson and rioting that left Watts smoldering.

Watts 96th Street Elementary's principal Luis Heckmuller, left, and parent Edward Williams: a school as good as the 'burbs.
Watts 96th Street Elementary's principal Luis Heckmuller, left, and parent Edward Williams: a school as good as the 'burbs.
Photo by Ted Soqui

Two years ago, a mile from 96th Street, young Central American mothers held a rebellion of their own, ousting the new principal at Weigand Avenue Elementary School after its solid academic scores plunged in language arts and math. The moms used California's powerful parent trigger law, forcing the LAUSD Board of Education to fire the Weigand Avenue Elementary School principal and hire a replacement.

An unofficial experiment is now under way inside 2.1-square-mile Watts, with many charter schools and reformers busily at work. At the grade school level, the standout is unheralded 96th Street.

The California Department of Education maintains a "similar-schools" ranking, comparing all California schools that share family economics and demographics. And 96th Street's 975 kids earn a 10, the highest rating. When ranked against all schools in California by the nonprofit Great Schools, 96th Street earns a 6, an average suburban-school ranking. It has reached its Academic Performance Index goal, or API, every year but one under principal Heckmuller, and now stands at 821 (the national goal is 800 of a possible 1,000).

A few blocks away, 92nd Street Elementary school is nipping at its heels. In the nearby community of Broadway-Manchester, the much smaller Watts Learning Center Charter School also earned a 10 in the similar-schools rankings. (Because California ended statewide testing in 2014, standings are unknown after 2013. Testing will resume in 2016.)

Heckmuller, who declined to be quoted, saying the credit should go to the teachers, has moved the school ahead of LAUSD in adopting Common Core, the Obama-backed reforms now rolling out in California. The school has borrowed Common Core teachings from successful programs such as Engage New York and from North Carolina, a leader in school turnaround.

But perhaps the most telling trend at 96th Street is what its teachers, who live all over L.A., are doing about their own kids.

"Many of our teachers enroll their own children right here, in the middle of Watts, whenever there's room," DeLucas says, laughing at the irony. "Our standards are so high — that's why."


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