Two weeks ago, as John Deasy took over as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called for tearing up the teachers' union contract, the latest chapter in one school's ongoing tragedy was quietly unfolding.
“It has been a war,” says Phil Keller, a longtime English teacher at Huntington Park Senior High, one of L.A.'s oldest and most overcrowded schools.
The campus is almost bucolic, a quintessentially Southern California spread dotted with palm trees and sand-colored buildings. But inside the walls of “HP,” whose 4,200 students are mostly Latino and from low-income families, a fight rages.
“I think this is an especially urgent situation,” Deasy says. He's referring to, among other things, the fact that 43 percent of HP students drop out and only 5 percent are proficient in math. That means 95 percent of the community's teenagers can't handle geometry or even, in many cases, basic algebra.
Debate over how to reform the school has, by most accounts, turned troublingly hostile and deeply dysfunctional. In one infamous confrontation, students cheered as a teacher shouted at reform-minded LAUSD school board member Yolie Flores. The dustup was recorded and posted on YouTube with the title “Parent Center Smack Down.”
A disturbing flier created by teacher Keller declares that HP's failure has nothing to do with the teachers but is “all about the students.”
“They waltz through school until they turn 18,” Keller tells L.A. Weekly. “And then we've got to start throwing some of them into jail.”
Keller blames the students' apathy and bad grades on the community. But students fare markedly better at some nearby high schools serving the same heavily Latino, low-income population.
Bell Senior High, in the notorious city of Bell, scored a 9 out of 10 on the statewide “similar schools ranking” — an important measure designed to correct for poverty, ethnicity and other demographics.
The ranking shows Bell is one of the top schools in California among heavily Latino, low-income campuses. HP, nearby, is not.
HP, with nearly the same poverty and ethnicity levels, scored a meager 4 on its similar schools ranking. At Bell, 27 percent of kids are proficient in math. That's more than five times as many students as at HP.
Reformers like Flores say it's not the community or the kids who have driven Huntington Park Senior High's academics into the ground.
A few weeks ago, parents at HP had good reason to believe that real change was around the corner. Three competing plans to fix the school, drafted by teachers and administrators, were in the hands of then-Superintendent Ramon Cortines.
On April 6, three mothers at the school's parent center were cautiously optimistic, even though the sloppy reform-planning process had driven away many parents. Community meetings led by LAUSD staff were unorganized, with nasty battles between cliques of teachers and administrators, says Martha Contreras, whose daughter attends HP. The plans also weren't properly translated into Spanish, she says.
And many parents didn't have time to attend meeting after meeting.
Not surprisingly, a March advisory vote among all parties was a disaster. Only one-quarter of HP teachers, 6 percent of students and less than 1 percent of parents bothered to vote.
So the three mothers espouse a dream that is exceedingly modest: “I just hope that whatever plan wins, they implement it,” Maria Elena Gomez says.
But Cortines stunned everyone by dumping all three HP reform plans as inadequate.
“Why have they been telling us since October to go to meetings?” says Gomez, whose four children have attended the school. “This seems like a circus to me.”
Janet Valenzuela, a senior at HP, says, “For Mr. Cortines to say these plans weren't enough, I think it's an insult.”
To many parents, it appears nobody is in charge at LAUSD.
Now the problem falls to new Superintendent Deasy, especially since the strongly pro-reform Flores, who was recently profiled by L.A. Weekly, is leaving the school board in July.
Flores' demand for a dramatic overhaul of HP put some teachers on the defensive. And because she's taking charge of a new education organization funded with startup money from the Bill Gates Foundation, she has become an easy target for those who say public education is being corporatized.
But many parents relied on Flores, praising her for taking the bull by the horns. “There was nobody else who was going to change things,” Contreras says.
Now, Gomez, one of the involved mothers, says, “I think there should be someone who really stays for a long time and works with the school community.”
Deasy says he might appoint a special supervisor whose only job would be to oversee the reform process at HP — an unusually personalized step for the LAUSD behemoth.
The most divisive issue is a plan to carve the school into small learning academies, which teachers and students have loudly opposed. Instructor Claire Martinet insists on maintaining the school's “100 years of unity.” Keller argues that small schools would raise administrative costs and stretch resources.
Lots of kids worry about something else: losing their football team, cheerleading squad and school colors. Flores insists none of those is at risk.
One student told Flores, “We want a public education.”
But no one is proposing privatizing HP. There's not even a nonprofit charter operator in the mix of ideas.
“I guess they don't understand it,” Contreras says.
Deasy, who has instituted small schools in Malibu and a couple of East Coast school districts, is expected to offer a new plan that, if accepted by the school board, will take effect July 1.
But veteran teacher Laurie Woerfel warns that one or two months is not nearly enough time for a major restructuring. “It's literally impossible,” she says.
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that regardless of which path to reform is chosen, what matters most is the individual teachers and administrators who will be given the power to execute it.
And in that area, insiders and observers say, HP has a long way to go. The school has had three principals in five years, and Principal Al Castillo, who was transferred in last year, has been criticized for absentee leadership.
“Castillo is here in name but not in person,” says parent Marta Escobedo, who says Castillo often “doesn't bother to come” to parent meetings.
Castillo says he has attended every meeting about reforming the high school.
Parents also say some HP teachers leave a lot to be desired. “They tell [students], 'You won't make anything out of your lives,' ” Gomez says. “Or they tell a boy, 'You won't get into that university.' We don't need these kinds of teachers.”
But Keller argues that improving education at HP starts with the kids, not with the staff. “You know what would make things better?” Keller asks. “They start doing their homework. That might help.”
Deasy likely will insist that HP teachers reapply for their jobs. If that happens, Keller says, many teachers won't bother. “We haven't done anything wrong,” he says. “You don't want us? Fine.”
In this ugly atmosphere, can Deasy turn around a troubled, factionalized school, using methods such as small schools that LAUSD then can apply to other failing campuses? For now, Deasy has his work cut out for him.