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Testing the limits

Cynthia E. Griffin- | 9/17/2008, 5 p.m.

The educational approach at City Honors High School in Inglewood is nothing really radical. There are no exceptionally sophisticated computer programs training students. There are no thousands of extra dollars paid to tutors, coaches and other academic boosters. There is no bottomless pool of veteran teachers with decades of experience under their proverbial belts helping lead the charge. And physically, a look at the campus brings to mind the moniker "bungalow city."
Yet, despite all these seemingly simple parameters, the recently released results of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE), showed that African American Students at City Honors outperformed their counterparts in four local school districts (Compton, Centinela Union Valley, Culver City and Los Angeles) and kept pace with students at one other (Beverly Hills).
In fact, the Inglewood youngsters outpaced their contemporaries at three of LAUSD's most highly touted schools--Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES), King Drew Medical Magnet High and Middle College (located at Southwest College.)
During the 2007-2008 school year, 100 black students took the English language arts portions of the exit exam and 95 percent passed. In math, 102 took the test and 91 percent passed.
Beverly Hills is the only school district to partially surpass City Honors, and that was done with a much smaller group of students (39) in only one subject: Math. The pass rate was 95 percent.
California Academy of Mathematics and Science (CAMS), which is located on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills and has a much smaller African American student population, is the only campus to totally outscore City Honors. The regional public high school tested 23 students in both math and English language arts and 100 percent passed.
So, how did City Honors do it?
A stroll around the campus and in and out of classrooms gives a little indication of what might be making the difference-the students know the principal by name and sight, and greet her: "Good Morning Mrs. Brown."
That acknowledgment is most likely the result of the daily ritual principal Thelma Brown practices. Every morning she visits each of her 17 classrooms to greet students and teachers. It is an interaction that involves equal measures of encouragement, praise and recognition with a few words of guidance thrown in when needed.
"I walk around the school a lot and talk to the kids. I'm a people person, and I have a relationship with all the 10th, 11th and 12 graders," explained Brown, who is principal and counselor at City Honors and says she will soon know all the ninth graders as well.
A nut brown woman with shoulder length dark colored hair and a penchant for calling students "sweetpea" Brown, attributes her school's success to a number of factors.
These include an emphasis on character education, a requirement that all students respect themselves and others--there is a zero tolerance policy for fighting. There is also the expectation that young people can and will achieve, and a carefully selected faculty pushes that agenda.
"I hand pick all my teachers, because not everyone can teach here," said Brown of her 17 educators. "They've got to love kids. I don't care if they're black white, brown, purple or green, they've got to want to work with the whole child," said Brown.
This may mean, added Brown, understanding that before arriving at school a student may have been responsible for getting younger siblings up and off to class. It also means understanding why youngsters in such situations may have left a notebook at home.
"I run the school like a family; everybody is supposed to look after each other," said Brown, who has been principal at City Honors seven of the eight years it has been open.
That "family-like" atmosphere is facilitated by an open-door policy in Brown's office that allows students to wander in, to drop off or pick up books or cheerleading gear or drop by for a quick hello, a little conversation or a hug.
To get into City Honors, students must have at least a 3.0 grade point average (GPA), and apply. Brown said there is currently a 50-person waiting list, and that about half of the school is composed of students who do not live in Inglewood. But the principal insists that her pupils are not necessarily the cream skimmed off the top.
"We have kids who have a 3.0 when they get here, who allow their GPA to drop as low as 1.0. We give them tutoring and work with parents and students to bring it up," explained Brown. If it does not come up, students will be asked to leave. Last year, Brown said five students had to leave because of low GPAs.
In contrast to City Honors, King Drew and LACES are much larger schools (1,700 and 1,543) while Middle College with its 331 enrollment is a bit smaller.
All three of the LAUSD schools are special programs where interested students submit applications and are admitted based on a point system that includes how many times you have been rejected for admission to a magnet, whether or not you have siblings attending and other criteria. Grade point average is not a necessary major consideration.
At Middle College High, students submit an application directly to the school supply recommendations from teachers and counselors and must write an essay.
The number of pupils with a 3.0 or better grade point at the LAUSD schools vary. At King Drew, 154 of 450 juniors hit that level while 118 of 303 seniors were at that threshold.
At LACES, 20 percent of its 1,546 students have a GPA of 3.0 grade point average and above, while the 29 percent of students at Middle College High earned a 3.0 or better for the spring semester, which is lower than normal, according to Principal Wanda Moats.
In contrast to City Honors, the three LAUSD schools have students with grade points as low as 1.0, but they do not necessarily make the pupil leave, if grades do not rise. Instead they work with the youngster to make improvements, and if that still is not successful, they may sit down with students and their parents to determine if the school is the correct place for the youngster.
Student achievement at City Honors is not left to chance: It is a result of the continuous nurturing Brown and her staff provide; the exercise of compassion as part of the school behavior code; and a group of teachers who want the best possible outcome for students.
Christopher Smith and Roderick Thomas are perfect examples of the teachers Brown recruits. Smith teaches health and physical education and drives two hours from San Diego to teach at the school. He is in his third year of teaching.
"The youth here are special. They want to do something with themselves," added Smith, who also likes the "family-oriented" atmosphere at the school.
Thomas, who drives in from Lancaster 60 miles each morning to teach pre-calculus and calculus, relishes the challenge the school and its students present him. "I love working here; the atmosphere, the people with whom I work with. On the whole, the students are wonderful and afford me a challenge to prepare them for college; they challenge us to do our best."
Thomas has been teaching at City Honors four years and leaves home daily at 5 a.m. to arrive by 7 a.m. Once on campus, he will help whatever student wanders into his classroom.
Brown estimates that her instructors average three to five years of teaching experience, and interestingly enough, of the 17 instructors 10 are males and of those, seven are African American.
There also appears a sense of dedication in the teachers that prompts 100 percent of them to do things like attend a full-day staff development session even before they are required to report for the beginning of the school year. And to make sure that no teacher is an island, Brown said she pairs new instructors with veteran educators.
In terms of the curriculum, the principal said the school follows the state content standards but also insures that each student has either a study partner or is part of a study group. The youngsters also take college courses concurrently with their high school work.
The curriculum is definitely rigorous, said Eric Balley, the school program coordinator, who sees students arrive from middle school with a 4.0 grade point average and encounter challenges at City Honors because of the toughness of the instruction and level of expectations.
"We don't allow students to turn in a wrinkled, sloppy assignment, for example. We make them redo it," Balley said.
City Honors students also spend time tutoring younger pupils at nearby Hudnall Elementary.
Brown also noted that there is a sense of trust that is placed on students to do what is required. And that is paired with taking the time for staff members to develop the type of relationships with the young people that enables adults at the school to function as "second mothers, fathers and grandparents."
Separately all these elements seem like nothing out of the ordinary, but together they have helped create a school that in 2007 was recognized with a silver medal as one of the best high schools in the nation by U.S. World and News Report . The schools in the top 100 of this list are awarded gold medals, and all other schools with a college-readiness index of at least 20, which are not in the top 100 nationally, receive silver or bronze awards.

Snap Shot for African American Students on the
California High School Exit Exam Results 2007-2008

School Math Pass English Language Students tested
Rate Art Pass Rate

City Honors High91954
*Animo South Los Angeles (C)43633/4
*Beverly Hills High95922
*California Academy of Math and Science (A)1001001
*Culver City High71854
*Foshay Learning Center79562/3 *King Drew Medical Magnet76824
*Middle College High76852
*LACES87914
*View Park Prep (C)62834
*Compton Unified School District25341773
*Inglewood Unified School District32471168
*Los Angeles Unified School District384712.232
*County of Los Angeles394930,182
*State of California425084,624

* 2007-2008 was the first year that students with a learning disability were required to take the Exit Exam

(A) = Alternative high achieving school, (C) = Charter School

Number of Students
1 = 23 or fewer, 2 = 25-50, 3 = 51-99 or more, 4 = 100 or more