At first glance, the decision by the Los Angeles Unified School District to have four different entities involved in the operation of Jordan High School seems like a recipe for chaos and another experiment being carried out against vulnerable inner city youngsters.
But after meeting principal Sherrie Williams and observing her down-to-earth, no nonsense manner and approach to what she is up against at this perpetually troubled high school, your concern is somewhat allayed.
There is no doubt that Jordan High has struggled academically in the last few years. According to Marshall Tuck, chief executive officer of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools and leader of one of the entities helping to operate the new Jordan, the last straw for former Superintendent Ray Cortines was the fact that the school did not have the 95 percent of students taking the California Standards Tests required to qualify for the all-crucial Academic Performance Index Score (API).
Consequently, in January, after declaring an emergency and asking then-officials at the school to write a plan for a new direction, which he subsequently deemed lacking, Cortines installed a trustee at the Watts campus in February and then reached out to the Alliance for College Ready Schools, Green Dot Public Schools and the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (PLAS), all charter organizations, to bring together all their resources to try to put a deep focus on turning Jordan around, explained Tuck.
The Alliance has subsequently scaled back its involvement. This is not the first time Jordan has been in the charter school arena. According to Aureliano Nava, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) chapter chair at Jordan High, three years ago parents overwhelmingly voted to bring in a charter organization while teachers, by the slightest margin rejected the overtures of PLAS.
According to UTLA President Warren Fletcher, the union is challenging the district’s move in court, on the grounds that Cortines’ actions are illegal. The Public Employees Employment Relations Board has also filed suit and has a hearing date get in September.
“For schools to convert to a charter, and Green Dot is a charter, there are two ways in law to accomplish that,” explained Fletcher. “One is through conversion by an action of the parents, and the other is conversion by action of teachers. Neither of those things happened at Jordan.”
And while UTLA has implored the district not to go ahead with the changes, because of the question of the legality of the move, Fletcher says LAUSD is doing something to Jordan students and parents it would not do in a suburb.
Now Jordan will be operated as two small schools of about 750 students each. One, controlled by the partnership will serve students in grades nine to 12, and the other will be run by Green Dot Schools and in the first year will work with students in grades nine to 11. The LAUSD overlays the whole thing and serves as the controlling entity of the common areas, and some administrative functions.
Despite the obvious old and new challenges, Williams is excited about the opportunity the change offers and has some very definite ideas about what is going to be needed.
“The first thing you have to do is establish expectations, build relationships and not bend. You’ve got to be consistent about what the expectations will be,” Williams explained. “You’ve got to change the culture.
Once you’ve set that in motion, Williams believes it’s critical to get parents on board, and she intends to put a level of accountability on them as well, by asking mothers and fathers not to expect the rules to be bent for their individual offspring.
While Williams has never been a secondary principal, she has worked in the Watts community for years at many of the feeder elementary schools for Jordan–99th Street, Ritter Elementary, 92nd Street–and has worked closely with the secondary principals in the area. She believes she understands the community. “Jordan is the hub of the community; this is the biggest part of many people’s lives.”
Another thing that excites Williams is what she is expecting to be able to do as principal of the Partnership’s school. Her school will focus on performing arts including graphic design, and offer sports. She is also planning to create a robust afterschool program and insure that community is included in celebrating the school’s successes.
And already, being in this partnership has given Williams the flexibility that LAUSD-controlled schools like the old Jordan lacked. In this case, she was able leap frog one of the key challenges deep inner city schools like Jordan typically face-staffing with quality employees.
“. . . I was able to give signing bonuses of $1,500 to $3,000, and I had over 200 applications. That’s why it’s taken so long to hire. I wanted to make sure I was getting good fits,” said Williams who added she only re-hired nine of the 85 teachers who previously worked at the school.
But Williams is no Pollyanna and knows the transformation will not happen overnight or even in a year. “This is a six- to eight-year process, but we will try to accelerate it . . . we want it to be part of a Watts renaissance. We want people to be proud to come to Jordan.”