A Look Into L.A. Unified: Hyde Park Elementary
The Los Angeles Unified School District overflows with bad news. The second largest school district in the country has a graduation rate of a mere 72 percent, 8 percent lower than the state average. Thirty-two of the city’s worst performing schools were essentially auctioned off to rebuild as charters. The school board and teachers’ union voted to shorten the school year, cutting five days from this year.
A team of Neon Tommy reporters visited campuses across Los Angeles to see how well the reports match what happens in classrooms on any given day.
“Did you do your homework?” an imposing teacher asked a student in Ms. Burt’s fifth grade class. “We use words here. Did you do it?”
The student shook his head and remained silent.
“You will be seeing me at lunch AND recess. And I don’t want to have to come find you, you need to come find me,” the teacher told the boy. “Anyone else from my group yesterday that didn’t do their homework?”
The teacher had just brought a new student in Burt’s already crowded classroom. “Sit down, we’ll get you books later,” Burt told the new girl.
Without introducing the student to the class, Burt, an older woman who’s hearing seemed to be waning, continued around the room checking homework.
“No, that’s wrong,” Burt said without offering any encouragement or ideas to do it right the second time around.
This scene from Hyde Park, the 1970s-esque elementary school situated in south Los Angeles, home to 681 kindergarteners through fifth graders, while the worst scene witnessed, was not rare.
Regina Davis, the bridge coordinator at the school, took me to classrooms at Hyde Park Elementary to meet the teachers and then let me roam by myself from room to room.
“I don’t want to sugar coat it for you,” Davis said. “I’ll give you the real deal.”
Davis is one of few administrators on Principal Fannie Humphrey’s staff. Humphrey, who has been at Hyde Park just shy of eight months, lacks an assistant principal among other staff.
“If it were up to me, I’d have an assistant principal, a full-time PSA counselor, working with students on attendance, a full time literacy coach, a full time math coach, but we don’t have the money,” Humphrey said in a phone interview.
“The students are independent here, if they get up, they come to school, if they don’t get up on time, they don’t,” she said.
“We are still talking about elementary students, right?” I asked.
“Yes, we have some parent involvement, and we have an awards assembly highlighting the achievements of students that have perfect attendance, but we still have issues with parents being good role models and getting their kids to school,” Humphrey said.
Discipline at Hyde Park isn’t the worst of L.A. Unified’s middle schools, but certainly isn’t the best. In Humphrey’s eight months the school has dropped suspensions from about 15 every week, to about two.
Davis led me into Ms. Cabrera’s fifth grade classroom, where students were reading books without covers, talking over each other and chatting among themselves while Cabrera sat at the front of the room trying to talk over them.
“Boys and girls, boys and girls. Where should this point go on the graph?” Cabrera asked to a room that was half-heartedly paying attention. One student had his head facedown on the desk and was never woken by his teacher. Another student sat in the back of the room all by himself flipping though the book nonchalantly, making me wonder if he was looking for the right page or if he was just enjoying flipping through them all.
One issue that faces L.A. Unified, as well as many other school districts in the nation is the idea of tenured teachers. While Humphrey acknowledged that there were teachers who should no longer be in the classroom, removing them is a long process and it doesn’t happen very often.
“But it should,” she said. “For the sake of the children.”
Down the hall from Cabrera’s classroom was home to Mr. Cooper’s fifth grade class.
“Mr. Early,” Cooper swung his head around to the back of the class. “Mr. Early,” he said again, this time in a more commanding tone. The other students giggled at their fellow pupil with his head down on his desk “pretending” as Cooper called it, to sleep.
“Mr. Early, why don’t you come up here to the board and write the equation that will help us find distance.” The student begrudgingly walked to the board.
“Alright, who can tell me the equation for distance?” Cooper asked the 21 attentive students in his class. Hands shot up in the air.
“Jennifer.” Cooper said. A loud “awww” was heard in the room, all the students knowing that Jennifer was one of the few students who didn’t have her hand up. Almost as if it were orchestrated, this seemed to be about par for Cooper.
“Jennifer, can you tell Mr. Early what he should be writing on the board.”
A soft “d” was heard from Jennifer.
“I need a complete thought please,” Cooper said.
“D equals,” whispered Jennifer.
“What?” Mr. Early questioned Cooper.
“Don’t look at me,” Cooper told Mr. Early. “Ask Jennifer.” Mr. Early looked at Jennifer and repeated his question while the rest of the students, almost silently, watched the interaction.
Jennifer was stuck at “d equals.” Cooper continued to wait for her to process and think about the video they had just watched explaining the distance equation. The room fell silent. Cooper didn’t move on to another student. He stood there, waiting on Jennifer.
“D equals T times,” Jennifer squeaked. Mr. Early wrote on the board. “d = t x.”
“Where does it go?” asked Mr. Early. “Below or next to?”
“The X!” Jennifer said, knowing what she was trying to say, but it was getting lost in translation. With a little help from Cooper, the students finally put together the equation for distance, d=r x t.
Like every other school in the district, Hyde Park faces budget cuts, layoffs and tenured teachers that just don’t cut it anymore. Humphrey said that only about 35 percent of her students were reading or writing up to their grade level and that that number was actually up since she came out of retirement last fall to take her post at Hyde Park.
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