A Look Into L.A. Unified: Nimitz Middle School
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.
In hallways of the sprawling, 2,850-student middle school in Huntington Park, you can hear a pin drop. Posters on the walls highlight student achievements, bright colors and science posters. Scattered among the honors are signs reminding students of the discipline that is the underlying theme of the middle school. Discipline keeps the number of students sent to the dean’s office low. It used to be about 50 a week. Now, it’s 10. Students learn early and often the school has a zero tolerance policy for breaking rules. Sixth, seventh and eighth graders form near perfect straight lines for lunch and clean up after themselves, almost without any prodding from the mostly young faculty.
“Every eight weeks we sit them down and remind them what is not going to be tolerated here,” Principal Frank Vasquez said. “They learn from each other. The sixth graders learn from the eighth graders."
Vasquez was the first principal to open up his school to our ongoing project to check out what's happening in L.A. Unified. He says the better learning environment comes from his strict enforcement of the rules and from grants that have helped keep class sizes small.
“All I can do is my best here, at Nimitz. Out of sight out of mind. I don’t want to be held up, I just want my school to do well.”
And it has. After coming to Nimitz in 1999 from Foshay Middle School, Vasquez has taken the Academic Performance Index from 419 to 654. That’s an average of 23 points a year.
“Eight hundred is the goal, but we have done a better job,” Vasquez said. “There is still more work to do.”
While grants have helped Nimitz reduce class sizes from about 36 to 24, if not smaller, the school, which operates year-round, is also separated into Tracks A, B and C. Students get eight-week breaks at different times, bringing back more refreshed and energized pupils.
A buzzer goes off and the students—who don’t even fill all the desks in a large classroom—put their pencils down and sit up straight without Michael Beiersdorf saying anything. The buzzer means that individual work time is over and Beiersdorf is about to start class. The students in his seventh grade science class are engaged and attentive, answering questions when called upon and quietly raising their hands if they know the right answer.
Vasquez says the quality of his teachers is of the utmost importance. Beiersdorf, a braces-clad Teach for America grad, is just one of the many, young, motivated teachers Vasquez desires.
Vasquez thinks his school's biggest problem is getting veteran teachers to buy into his program. “The burn out is low for young teachers here,” Vasquez said.
Mrs. Peterson is an exception. A 20-year veteran of teaching, Peterson said that Vasquez understands how “law and order” works. “Other schools have this overwhelming need to understand behavior, we just stop and correct.”
Peterson's math room is filled with kids grabbing their own supplies, working in teams and asking thoughtful questions. “Their behaviors have changed radically since Principal Vasquez has been here,” Peterson said. “I support him and he supports us, he’s been great.”
Along with discipline, Vasquez emphasizes group learning. Students in most classes sit in four or five desk clusters and work together on all sorts of subjects. One classroom all helped each other answer history questions out of books, and debated the answers.
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