“The times, they are a-changin’,” Carlos Gordillo warns via email as we arrange for me to visit his Special Ed English class. Since I talked to him a month ago, one of the small schools on his site has been closed, a charter middle school has made plans to move in, the principal has become site director, one assistant principal has been bumped up to principal and the other assistant principal has decamped for a job at a place called the Office of Instruction.
When Carlos meets me in the sunny administrative office of the sprawling Roybal campus, he shrugs, philosophical, when I ask him to explain. The campus itself is a complex of gleaming modern buildings occupying 35 acres only a few blocks from downtown. But the glittering appearance belies its kafkaesque history.
Begun in the late 80’s as part of a plan to ease overcrowding at Belmont High, a school in a high-poverty community serving mostly Latino and African-American students, the LAUSD discovered almost a decade into the plans that the north side of the site had once housed an old oil field and was contaminated with methane and hydrogen sulfide. Because methane in high concentrations can be explosive and hydrogen sulfide, if inhaled, can be toxic, the plans for the new Belmont High stalled.
You would think that when contemplating the relocation of thousands of children, a school district would decide not to expose these children to potentially toxic and explosive gases. You would be wrong. Instead, the project was renamed, a sleight of hand commendable for its sheer ballsiness. Don’t worry about those toxic, explosive gases! Those were at Belmont! The school on the toxic site was then redesigned under the new, un-mellifluous new name of “the Edward R. Roybal Learning center,” after a former congressman. The LAUSD then took bids to dispel all these gases and began to rebuild with new architects, only to discover in 2002 that the site also was on an earthquake fault.
Now, I’m no geologist, but it seems to me that the only thing worse than standing over toxic, explosive gases would be standing over them on a fault line during an earthquake. If the cataclysmic release of toxic fumes didn’t wipe you out, the monumental fireball triggered by all that friction plus gas would probably do the trick, right? The LAUSD had no such Pollyanna-ish qualms, knocked down a third of the buildings, installed a park and sunk $300 million into completing the job. When construction finished, it had a dance studio with a cushioned maple floor, 450 underground parking spaces and a kitchen with a restaurant-quality pizza oven.
Don’t you want to move in there right now? Well, you could, because there’s plenty of space; since its grand opening in 2008, enrollment has plunged from its initial 2,500 to around 1,700, a decline that continues precipitously every year for reasons generally attributed to population shrinkage and the flight of many families to charter schools. The sprawling Roybal campus feels eerily underpopulated, with vast acres of cement and scrawny, leafless trees.
Roybal, run by the LAUSD, was originally divided into four pilot schools, each with a separate administration and focus, but Carlos tells me that one of them will closed by the LAUSD for low performance at the end of this school year and all of its students dumped into the Business and Finance pilot where Carlos teaches. What’s the effect going to be on Carlos’ Special Ed classes? Again, he shrugs and smiles. Time will tell.
Despite all the changes, Carlos’ classroom is calm and quiet when I arrive. About ten students, all boys, are in small discussion groups working on a packet. The room is bright and organized, stocked with laptops the students are using for their work. An aide circulates, giving individual assistance, along with Carlos, who goes from group to group checking in and pushing discussions along. I sit in on a group of three heavyset, talkative guys who look about eighteen and ask them what they’re working on. They tell me that they’re writing a paper about whether video games make teenagers more violent, a topic the class chose from a list of possible topics Carlos gave them.
When I look at the packet, I’m blown away. First of all, though most of the teachers I’m following (not all—some have no interest in Common Core) are adjusting their lessons to reflect Common Core standards, Carlos is the only one who has thrown out his spring curriculum and replaced it with reading and writing assignments to address the Common Core’s emphasis on non-fiction texts, decoding scientific studies and synthesizing information to construct a coherent argument. At the beginning of the semester he offered the students a list of high interest topics including gangs, parenting styles, and learning disabilities in adulthood. Once they made their choices, he designed a packet of readings on each topic that includes both popular articles and academic research.
Remember: this is a Special Ed class, which makes the rigor of these assignments especially impressive. Because of the various disabilities in the room, Carlos has had to make what are called accomodations, scaffolding to break down every assignment into bite-size pieces. Readings are color-coded, with information of different types highlighted in red, green and yellow. For each type of essay, Carlos has a worksheet that breaks down every single sentence into its basic components so that students can focus on a single phrase or idea at a time without having to wrestle through the whole idea at once. He also has a flotilla of strategies and techniques to break down critical thinking into its essential components.
I don’t know what the disabilities are in this particular group of three, but these kids are plenty articulate and engaging. When I ask if they have an opinion, they do—a strong one. A kid in a white T-shirt tells me that the games get you angry, and that when you’re angry, you’re much more likely to be violent–a point I’d never thought of.
Before we can talk further, Hector*, a skinny kid with an eager smile comes over and sticks out his hand, introducing himself and asking to be interviewed. Despite his professional manner, his white button-down Oxford shirt is splattered with stains, and he struggles to find words. Later, Carlos will tell me that Hector suffered seizures when he was younger that appear to have caused some cognitive damage. His goal for Hector is to keep him positive but realistic.
Hector loves school, he tells me. “I work really hard. I try hard.” The class, he says, is very helpful. “He give you classes like for college.” To illustrate his point, he takes out a fat binder of his work, pulling out an essay he wrote for the last packet, but his face falls as he remembers he did not get beyond the first few sentences even with Carlos’ clear directions for what each sentence is supposed to be about. “Sometimes I get confused,” Hector says. He sits over the unfinished paper, upset. “Everybody do mistakes,” he says, as if trying to persuade himself.
Hector turns back to his work and I go back to the group of three guys, where the conversation has drifted into a discussion of how angry their parents get at them for playing video games, including an entertaining analysis of whether one of their younger brothers is angry because he’s from a loud family or because he’s fat and being fat pisses him off. These kids have no trouble finding words; in fact, they are extremely loquacious and charming. But they struggle to stay focused on the topic.
Carlos eases over and directs them back on task. “What’s one of the statistics that it talks about in that study we read about people with criminal background? Remember, there was a control group? What did the people with criminal histories tend to do?”
“They tend to choose,” says the guy in the white T-shirt.
“Tend to choose what?” Carlos asks.
“They tend to choose violent video games.”
Throughout, Carlos remains calm and persistent. When I ask him how the new curriculum is going, again, he’s philosophical. Though the kids are engaged, he’s not ready to call it a success. “I’m a liberal studies major,” he says. “I dropped a lot of literature for this. I’m still having inner debates about what I dropped.” He tells me to ask him at the end of the year, when he has a better sense of what they’ve gained and lost.
The bell rings and most of the students leave. The guy in the white T-shirt stays. “I’m gonna skip 2nd period, I’m gonna stay all day. I need help,” he says.
Though Carlos’ next class has five kids on the roster, only one shows up. Carlos is unfazed. Amidst the absolute insanity of all of this—the pizza ovens and maple dance floors, the wholesale scrapping of one set of standards that teachers were supposed to be accountable for and the replacement of them with another, completely different set of standards that we are now really supposed to be accountable for, the creation of brand-new schools designed to reimagine education and then, shortly thereafter, the closing of those schools because they’re deemed failures due to low scores on the tests that have been scrapped because we decided they weren’t measuring anything meaningful, the fact that this entire school may blow sky high the next time there’s an earthquake—Carlos has an astonishing ability to stay focused on the only thing that really matters, which is showing up every day and working with the kids in front of him, pushing them a little harder, never giving up on them even if they give up on themselves.
Over and over, I’m humbled by the teachers I observe.
*all names of students have been changed.