How One Teacher Turned A Class Around

“So I heard that Fremont was the worst school ever,” Jordan Gonzales is telling me. We’re sitting in his classroom at Fremont High in South L.A. where he’s taught for the last three years. In his late twenties, Jordan is idealistic, enthusiastic and extremely funny. Before teaching at Fremont, he taught middle school English in Lynwood, just north of Compton and just east of Watts. In Lynwood, he loved the kids, but at the end of the year in Lynwood he was pink-slipped, so he applied to Fremont.

“Everyone was like, don’t go there. They’ll slash your tires. I came in there and I saw the kids and I was like, are you kidding? These are good kids. Who are you even talking about? When he was offered the job, he started work the next day.

That year, Fremont was taken over by Superintendant Ramon Cortines and the district. Jordan started teaching 9th grade English. Because of a QEIA (Quality Education Investment Act) grant, the school had additional funds for small class size, so his classes were around 22 students, though when QEIA funding ended mid-year, he suddenly found himself with classes of 40. To keep his classes under control, he had to bump up his classroom management style. “My strategy is, I’m gonna be in your face in the craziest way. I love the kids. I know I’ve just gotta surprise them somehow.”

For Jordan, the workload is a huge source of teachers’ struggle. “A lot of teachers here have four preps, everyone’s just overwhelmed. We’re all trying to play catch-up. English intervention [for students with low skills] is a free-for-all. All these people doing different things. It’s not that there aren’t great teachers here. There are. I love them. But there’s no time.”

This year Jordan took matters into his own hands. He assigned the book “Speak,” a high-interest young adult book, and required that students read and annotate it every night, with a writing conventions quiz every week. The first semester 95% of his students failed.

Second semester, Jordan decided to create his own in-class mentoring program. Through his own personal network, reached out to a Young Life group at Biola University, bringing college kids into the class every Thursday. The college tutors work individually with students. “When kids aren’t doing work, I tell the college tutors to take them into the hall and get to the bottom of it. It’s been humbling. They tell me when I’m teaching it in a way they don’t understand.” Other times, the college tutors learn about personal problems in students’ lives. “The kids love it,” Jordan says.

The second piece of his intervention program was forming relationships with parents. “I talked to the kids and I used my quiet voice. I told them, I’m gonna call home and when I call you up and I’m gonna call your parents, you’re gonna talk to them and you’re gonna tell them why you’re failing. Kids are crying, parents are going off off on them…I sat there for two periods. I called every kid who was failing. That was huge.”

But Jordan is clear that this was also no miracle cure. “A lot of them still didn’t do any work.” Jordan started offering incentives, points for kids who did work, points for parents who sat in on class, time in class to praise kids who did work. He made positive phone calls home. Slowly, kids started turning around.

Today, about half of his class is passing. That may not sound miraculous, but it’s literally about 20 times better than it was before. He’s still working on the remaining half. He continues to push for innovations. When the L.A. Neighborhood Land Trust build a community garden on Fremont’s lot, he formed a collaboration with them and now teaches a unit requiring students to write research papers based on actual studies of a garden they’re planting.

To me, Jordan Gonzales is a case study on the challenges of being a great teacher at a school that is struggling to improve in a historically low-income community with some of the most entrenched generational poverty in the city. When the school was taken over by Cortines and the district, they formed a partnership with LAEP, and through that partnership, they are working to create community partnerships with local organizations. In April of this year, a health center opened on campus next to the community garden; in my next post, I’ll be writing about the work that LAEP’s community coordinator, Robert Vidana, is doing to connect students to services and opportunities.

During the day I spent at Fremont, several students told me the school had changed radically ever since 2011, when the LAUSD built a new school a little further south, which in the students’ opinion siphoned off a large number of the problem students and certainly eased overcrowding. The students I talked to were college-bound and took great pride in their school, which they said was safe and staffed with excellent, caring teachers. Still, last year the school had only a 53% graduation rate. Of that slightly-above-half who graduated, only 35% had passed the requirements needed to attend a 4-year California state university. As I write this post, the ACLU has filed a class action suit against the California Department of Educaiton for failing to provide an adequate education to its students, naming Fremont among six other schools in the suit.

Jordan is distraught by the ACLU suit, which he feels will threaten the improvements the school has worked so hard to make and which need more time to take full effect. “My fear is that the outcome will be punitive and more restraints will be placed on a school, staff and community who needs positive support,” he says. In a high-poverty neighborhood where there are many, many factors contributing to students’ ability to stay in school, statistics like graduation rates may be depicting the reality of the trauma of deep poverty, rather than the functionality of a school.

As I’ve said in earlier posts, and as Jordan’s classroom experience illustrates, no matter how excellent an education, a school or a teacher may be, there seems to be a significant number of at-risk students who for a variety of complex reasons that nobody has yet unpacked, are not yet able to do the work no matter how excellent the teacher is. Suing the school and getting more people fired is unlikely to be a constructive solution to the deeper problems faced by the Fremont community. Certainly in the past here, such measures have not been miracle cures, and as I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve visited schools all over the city and have not seen any school in a very high-poverty community that is successfully reaching the most at-risk students. If that’s the case, I’m not sure how much good a lawsuit is going to do. A better solution might be to take a closer look at what’s been successful here, like Jordan’s work in turning around so much of his class, and then give those innovations time to work on a larger scale.

Our students desperately need more teachers as passionate, innovative and caring as Jordan Gonzales. The work he’s doing is enormously time-consuming, far beyond anything I would ever have been able to do for more than a year or two. Before we start suing people, our first questions should be, what are teachers like Jordan doing right—and how are we going to keep teachers like them in the classroom?



2 thoughts on “How One Teacher Turned A Class Around”

  1. This is a post that every well-intentioned education reformer, and every politician who dabbles in education policy, needs to read. We need to shift from a punitive based set of reforms to a supports based set of reforms. Why, on Earth, if 1) I want to be a teacher and 2) I want to be paid and work for longer than a year or two, would one choose to teach in such a high risk school? Why create policies and lawsuits that discourage people to want to teach in such a challenging school?

    Here’s why it happens in my humble opinion:
    – There are people looking for easy answers to complex problems.
    – If one believes that the school is overflowing with inept people, there’s a certain satisfaction is thinking that punitive based reforms will do some magic trick.

    I like to think as a teacher since I’m a teacher. If I yell at students and tell them that if they don’t get their assignments done and work, that they’ll get detention and Saturday school and calls home and that they’ll fail, it scares a certain percentage of students into doing well, but not all. It doesn’t work for the vast majority of students who already struggle. So, yelling louder doesn’t work for them. Ed policy works the same way. “Darn it educators why do you suck so much so now let me yell at you and fire you!” This doesn’t work at scale.

  2. Great work at Fremont High School!

    But, we can’t expect all teachers to take this on. I find it very troubling when people say one teacher can make all the difference, because it is very true, but they shouldn’t have to be super heroes in order to teach. It almost makes it easier to blame all teachers when they aren’t. I’ve heard parents yell at teachers for not staying until 7pm for tutoring, not working weekends, not having enough supplies when their kids’ previous teachers did (not knowing that teacher paid for it all out of pocket). It’s great individual teachers do all this, because there is no alternative. But there should be, right?

    As someone that went to a “bad school,” small improvements should be celebrated, but we shouldn’t give the impression it’s all fixed. There have always been amazing and hopeful teachers at this school, but will they last through the burnout if system changes aren’t made?
    Teachers need more support from the system. True, they don’t need more rules and bureaucratic red tape, but definitely more resources.

    From what I’ve read on the case filed it doesn’t seem like the lawsuit is against teachers or students. I took a look at the complaint and it addresses teacher turnover by listing the very real reasons teachers leave like lack of resources, not enough support, etc. I think it is looking at what good teachers do right… offer mental health support, mentorship, and have good training/personal connections to the school and community and saying “They shouldn’t have to do this all on their own.” It also focuses a lot on the use of service and home classes, which are a huge waste of time for most kids. i had a few in high school (And middle school!) and they sucked.

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