Thursday, July 09, 2009

When the police sponsor a school

Over at City Journal, Laura Vanderkam has a fascinating article about magnet schools in Los Angeles that is sponsored by the Los Angeles Police Department. It seems like such a win-win idea.
L.A.’s six police magnets—five high schools and a middle school—have only partly fulfilled their original mission of recruiting and training more homegrown minority cops. But with four-year graduation rates that nearly double the LAUSD average, these innovative schools have done something far more important: preparing at-risk minority kids for college and sending the majority of them there.....

So [school board member] Weintraub approached then-mayor Richard Riordan with an idea: magnet high schools, affiliated with the LAPD, where active-duty officers would mentor and help instruct students and where the curricula would reflect criminal-justice themes. The hope was that some of the kids enrolled in these schools would later pursue careers in law enforcement in Los Angeles. With the help of outside grants, the first police magnets opened in 1996; by 2001, programs were running in Dorsey, Monroe, San Pedro, Reseda, and Wilson High Schools and at Mulholland Middle School in Lake Balboa. Today, the program enrolls about 1,300 students, most of them Hispanic.
The high school sounds like a great place to go to school.
The magnets differ starkly from typical urban schools. True, most faculty members are regular LAUSD teachers, and they offer the usual history, geometry, and composition instruction; students must take the classes required for admission to California’s public universities, including four years of English, three years of math, and two years of lab-science classes. Each school, though, has one or two active-duty LAPD officers on site, mentoring students and assisting teachers in some classes. The officers talk to students about what a police career entails, share stories, and even pinch-hit to keep the schools running smoothly (by, say, driving students home after sports practices). LAPD brass, including Bratton, make frequent visits to do student-uniform inspections and give motivational speeches.

The curriculum reflects the law-enforcement theme. Science classes, for example, detour from the usual quizzes and worksheets to emphasize high-tech police work. At Reseda, young CSI fans enjoy the use of a forensics lab. Under the tutelage of forensics teacher Barbara Andrade, students attack different types of glass with hammers to see how they shatter, and they study soil, just as detectives do to figure out if the clumps on a dead body are from the location where the body turned up or from somewhere else. The kids analyze fingerprints under a microscope and hair samples, too—when I visited, Alise Cayen, the Reseda magnet’s coordinator, had recently let students cut off a chunk of her hair to use in class.

Perhaps the schools’ most noticeable curricular feature is a relentless emphasis on physical fitness. Though modern police work requires more brains than brawn, physical stamina helps, and the cadets accordingly take four years of physical training that is a far cry from the halfhearted lap-running that many schools call gym class. At Reseda, the kids’ mile times—mostly seven to eight minutes, some as short as five and change—reflect the drills that coach Fernando Fernandez, a sub-three-hour marathoner, puts them through. The cadets lift weights, dart through obstacle courses, and crank out vast numbers of push-ups, sit-ups, and chin-ups. They graduate in the kind of shape that puts the rest of California schools—in which 35.4 percent of Hispanic children are overweight—to shame.
And the school has an innovative approach to school discipline - put the kids in charge.
Discipline is strict, a communal priority. Reseda organizes cadets into squads of five to eight, each supervised by a student leader. The leaders make sure that their cadets get their work done, keep their grades up, behave in class, and dress neatly. If a cadet falls continually out of line, his squad leader can wind up demoted by a more advanced student leader or—at Reseda—by Sazo, who is the school’s captain (top-ranking cadet). She takes her enforcement duties seriously. “I set them aside and tell them, ‘You haven’t been doing your job, but if you get it together, you have the opportunity to get it back,’” she says. Peer pressure is powerful; the schools have figured out a way to use it for good.
The schools may not be achieving their goal of getting more minorities to join the police force, but they are achieving a more important goal of graduating well-prepared, responsible, and mature students ready for the real world. This seems like an encouraging template for other communities to have partnerships between the police department and the schools. It's a true win-win for everyone involved.