Give Innovation a Chance

Looking for clues to help save public schools, I visited teacher Ellie Herman’s drama class at Animo Pat Brown Charter High School.

Located in a working-class Latino neighborhood in southeast Los Angeles County, Animo Pat Brown is one of 18 high schools run by Green Dot, a private organization authorized by the L.A. school board to operate public schools without many of the restrictions placed on traditional schools, such as union contracts for teachers. Several groups, including the teachers’ union, have applied to operate Los Angeles Unified School District charters. President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, strongly support charters. Many traditionalists don’t like them.

I’ve been urging readers to give public schools a chance. Many agree. As Rachel Heller reported in The Journal about an effort at Emerson Middle School: “Temple Isaiah activists are waging a two-pronged campaign — urging local Jewish families to look past the rumors and give the school a chance, and working to activate non-Jewish parents at Emerson’s feeder elementary schools so they’ll stay involved when their kids get to middle school.” Although not a charter school, Emerson has innovative programs in its traditional structure.

Charter schools are an important part of the process of convincing parents to consider public schools. I visited Animo Pat Brown to get a feel of how these charters worked.

Most of the Green Dot high schools are preceded by the Spanish word animo. “The word means courage, spirit and capacity to make an effort,” said Tatiana Hernandez, Green Dot’s development manager. “It is a notion that Green Dot students are asked to embody every day.”

The notion would have been heartily endorsed by Pat Brown, the late governor, who was proud of the many public school, state university and University of California campuses built during his administration. He would have loved walking through the quiet, sparkling halls of his namesake school and settling down, as I did, in Herman’s classroom to watch the students do their final performances of the year.

Herman has been a television writer for 20 years, and her credits include such programs as “The Riches” and “Hung.” After “The Riches” was cancelled, she said, “I impulsively applied to get a teaching credential.” Now, she’s studying at Cal State Northridge, teaching part time at Animo Pat Brown, and still doing a bit of TV writing. Fortunately, charter school flexibility allowed Green Dot to hire this inexperienced but potentially terrific teacher while she gets her credential.

Managing her classroom with a combination of firmness, humor and enthusiasm, Herman had the students quickly change into costumes in the restrooms across the hall and then, in groups of four or five, begin performing the short plays they had written.

One of them, “Family Troubles,” featured a domineering dad, a protective mom and two daughters who knew how to drive their parents nuts one way or another. Another play featured a clueless teacher trying to trick his students into revealing which one of them set his car on fire. “Nick’s Death” was about young men and women mourning a friend who had died, presumably violently.

Two featured drug dealers, one convincing as a contemptible sleaze, the other big, evil and frightening. That particular student was autistic. He had not wanted to perform, Herman told me later, “but the other kids were insistent.” With their support, he was powerful in the role.

Students learn from providing such support. In the class, they overcome stage fright and learn to speak in public. They must work in teams. They must rebound from failed performances and hit the stage again after a flop. They must write short plays and critiques of their classmates’ performances. Most won’t become actors. But hopefully, they will learn skills that will help as they move on to college or to the work force. With these students, actually, they’ll probably be both in college and in the work force. Many of their families are under the poverty line and the vast majority of students are on the free lunch program. They’ll have to work their way through college the hard way.

This is the sort of innovation that President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan have in mind with the so-called Race to the Top fund, which offers nearly $5 billion to school districts that undertake major change, including promoting charters; evaluating schools, administrators and teachers by student test scores; and closing low-performing schools.

I was impressed by the Animo Pat Brown school. But I’m convinced that good teachers in traditional high schools also innovate — and get fine results. So do the magnets.

All a parent can do is what I did. Visit the schools. Walk the halls. Sit in with a class. Talk to the teacher. It’s a tough decision.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).