First day for South LA's restructured Fremont High

Earl Perkins, L.A. Unified's chief of school operations, welcomes students to the re-structured Fremont High School campus.
Earl Perkins, L.A. Unified's chief of school operations, welcomes students to the re-structured Fremont High School campus.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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The Los Angeles Unified School District followed through today on its pledge to make big changes at one of its lowest performing schools. South L.A.’s Fremont High School begins its year-round schedule with changes to its teacher corps, scheduling, and physical plant.

As they approached the campus, returning students expressed shock that the tall chain link fence that once made their campus resemble a prison was gone. In its place stood upbeat school district top brass in suits and ties, smiling big welcomes.

"Good morning sir, good morning. Good morning señora. Happy day!" said Earl Perkins, L.A. Unified's chief of school operations.

This first day of school at Fremont High was a big deal for L.A. Unified. The biggest change is to the teaching corps. The district said the quality of teaching was partly to blame for the snail’s pace of academic improvement.

All Fremont High teachers had to reapply for their jobs. The school’s new principal, Rafael Balderas, said he and his staff fielded 600 applications for about 200 jobs. On this first day of school, nearly half his faculty was new.

"People want to come to Fremont because there’s change, besides that, we probably have one of the most diverse group of teachers here. We have new teachers to Fremont. We have teachers that stayed, that’s been with us for 20 years," Balderas said.

One 11th grader said she looked forward to the change because some of her teachers last year appeared distracted and didn’t do enough to help her and other students.

Engaging the students on a daily basis lies with the teachers and staff, George McKenna III, Superintendent for Local District 7, which includes John C. Fremont High, said.

"When schools succeed, look to the adults. When schools fail, look to the adults," McKenna said on the Patt Morrison show today.

The school district also applied elbow grease to Fremont’s buildings. Graffiti is gone and layers of chewing gum on the floors were sandblasted away. Starting this year, its 4,500 students will have to demonstrate shiny new attitudes, too. Uniforms are mandatory and students will attend classes on longer block schedules.

Health teacher Jake Sanchez welcomed more than a dozen Fremont High 9th graders to advisory period and their new campus. Some students were bright eyed. Others looked sleepy. That is, until
a public address speaker in the classroom blared principal Balderas’s announcements for the day.

"Students, if you can tell the campus looks brand new. More importantly, in front of the school, it looks like a real school. We no longer have those fences. We want to make sure that it is open and welcoming. Also, get to know your teachers during advisory, they will be the first person that you will get to know," said Balderas.

After the announcement, teacher Sanchez resumed talking to students about career goals and academic expectations. "Here at Fremont, let me tell you, it’s not as rigorous as other schools. So you can get "A"s here if you decide to," he said. After the class emptied, he explained that most of these students are on the verge of dropping out, so "C"s are more than many adults would expect of them.

He’s one of Fremont’s returning teachers. Sanchez said he reapplied because he wanted to participate in the changes the school needed. He also sided with colleagues who argued that in recent years, teachers and administrators had turned around student behavior problems and had started to score academic gains.

"So, people got upset, they said, ‘look we’re doing some good stuff here, but what you’re telling us by reconstituting is that we’re worthless, we’re not doing well, we’re no good, we’re not good teachers,'" he said.

L.A. Unified’s targeted upending of Fremont High School is unprecedented for the school district. But it’s in step with a national trend President Obama and his education secretary promote through federal grants.

Pomona College education researcher David Menefee-Libey has studied this kind of public school reform. He said it doesn’t deliver on the ambitious promises.

"The challenge really is that these are mostly the same students, they’re in the same building, they’re in the same community, they’re facing the same educational challenges, they’re a lot of the same teachers, it’s most of the same educational program and trying to pull all those things together and make it into something entirely different and more successful is a really tough challenge," Menefee-Libey said.

The school district’s enlisted area religious and civic organizations to help Fremont High School. That, as much as removing the fences around the school, could convey to surrounding neighborhoods that the health of the neighborhood and its public schools go hand in hand.