Downtown Magnets High Tops District 4 Schools in Test Scores
Creating a School Culture that Helps Students “Focus on Learning”
It is 8:02 a.m. on a recent school day. About a half hour before classes begin, there is a buzz in the school library. Teachers and administrators at Downtown Magnets High School are hunched over iPads and Macbooks, hashing out new ideas.
At this staff meeting, two instructors lead a discussion about using the Internet to further classroom learning. Educators call it the “flipped classroom,” a new technique gaining steam that allows students to interact with teacher created material online. In turn, students spend class time covering subjects in greater depth or working on assignments that they normally don’t get a chance to get to do throughout the year.
Hong Chao records algebra and calculus lectures on video so his students from grades nine through 12 can watch on a home computer, or on a smart phone, say, while riding the school bus. The recordings, created with free software by Educreations, can be watched and re-watched, allowing students to review lessons anytime on their own.
“This is a good step in the right direction,” Chao says of the recorded lessons placed on his website or found on the Internet. “This is the future.”
At Downtown Magnets, teachers and administrators take pride in thinking creatively so students can thrive. Working together, they learn to make more out of less, such as tapping business contacts to help prepare students for life beyond high school. The outcomes have been impressive.
Their academic performance has quickly approached the state target of 800, rising from 690 over the past five years. English proficiency scores have steadily increased to 57% in 2010-2011, from 49% in 2007-2008. During the same time period, math proficient and advanced scores have doubled to 38% from 19%, as algebra proficiency rose by 47%. Moreover, improvement also has been found in staff and student attendance, in those passing the state exit exams, and four-year cohort graduation rates.
Data for the individual magnets provides even greater insight into the schools’ upward trajectory. For the 2010-2011 school year, students improved on both the math and English portions of the state standards test. Overall, 52% of students performed at advanced or proficient in English, up 4% from a year ago. In math, 37% of students scored at the same high levels in Mathematics, rising 11% over the same period.
In turn, the Electronic Information Magnet program also has shown continual improvement, recording double digit growth last year in both sections of the state standards test. Currently, 70% of students excel at the advanced or proficient levels in English, growing 11% from a year earlier. In math, nearly half or 47% of students achieved at a proficient level or higher, recording a 16% gain over the same period.
In August, when results were released for the Academic Performance Index, a statewide standardized test measuring academic growth, students averaged 784 overall. That figure reflected a 29 point increase from a year earlier, topping all schools in District 4, a broad region stretching from West Hollywood to Eagle Rock; Valley View to just south of downtown Los Angeles. These impressive results resulted in a composite score of “Excelling” on the School Performance Framework, a rare score for one of the district’s high schools.
“It starts with the school culture, where students feel safe and can focus on learning,” said Brandon Cohen, who has been principal for the past two years. “But layered on top of that is a school with high expectations for academics. And, on top of that, students see how their learning here is applied in real world experiences.”
“So, these things make students want to be successful,” he continued. ”They want to go to a prestigious college. They want to understand the process of how to be successful after high school.”
Downtown Magnets has been designated as one of 12 ‘Schools on the Move’ by Donna Muncey, chief of Intensive Support and Intervention, and her team. They included Estelle Luckett, director, Student Integration Services; Deborah Ernst, director, Federal and State Education Programs; Ada Snethen Stevens, director, Pilot and Expanded School-Based Management Model Schools, a new approach to local control of schools; and Jodie Newbery, Program and Policy Development Advisor. The group was impressed with the school’s steady growth in student performance and the opportunities students are afforded at this magnet school.
The selected schools share in common administrators, who employed innovative practices to attain higher levels of achievement, Muncey said. Journal profiles on each of these schools will be posted by early July on the District’s redesigned website. It is Muncey’s goal that other principals will access the information with the intent to incorporate practices that can help raise achievement levels at their particular schools.
“Principals and teachers who want to get better are always on the lookout for new ideas,” Muncey said. She added that she hopes representatives from other campuses visit one or more of the ‘Schools on the Move’ to observe firsthand the successful and innovative work being done in the classroom.
“This effort is in line with the new contract between the District and the teacher’s union (UTLA) that both encourages and endorses greater autonomy for our schools,” Muncey said. “Principals can and should learn from each other at the site, using other schools as one way to reflect on their own work, and set new directions.”
Located on the northwestern edge of downtown, with close-up views of downtown skyscrapers and near the gateway to Chinatown, the high school was created three decades ago out of a vacant warehouse. Take a close look and find the building still bears those markings. Other than at a pair of entrances, the school has no windows, no natural light, nothing to visually distract students from the insular focus of their studies.
“I think it is part of what makes our community so tightly-knit,” Cohen said.
Samuel Dovlatian, the school’s coordinator who has taught there for 11 years, put it another way: “We’re labeled as ‘the box’ because we’re in a building with no windows to the outside, but we always think outside of the box, which is what makes us unique.”
The school has no gym for physical education either. Instead, students ride buses to hike in hilly Griffith Park, swat backhands on the tennis courts at Echo Park, or sink jump shots in the gym across the street at the Roybal Learning Center.
Still, students make do with a facility that lacks the features of a newer building. On a recent school day, several students sat in a carpeted hallway, just outside the classroom door, discussing a small group project because of limited space. No one’s flustered, though. Dovlatian paused to look at the students, turned away and continued his guided tour for a visitor down the opposite hallway.
“We take advantage of every inch of this place,” he said.
Dovlatian is one of several alums who returned to teach at the school designed to emulate a business atmosphere. When the magnet was originally created, classrooms were modeled after cubicles, separated only by partitions that left a large gap between the barrier and the ceiling. Back then, conversations drifted from room to room, similar to an office environment. Instead of bells signaling the end of class, students looked at their watches.
But the school, with 1,050 students now, has expanded over the years to include programs for electronic information, fashion careers, and engineering. With growth came noise and, to minimize distraction, the cubicle concept was scrapped. Today, classrooms are sealed. An electronic bell cues the period’s end.
The importance of college is drilled into students from the first day of orientation down to the ‘block’ schedule they follow on a daily basis.
On Mondays, students attend all six semester-long classes. Then, they go to half their classes for two hours every other day through Friday. Administrators believe this schedule allows courses to be covered in greater depth; gives students time to go off-campus for physical education and other courses; and helps students adapt quicker to college where they will have a similar timetable.
Moreover, the schedule has built-in time for students to meet in groups with their advisor three days per week. They bond over test-taking strategies, or by pairing together pupils who are stronger in a subject with those needing help. In addition, every five weeks, advisors review student grades and meet one-on-one with pupils as follow up, or intervene as needed.
This helps create a culture of high expectations. More than 60% of graduates are planning to attend a four-year college this year, rising sharply from roughly one-third in 2004-05, said Lynda McGee, the school’s college counselor. She holds college awareness night for Spanish-speaking parents, and has been widely praised for helping students find a college, sometimes off the beaten path, where they flourish.
Roger Rivera, a graduate who attended the University of California Santa Cruz and nominated her for recognition through NextStepU e-magazine, said of her: “She has organized events where people would come and help students with the (financial aid) application, as well as host numerous college nights where representatives from colleges would come to our school and provide information for parents and students.” He added: “Without her, I would not be going to college.”
The seeds for creating a college mindset are planted before students take their first class. Over the summer, the school holds a three-day seminar where new students learn about the college-going culture, various career opportunities, and resources available when in need of help.
They review the importance of good study habits, the usefulness of life-long learning and the relevance of speaking up when they see other students engaged in poor behavior. This session is bolstered throughout the school year by more assemblies, further cementing for students what’s expected of them to succeed.
“We start the process of making sure they understand what happens on Day 1 about behavior and we support them, but there is a certain way we do things here,” Cohen said. “This is where students ‘get on board’ with the DMHS way of doing things.”
“The culture is so entrenched that it’s not an option for them. But it’s a culture that students are proud to be in, want to be in and that teachers want to maintain.”
Students cultivated in this system realize there is no single pathway at the school for success. They are admitted into a magnet program, and could be further divided into a cohort of one of several academies, based on their interests. Getting exposure to career professionals in the student’s chosen field helps make their classroom studies more relevant.
In addition, the school partners with dozens of companies and non-profits in the business, media, fashion, and engineering industries that help enhance student learning by providing internships or sponsoring workshops. The National Academy Foundation and California Partnership Academies have played a major role in providing the professional development, curricular guidance, and business partner connections needed in order to create strong career pathways.
Fashion students, for instance, spend a semester in the California Market Center, a hub of downtown’s fashion district, where designers present garments for corporate buyers that are sold in boutiques and shopping malls. Those in the Academy of Business and Finance take courses on accounting and corporate finance from professors at USC.
Students enrolled in the Electronic Information Magnet program take their history courses in classrooms at the renowned Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, where they have access to their research facilities, and Teenscape Center, exclusively for teenagers.
The Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP), a nonprofit that provides resources for underserved students is a major provider for the school in many ways. The group sponsors sessions where students learn about writing resumes, sharpening skills during mock interviews with business executives, networking to expand their social capital, or spending time by shadowing managers at their job site. Over the years, this has led to students finding mentors, who help inspire them to succeed in college and beyond.
One recent opportunity came when students toured E!NBC Universal studios where they saw a television production up close, and spoke with executives who discussed career options with them, including the company’s need for fluency in foreign language as programming is broadcast by satellite to different countries.
Some students at the school have become well-known through media exposure. Hayley Hoverter, for example, received top honors at the 2011 Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship’s National Challenge for her idea of reducing paper waste by inventing dissolvable sugar packets for coffee shops. She became CEO of Sweet (dis)SOLVE after creating a business plan for the group, winning $10,000; and she participated in the White House Science Fair, hosted by President Barack Obama.
Other students, outside the spotlight, are enjoying success, too. Albert Alvarez said his internship last summer at a public finance company in downtown Los Angeles provided him with valuable lessons. He has set aside his paychecks to help pay for tuition at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he plans to attend after finishing high school.
“It gave me a lot of experience in the business world, and it taught me a lot of responsibility, how to manage my time,” Alvarez said of his internship.
With the school’s reputation spreading for developing talented students, more opportunities have come. Computer-maker Lenovo recently tapped the school—one of five nationwide—to compete in a pilot program where students must address or solve a community problem through developing a mobile application.
“These partners provide our students with an internship that gives them a chance to see that what they’re learning in class and reading in books is being applied in the real world,” Dovlatian said.
Back at the staff meeting, Arielle De Paolo, who teaches several courses, including English, two advanced placement courses and coaches debate, uses Google’s online blogging website for her students.
She recently shared with them a quote taken from the novel, “The Great Gatsby,” in which a character says: “The best thing in the world for a girl to be is a pretty little fool.” De Paolo asked her class whether they felt the statement was true or false, and to support their argument with examples.
Students chimed in on the blog outside of class, creating a lengthy conversation, as De Paolo hoped they would do. Reading the comments, she learned to what degree past lessons have been remembered, or perhaps, what should be reviewed in class. Moreover, she was pleased her students lead the discussion, showing initiative.
“A lot of time is spent lecturing,” De Paolo said after the staff meeting ended. Gesturing to Chao, who sat nearby, she said: “We’re trying to explore ways of getting out of that trap and focusing on ways to get students to be successful at whatever level they stand.”
For more information about the school or its programs, please contact Samuel Dovlatian, coordinator, at 213-481-0371, ext. 5115.
By: Daryl Strickland
Posted: June 4, 2012