A Southern California District Resists Bad Education Policy: "Aren't You Cold?"

By Bryant, Jeff | The Progressive, August-September 2017 | Go to article overview

A Southern California District Resists Bad Education Policy: "Aren't You Cold?"


Bryant, Jeff, The Progressive


My hosts waiting for me in front of Millikan High School were wearing full winter wear--dark coats and scarves, knit caps pulled over ears.

I'm in shirtsleeves.

"No," I replied. It's 58 degrees--a February cold wave for them but a nice spring day for me.

This is Southern California, where perpetually sunny, temperate weather can make the place seem otherworldly for the rest of us.

The region best known for Disneyland--a.k.a. "the happiest place on Earth"--is also home to Hollywood, world leader of the make-believe industry. Signs at some intersections alert you to surfer crossings. Both the beer and the wine are local. People pick avocados and limes in their backyards.

I went to Millikan High School, in the heart of Long Beach, to find out what makes the public schools there special, too.

Like other writers focused on education, I'm drawn to any place that seems to be performing above average in the perpetually difficult work of educating students who struggle hardest in school.

I've called Long Beach an unlikely success story. The city has a history of gang violence dating back many years, which prompted school leaders to make the district the first urban system in the nation to adopt school uniforms in grades K-8. The city is the tenth most ethnically diverse in the nation, just after its neighbor Los Angeles. Twenty-six percent of Long Beach residents were not born in the United States, placing it in the top twenty list of cities in the nation with highest percentages of foreign-born residents. Nearly 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Yet Long Beach Unified School District has steadily improved its high school graduation rates--81 percent in 2013-14--and surpasses the rest of the state on key education measures, such as daily average attendance rates, percentage of high school graduates meeting state college level course requirements, and percentage of nonwhite students taking Advanced Placement courses in high school.

I was particularly interested in Millikan because high schools full of low-income students are commonly called a "disaster" in the public school system. High school students are "tired, stressed, and bored" we are often told, and it would seem that if the Long Beach story is going to have a weak spot, it would be most evident there.

More than half of Millikan's roughly 3,600 students are Latino. Whites are a minority. Nearly half of the students are "socioeconomically disadvantaged." And the school has a large share of disabled kids and English language learners.

Yet these kids tend to outscore their peers on statewide exams.

Graduation rates continue to improve, from 93.6 percent in 2012-13 to 95.2 percent in 2014-15, which beats the state average by 13 percentage points. In 2015, the most recent year measured, 100 percent of Millikan's Latino and economically disadvantaged students graduated, along with 96 percent of white and 95 percent of black students.

Students are encouraged to take Advanced Placement courses, and the school picks up most of the tab. Millikan annually receives about $10 million in grants and college scholarships.

Singling out a school as a "success story" comes with considerable risks.

Tales of "miracle schools" are routinely debunked. Some are test-prep factories. Others churn out students to inflate their graduation statistics.

But Millikan would be a good school even if test scores were not high. Its popularity in the community and its low teacher attrition are strong signs that the place is doing something right.

The entourage who meet me at the school's front door includes lead teachers Leslie Gombrich and Gabby Mercado, who help direct two of the school's "Linked Learning" initiatives.

Linked Learning strives to create career-oriented pathways to major California industries, including engineering, health care, and the performing arts. …

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