There’s an exciting article in the 12/13/2006 East Bay Express about Jorge Lopez, the principal of Oakland Charter Academy, a charter, middle school serving a mostly Hispanic population in Oakland, California. For me, the article is also troubling.
The excitement comes from the fact that this man, who’s only been principal there for two and a half years, has completely turned the school around. Before he came, most students there were not succeeding. The article states, “In the three years before Lopez took over, only one in ten students tested proficient in either English or math.” Now, they’re doing much better on the standardized tests. “This past March, nearly two-thirds of the school’s kids tested proficient in both English and math.” It’s hard to argue with that record.
And they’re becoming excited about learning and achieving more with their lives. The article quotes several whose school lives, and maybe their whole futures, have been turned around by the discipline and focus that Mr. Lopez helped them achieve at the school.
But I’m troubled because of the way Mr. Lopez has achieved his turnaround. According to my reading of the East Bay Express article, he’s a tough guy who came in and banged heads to get his way. When I was in school, this was exactly the sort of situation that made me hate school. And as a working person, he sounds like the sort of boss that would make me hate every second of the day. As he’s quoted in the Express, “I run this school with a hard hand. I don’t take a lot of shit from parents, I don’t take shit from kids. I don’t take shit from teachers.”
There are some things that I agree with Lopez about. He has high expectations for the kids. I think that’s one of the crucial elements to getting them to succeed. And he really cares about the kids. He wants them to get ahead. “My focus is on the kids. I want them to leave. I do not want them in Oakland. If they do come back to Oakland, I want them not to live where they’re living.” He’s got dreams for these children, and I think that’s wonderful.
Maybe his toughness is necessary to get to these kids. I don’t know, I grew up in a middle class household where we were all expected to accomplish things in school and to go on to make something of ourselves. I went to Catholic schools through 12th grade and then right on to college. Actually, Mr. Lopez’ tough love approach reminds me of some of the sisters and fathers who taught me. I certainly learned what they wanted me to learn in terms of the subjects. But I also learned to hate, really detest school. Because what I was learning from them was this: Learning in school is not fun!
If I hadn’t had opportunities to explore other stuff outside of school (chess, advanced math, science), I don’t know where I’d be today. But I did find those other opportunities and those left me with a lust for understanding and an ability to take almost ecstatic pleasure in exploring the world around me. I’m afraid that Mr. Lopez’ approach, while successful in the test-results game, might be drilling the joy out of learning for kids like me at his school.
Let me say that I’m responding to what I’m reading in this article. I don’t know Jorge Lopez and I’ve never been to the Oakland Charter Academy. So I’m open to learning that what’s actually happening at the school is different from how it’s portrayed in the newspaper.