A Southern California District Resists Bad Education Policy: 'Aren't you cold?'.

Author:Bryant, Jeff

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...

To continue reading