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Kennedy High School Principal Phillip Johnson patrols the quad area inside the school grounds in Richmond, Calif., on Friday Oct. 19, 2012. The West Contra school district is trying to turn around low-performing Kennedy High School in Richmond by putting in a new administration team, including Johnson, the former vice principal of DeAnza High.(Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)

RICHMOND -- When the bell rings at Kennedy High School, students scurry quickly from one class to another, watched closely by new Principal Phillip Johnson and his two assistant principals.

The teens don't want to be tardy because they will be locked out and required to go to the office to get a pass. They wear identification cards attached to lanyards around their necks, keep their cellphones out of sight and leave hats at home. Flaunt the rules and those items will be confiscated until the following Monday.

It's a new day at Kennedy High, one of the lowest performing high schools in the state.

Johnson's turnaround team includes Jessica Smith-Kennan, assistant principal in charge of curriculum, and Renee Lama, the second assistant principal. Lama is the only administrator held over from last year, her first at the campus.

"I wanted to make sure the campus is safe and that students are coming to school on time and are in the classroom," said Johnson, a former police officer. "I can't control what happens outside these walls, but I can control what happens inside."

The administrative turnover wasn't mandated by the state. Rather, the change was recommended by the West Contra Costa district superintendent as perhaps the best chance for the school -- and its approximately 900 students -- to climb off the bottom rung and post test results that compare more favorably with other large urban high schools.


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The challenge is daunting.

The school resides in a low income area between two freeways. One of its football players who lives in the Iron Triangle was fatally shot outside his home over the summer. Fifty-six percent of the student body identifies as Hispanic or Latino, 37 percent as African-American and 7 percent as Caucasian or as members of other ethnic groups. Nearly half the students cannot speak English fluently.

In past years, rules weren't strictly enforced and teens often hung out in the halls, talked on cellphones and invited outsiders onto the campus, which sometimes sparked fights and concerns about possible gang affiliations.

Student test scores dropped so low in 2011 that the school lost a $676,000 annual Quality Education Investment Act grant that helped pay for extra teachers and smaller classes.

Based on those scores, Kennedy landed with a thud among the five lowest performing high schools in the state when stacked up against 100 similar schools in 2011. It tied with a Los Angeles campus for fourth from the bottom, outscoring one school in Yuba County and two in Oakland: Youth Empowerment; and Expression, Excellence, Community, Empowerment and Leadership.

In an effort to stop the school's decline, the district decided not to renew the previous principal's contract in June. Instead, the board promoted Johnson -- who had served as assistant principal at De Anza High, a "turnaround" school in the district.

Smith-Kennan worked alongside Johnson as DeAnza's other assistant principal and came with him at his request. Lama arrived the previous year and had already established a strong connection to the students, Johnson said.

"We have a new leadership team in there," said board President Charles Ramsey. "If we don't engage in a very conscious way about what's going on there, we won't get things done."

Built in the 1960s, Kennedy has a proud history. Christopher Darden, who prosecuted O.J. Simpson for murder by presenting a bloody glove, is a graduate, and a book he wrote stands in a glass case in the school office.

But Ramsey admits that for the past decade, Kennedy and some other district schools have not fulfilled their obligations to prepare students for graduation and future careers.

"We just made a lot of excuses," he said. "And we still make a lot of excuses because most people don't want confrontation."

Kennedy has found it hard to build on any show of progress without backsliding.

On a scale of 200 to 1,000 -- with a state proficiency goal of 800 -- the school's Academic Performance Index score rose from a low of 425 in 2002 to a high of 580 in 2008-09, before plummeting to 515 in 2011.

Although students made an impressive 29-point gain in the spring, the campus is still "failing" by federal standards established in the No Child Left Behind law. Those standards required about 78 percent of students to score proficient in English language arts and math in 2011-12. At Kennedy, only a fraction -- 16.3 percent -- of students were working at grade level in English. The math results were even more dismal, with only 3.1 percent of students making the grade.

New culture

Boosting test scores is an important part of Johnson's mission, but it's not his only goal. He and his administrators are working to bring a new culture to the school focused on increased safety, rigorous instruction and teacher training.

Students receive warnings, followed by detentions and suspensions, if they continue to break the rules.

Two months into the school year, teachers, parents and community members are reacting positively to Johnson's policies. As expected, some students complain that the rules are too severe. But they said they are taking school more seriously.

"You don't want to get detention or a suspension," said Araceli Martinez DeLeon, 17. "Now, people are starting to run to class. Last year, they never did."

Johnson, 48, is a visible presence. He roams the campus during every break, talking to students while keeping an eye on them. With a shaved head, goatee, diamond earring, bluejeans and two-tone Nike athletic shoes, Johnson appears hip, friendly and approachable. He laughs easily with staff members and students, giving high-fives and flashing encouraging smiles. In honor of the school mascot, he adopted "Eagle One" as his walkie-talkie handle.

But, when he sees students in the hallways during class time, his demeanor changes. He immediately asks what they are doing and admonishes them to get to where they need to be -- fast.

Johnson stopped one teenage boy recently after the student loped out of a classroom and headed across the quad. Although the student was wearing a hoodie and the weather was mild, the teen said he was going to get a jacket.

"No, you're not," the principal said firmly. "Turn around and go back."

After the student returned, Johnson said the teacher should have never let him out and vowed to discuss the incident with the instructor.

Like Johnson, Smith-Kennan and Lama relate easily with the students and seem to be everywhere at once. Last week, both women wore red to show their Eagles spirit, with Smith-Kennen donning a red Kennedy Eagles cap, the only head wear allowed on campus. During one passing break, Lama stood in the corridor, arms outstretched and whistle blowing, making sure students knew the bell was about to ring.

Johnson is working closely with Smith-Kennan to elevate the level of instruction schoolwide, making both teachers and students accountable for the learning that happens each day.

And Lama, Johnson said, has the pulse of the campus. She has provided stability for students and encouraged them to buy into new rules and classroom policies, while also building trust with the staff. Kennedy lost about 11 instructors when the grant was withdrawn.

The turnaround team conducts informal teacher observations and gives constructive feedback to ensure lessons are rigorous. Teachers must follow a consistent "blackboard configuration" when writing the day's lesson plans on the boards in their classrooms. These include warm-up activities, class objectives, curriculum standards to be covered and homework.

Students are required to examine what they learned and determine how much effort they put into their classes every period of every day. "Your high school experience is what you put into it," Johnson said.

Reform requires everybody on campus, in the district and in the community, to look at what they're putting into the school, said Ken Futernick, who directs a school turnaround center for the independent WestEd organization. They need to believe that students and teachers can grow and learn if they are well-supported, he said.

"There is no single magic bullet that is going to turn the corner," he said. "It's a comprehensive, systemic solution that has to be found."

Johnson and his team know it won't be easy to transform a campus culture that has allowed students to fail year after year.

"You've got to look at what you've got and deal with it," Johnson said. "I don't want to blame anyone. I just want to make this right."

This newspaper plans to follow Kennedy High's progress throughout the year.

Theresa Harrington covers education. Contact her at 925-945-4764. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.

By the numbers
Percentage of Kennedy High students proficient or advanced over five years.
Year English language arts Math Science History/Social science
2012 16.3 3.1 19.5 9.3
2011 16.0 4.2 15.9 8.4
2010 20.7 4.4 9.5 16.3
2009 18.8 4.1 19.8 14.1
2008 18.7 3.5 12.3 11.6
To see a snapshot of data related to Kennedy High, go to www.cde.ca.gov/snapshot.
For details about Kennedy High and the West Contra Costa district, read the On Assignment blog at IBAbuzz.com/onassignment.
Source: California Department of Education

2012-13 improvement plan
The new school administration has identified three focus areas:
1. School safety and keeping students in class.
2. Rigorous bell-to-bell instruction.
3. Professional development and collaboration for teachers.
The first goal includes tougher discipline policies, while the others involve informal classroom observations by administrators, consistency from one classroom to another and team building.
Details about Kennedy High School is available by calling 510-231-1433 or by going to www.wccusd.net. Click on drop-down "Select a School" menu and choose "Kennedy High School."
To see the video of the principal and a letter he sent to parents at the beginning of the year outlining discipline policies, go to ContraCostaTimes.com/education.

SCHOOL REFORM
Under No Child Left Behind, schools that don't make adequate progress in student achievement are placed in federal Program Improvement, which includes five levels, labeled Year 1 through Year 5. However, schools can be in each of these levels for several years, if they fail to improve.
By Year 5, schools must implement plans that could include: reopening as a charter, replacing the principal and most staff members, contracting with an outside agency to manage the school, state takeover, or any other form of restructuring.
Districts that receive School Improvement Grants for poor-performing campuses must implement one of four reforms: close the campus, "transform" the school by replacing the principal and making other improvements, "turn around" the school by replacing the principal and at least half the staff members, or reopen the school under new management.
Kennedy High has been in Year 5 of Program Improvement for eight years but does not receive a School Improvement Grant. It was not required to replace the principal but chose to do so as part of a larger improvement plan. The school was not required to replace the teaching staff.
Details about Program Improvement are available by going to www.cde.ca.gov/ta/ac/AR.