The Method of King Jorge 

How a former Richmond street tough transformed an Oakland middle school.

Early one Wednesday in mid-October, a hulking man roamed the halls of Oakland Charter Academy, his many and varied tattoos hidden under a dark suit and tie. Jorge Lopez, the school's 35-year-old principal, was looking for trouble. He stepped into a classroom of 24 eighth graders, all wearing the standard white tops with khaki pants, all sitting silently at their desks in neat rows, all apparently under the spell of the prim Chinese-born woman standing before them, explaining an algebraic equation. No one looked up when Lopez entered, nor a few moments later when he left.

Just outside the classroom, Lopez removed from the wall a piece of paper with a large "6" painted on it. He replaced it with another, this one bearing a "5," to update the following reminder: "Days Left Until The State Test: 195."

Lopez, who took over the school three summers ago, ruthlessly eliminating its entire staff and remaking the place in his own image, looked almost embarrassed as he and a visitor stood beneath the sign in silence. "I'll be honest," he admitted, "there's nothing to do sometimes." He gestured down the empty hallway. "I mean, look at us."

It was not always this way. OCA, the city's first charter school when it opened in the fall of 1993, was created largely out of a desire by neighborhood parents — overwhelmingly poor immigrants from Mexico — for a safe and welcoming middle school for their kids. Embracing Latino heritage and bilingualism, and relying heavily on parent volunteers, the school quickly became a pillar of the neighborhood. Still, its test scores consistently ranked among the worst in the state. Although scores had risen substantially in the three years before Lopez took over, only one in ten students tested proficient in either English or math in March 2004. By many accounts, the school lacked effective discipline and order, and many teachers opted not to use textbooks in their classrooms. To Nena Pulido, an OCA eighth grader when the new principal arrived, life there before Lopez "was just like a party."

The young administrator came to OCA with a simple mission: to make it a great school. His formula was similarly straightforward. Lopez believed he could produce high test scores and ambitious, college-bound students by emphasizing mandatory attendance with more classroom hours; zero tolerance for bad behavior; a homework-laden curriculum stripped of cultural, linguistic, or artistic coursework; and inspirational or menacing speeches as necessary. "I run this school with a hard hand," he explained recently. "I don't take a lot of shit from parents. I don't take shit from kids. I don't take shit from teachers. My focus is 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."

In a city whose thirty charter schools fare on average little better than the severely underperforming district schools they are meant to complement and compete against, OCA is an anomaly. Under Lopez, its test scores have improved more than those at any other school in the city. It is now Oakland's number two middle school by the Academic Performance Index, California's way of rating schools based on student test scores. This past March, nearly two-thirds of the school's kids tested proficient in both English and math. That is roughly twice the district average, and an increase of more than 600 percent in two years. "Where have multiculturalism, bilingualism, and parent involvement taken us in the ghetto?" Lopez queried, referring to the previous administration's core values, ideals widely held in the education establishment. "What I do produces results."

Back in the hallways, where it seemed nothing could break the spell of silence, Lopez spotted a mark: a young, slight boy walking toward him, his straight-ahead stare betraying a deep desire to get past this scary, powerful man without drawing his attention.

No dice.

"Are you being loud in class?" asked Lopez, acting on a day-old tip from the boy's sixth-grade teacher. He had managed in an instant to move to the middle of the hallway, blocking young Jose's way. It was unnecessary. Jose was clearly too terrified to do anything but try his best to weather the storm.

"No," Jose stammered, looking fixedly at the middle of Lopez' tie.

"Are you talking out of turn?" Lopez persisted in an even, menacing tone.

"No," Jose said nervously, still staring straight ahead.

"Look up," Lopez ordered. "Tell me you're not talking out of turn."

Jose looked into the narrowed brown eyes of the man towering over him.

"Sometimes," he managed.

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