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Nevertheless, he managed to graduate, he says, by staying at the back of the class and keeping quiet. "This was in the days before No Child Left Behind," he explains.
Shortly after he finished high school, Lopez got involved in a fight in San Francisco, in which he severely beat a man with a tire iron. It was the latest in a string of violent run-ins. Because he was seventeen, he got probation instead of prison.
His brother, Eddie, had seen enough. A star football player who had just been admitted to Chico State on a scholarship, Eddie asked Jorge to join him for a ride one August afternoon. Not until they passed Vallejo did Jorge realize he'd been had. There was a duffel bag of his clothing in the trunk, and like it or not, he was moving to Chico with his brother.
"For the first week I was in withdrawal," he says, recalling the expanse of orchards and open space. "I hated it." Soon, though, "Something clicked. Something told me, 'Use this.'" Lopez stopped drinking and smoking and began running several miles a day. He also signed up for classes at Butte College. "I was a young kid pulled out of Richmond and it did wonders for me," he says. "It was like a cleansing. And it just showed me that your environment is what really fucks you."
Out on Oakland Charter Academy's sun-drenched concrete schoolyard one recent afternoon, a group of boys made the most of their twenty-minute lunch with an energetic, raucous game of six-on-seven basketball. Nearby, most of the 150-strong student body sat at rows of tables beneath plastic tarps, eating homemade sandwiches of ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly. Even if the school had a cafeteria, Lopez says, he would not offer the free or reduced-price lunches for which 87 percent of his students qualify based on family income. "There's a misperception that there isn't enough food," he says. "That's bullshit. The biggest problem is obesity."
Over by the basketball game was Alvaro, a big-boned eighth grader with short brown hair, wearing an oversize white polo shirt over his khakis. Lopez, who had stepped into the yard to survey the scene, approached Alvaro and introduced him to a visitor. "Tell about how you had to write the letter," Lopez asked. Alvaro hung his head in silence. "C'mon, tell the story," the principal persisted. Head still bowed, Alvaro gave a subdued account of one of the most humiliating moments of his young life.
One morning in late September, the boy explained, he got it in his head to steal a computer from his teacher. It was an old Apple laptop that sat in the back of the classroom, largely unused. Alvaro's friend Antonio was there when he took it, and Alvaro swore him to secrecy. Antonio, in an impressive display of disloyalty, went straight to Lopez to rat out his friend.
The next day, Lopez came into Alvaro's class to deliver a speech about how stealing from family is the worst thing you can do in this world. Here Lopez filled in the details where the boy's account grew vague. "All the kids were looking up at me, confused," he recalled. "Except Alvaro. He was hanging his head. That's how I knew he did it." Lopez made Alvaro stand up. "Tell the class you're a thief," he instructed him. He then sent Alvaro to every other class in the school to repeat his announcement.
Then came the really embarrassing part. "I was just thinking of different ways I could humiliate him," Lopez recalls. He wrote Alvaro a letter calling him "an idiot and a thief." In a rare nod to bilingual education, Lopez had Alvaro present the letter in Spanish to his family and friends, and collect signatures of those who had read it, including his grandmother, whom he visited that weekend in Los Angeles. "I told him to get twenty signatures," Lopez boasted. "He came back with 32."
When Alvaro's teacher stuck the returned computer out of sight in a storage locker, Lopez ordered that it be returned to its old highly visible spot at the back of the classroom. "It's like, I fucking dare you," he explained.
The principal's office at Oakland Charter Academy, which doubles as the teachers' lounge, sits just off the school's main entrance. It is clean and spare. One of the few decorative touches is a framed photograph Lopez keeps of himself with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a self-professed admirer of the school. Most of the room is filled by a long, rectangular table with a chipped wood veneer, where Lopez, his hair slicked back and his goatee neatly trimmed, sat recently to recount the unlikely story of how he came to run this school.
It began in 2000, he explained, with his fall from grace at the Dolores Huerta Learning Academy, a charter school just a few blocks away. Lopez had been promoted from teacher to principal of the newly established and highly dysfunctional school when he was only 28, partway into its second year of existence. As he sees it, a grandstanding parent advocate on the school's board, eager to further her own political ambitions and fearful of his potential, preyed on his inexperience and forced him out before he could turn the school around. Lillian Lopez, the agitator in question, and no relation to Jorge, recalls it differently. She says she simply felt the school needed a more experienced leader. In any case, he left Huerta after just a few months as principal, with a bruised ego and an abiding distrust of school boards and meddlesome parents. He moved his family to Sacramento, where he earned a master's degree in education administration and worked for an education nonprofit.
One day in the spring of 2004, his phone rang. The caller was Ben Chavis, the controversial, tough-love principal of American Indian Public Charter School. Chavis took over American Indian when it was on the brink of closure due to poor test scores and promptly turned it into Oakland's highest-performing middle school. He had mentored Lopez while the younger man was at Huerta and later took him on as an intern while Lopez worked toward his master's degree. "I hear that OCA is looking for a principal," Chavis told his acolyte, wasting little time. "You should follow up with that."
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