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Barely a week into that fall's classes, Sarah Tin, one of Lopez' two new eighth-grade teachers, came into his office with some bad news. "None of them did their homework," she reported. Tin was in her early twenties and fresh out of college. In defiance of the outgoing board president, who wanted a Latino staff, Lopez had hired his new teachers off Craigslist, with no requirement for previous teaching experience, and with salaries starting at $40,000 about $3,000 more than the district's starting pay.
As the principal feared, the eighth graders, ingrained with the old administration's ways, were proving the most difficult to change. Tin was having trouble with kids skipping class, not paying attention, and now, in an act of open mutiny, colluding to ignore a homework assignment. "It was the last straw," Lopez recalls.
He walked the short distance to Tin's classroom, where students sat at the individual desks Lopez had brought in over the summer after discarding the large round tables previously used in all OCA classrooms. "You guys are no longer students!" Lopez thundered as he walked in, shoving the books on one boy's desk to the floor. Three girls sitting to one side of the room raised their hands, hoping to get in a word. Lopez preempted them. "I said shut the fuck up," he hollered. "I do not want to hear shit from any of you."
He sent the three girls outside with rags to wash the school's walls. "Put your books on the floor," he told the rest of the class. After ordering Tin to collect their newly purchased textbooks, he took some of the boys out into the hallway and gave them brooms to sweep the floor in full view of other classrooms. Such hard-nosed tactics, Lopez acknowledges, would not work in an affluent school. "In the hills, they'd fire my ass in a second," he concedes. But the day after his tirade, Lopez was pleased to learn that almost all of Tin's students had done their homework.
Fast-forward two years. At the end of a recent school day, Lopez slipped into teacher Rebecca Anderson's sixth-grade class and stood to the side as she explained the homework assignment, an essay on a story they had read in class. Anderson, a young white woman with soft features and glasses, pointed to the whiteboard behind her with the words plot, setting, and character written in descending order.
"All of these things go back to what?" she asked. A half-dozen hands shot up.
"The story?" one dark-haired girl said enthusiastically.
"Okay," Anderson said. "Or the what? Jose?" It was the young student from the hallway.
"The thesis?" he offered timidly.
"Right," Anderson said. "If you don't have supporting details, it's a bad choice for a thesis. And if you don't remember how, your language arts book shows you exactly how to do it."
Her students nodded and took notes. Every last one of them was either paying close attention or doing an extremely good job of faking it. Lopez looked on in near awe. "If I had had this kind of school as a kid, I'd be a whole different person," he whispered. "I didn't learn that until I got to Berkeley High."
A few moments later, when Anderson had finished with her lesson, Lopez addressed the class. "You guys, I am very proud of you," he began. "You are alert, raising your hands. When I came in here, you didn't even look up." He produced a fat wad of dollar bills. "How many of you guys did your homework this weekend?" Arms shot up in a frenzy. Lopez went from student to student, pressing four dollars into the hands of all but the few who had not finished their weekend assignments. "This is an investment," he said as he made his way slowly around the room. "I expect hard work."
Jorge Lopez' mission has been accomplished. The teachers follow his lead, the students spend an average of two hours each night on homework, and neither the parents nor the school's board, which has turned over completely since he took the job, tries to tell him what to do. In the meantime, Oakland Charter Academy has joined American Indian Public Charter School as Oakland's second middle school to meet state standards for overall student performance. Under Lopez, OCA now ranks in the top 10 percent of schools with a similar socioeconomic makeup statewide, and in the top 30 percent overall. Last summer, Lopez sent 31 students to gifted-and-talented programs at Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and Cal, something unheard of at OCA before his arrival.
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