The Method of King Jorge 

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

Page 6 of 7

To all appearances, these achievements are real. Anticipating his critics, Lopez insists that he has never forced out students who lag behind or act up. Of the 57 students who entered sixth grade at OCA in the fall of 2004 — all of whom were admitted before Lopez arrived — 47 remain. According to data that Lopez provided, nine of the ten who left moved out of the area and one left without explanation. Five were held back a grade. None have been kicked out, Lopez says. In March 2005, after less than one school year under Lopez, 33 percent of those students tested proficient in math, and 35 percent tested proficient in English, according to state figures. By the following spring, 66 percent of the school's seventh graders were proficient in math, 68 percent in English.

Liane Zimny, who monitors charter schools for the district, sees no indication that Lopez has tried to manipulate test scores by pursuing promising students while discouraging struggling ones to apply. "It takes a person of high ethics not to be tempted into playing a numbers game," she says.

Perhaps most compelling is the praise heaped on Lopez by his former students. With the textbooks Lopez introduced in her eighth-grade year, says Karely Ordaz, a self-professed history buff, "It made sense how stuff happened. Like the American Revolution. I mean, I already knew they won, but now I know that they came first, and they set up colonies, and they got bigger. And they didn't like being with Britain, so they overthrew it."

Ordaz, neither of whose parents speak English, had no educational goals to speak of before she met Lopez. "I didn't even think I was going to finish high school, to tell you the truth," she says. "I was tired of school already. And I was in seventh grade." Lopez's demands, and her ability to respond to them, Ordaz says, "made me want to go to college and move on and be somebody and make money."

Ordaz is now a tenth grader at the newly established American Indian Public Charter High School, to which Lopez encourages his graduating eighth graders to apply. Her appreciation for Lopez is echoed by several fellow OCA alums now at American Indian High. Among them is Christhian Cortez, who was a problem student when Lopez took over at OCA. The wispy fifteen-year-old, who entertains dreams of hip-hop stardom, shudders to think what would have happened had the new principal not arrived when he was an eighth grader. "Probably right now I'd be in a screw-up school that wouldn't teach me nothing," he says. "And I'd be all screwed up." Like Ordaz, Cortez plans to attend college, and he has Lopez' promise for help with tuition should he need it.

What these students didn't get from Lopez was a curriculum that included Spanish classes and an emphasis on Latino culture. Although the school has admitted more blacks and Asians since Lopez took over — in accordance with plans to diversify its student body drawn up shortly before Lopez' arrival — OCA's students are still overwhelmingly children of non-English-speaking immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. And while Lopez acknowledges that teaching kids to be proficient in Spanish is a worthy goal, it is not, he says, a primary responsibility of his school.

Fernanda Gonzalez, a former board member and supporter of cultural and Spanish education, laments this omission. "I think you can do both," she says of combining a rigorous back-to-basics curriculum and a focus on Spanish and Latino culture. Gonzalez also questions Lopez's bullying leadership style, which she likens to that of "a king." She quit the board in late 2004 amid frustrations that Lopez did not consult it before firing a struggling teacher he had recently hired.

Yet despite Gonzalez' pedagogical and managerial disagreements with Lopez, she is, ultimately, a fan. "It was the most remarkable year-to-year shift that I have ever seen at a school," she says of Lopez' first year. "He is the best thing that could've happened there."

Estella Navarro, a cofounder of OCA who was recently kicked off the board in what she saw as an attempt to stifle dissent, is unforgiving of Lopez for misleading her about keeping parents involved at the school. Yet she is glad he became principal. Her youngest daughter stayed at OCA after Lopez arrived, and Navarro says the girl learned more under him than before he got there. "If I saw that he came in and they weren't learning anything, then I would go crazy," she says. "But I can't do that. The school improved. The kids know their stuff. It doesn't matter how I swallowed the pill, I swallowed it."

While still unhappy with Lopez' tactics, David Barker, the former OCA teacher who wanted him ousted back in the summer of 2004, is also solicitous. "I don't know of any principals in the Bay Area other than Jorge Lopez and Ben Chavis who send their kids to Johns Hopkins in the summer," he says, referring to the gifted-and-talented program. "It's incredible."

OCA is not for everybody, of course. As a charter school, it must admit students without regard to academic ability, and fill its rolls through a lottery. However, since prospective students have to apply, those whose parents are unable or unwilling — and thus are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds — are not in the applicant pool. That pool, furthermore, is likely to become increasingly self-selecting as the school's tough-love reputation grows, and families begin seeking out OCA for its rigor. Already Lopez has noticed that this year's incoming sixth graders are better prepared than their predecessors for the discipline and hard work. Still, as district spokesman Alex Katz notes, it is not the principal's job to meet the needs of all the neighborhood kids. "Charter schools are supposed to offer different models," he says. "These schools are not going to work for everyone."

Oakland Charter Academy also is a small school by design, with an enrollment hovering around 150, and simply cannot accommodate all who wish to attend. Fernanda Gonzalez justifies her support of OCA with a simple, if somewhat harsh, analysis. "Ideally, we'd do it for all kids," she says. "Would I rather we do it for none? No."


Perhaps the biggest obstacle to replicating the principal's success is that beating a school into shape this dramatically requires a particular kind of leader, and people like Jorge Lopez come around only so often. And if he has his way, Lopez will be spread thinner in the not-so-distant future. As Chavis did with American Indian, Lopez intends to open his own high school as early as next fall. He's looking for a space near the middle school, which would allow him to run both schools directly. Barring that, he would oversee both, but hire a site administrator for the new location.

Meanwhile, Lopez has his hands full at home. As he would have his students do, he has managed to escape his old street life, and now lives on three-quarters of an acre just above Highway 13, with his wife and three young children. The house, a daycare center before the couple bought it last year, sits at the foot of a steep, heavily wooded expanse of eucalyptus and pine trees. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Lopez sat on his patio, his normally slicked-back hair a bit disheveled from a day spent working in the yard. He fretted about a tree on the far side of the lawn that was damaged in a storm last year and all but certain to fall. And his wife's fenced-in garden, he pointed out, showed clear signs of a recent visit by a deer. Catching himself, Lopez shook his head and laughed his riotous cackle. "That's when you know you're a middle-class Mexican," he said, still chuckling. "When you're worried about deer and trees instead of guns and bullets."

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