The Method of King Jorge 

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

Page 4 of 7

"I'm all right," Lopez replied. He and his wife, herself a schoolteacher, were settled happily in Sacramento. Their young son, Maceo, had made friends, and they were looking to buy a house.

"Motherfucker, you're scared of Oakland," Chavis goaded.

"Fuck you," Lopez snapped back. "I ain't scared of nobody."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Who do I call?" Lopez asked.

A week before his job interview, Lopez drove from Sacramento to Oakland for some unannounced reconnaissance. He arrived during the school's lunch period, then 45 minutes, and passed unnoticed through the open front gate and into the schoolyard. Kids there were "running around like fools," he says, and he saw two leave unsupervised through the back gate. Upon further inspection, he saw that the school's computer lab, which he later converted into his office, was full of trash. There were about a dozen TVs with no cords, five broken copy machines, and several gallons of hot pink paint, some or all of which had been donated by parents. Assessing OCA, he grew excited. "It was the biggest crock of shit I had ever seen in my life," he says. Taking it over, he figured, would be his chance to transform it into the sort of school he should have gone to as a kid.

A week later, before a panel of OCA board members, Lopez laid on the charm. "You have a great school here," he recalls telling them. "And I want to continue the growth." Among those interviewing Lopez was Fernanda Gonzalez, a Cal graduate student in education and a backer of the school's Spanish-language and Latino-culture-infused curriculum. Lopez came across as passionate about his work, Gonzalez recalls, and as someone who knew from his own life experiences what the kids at OCA were up against. "It seemed like more than a job to him," she says.

Lopez saw the interview differently. "One thing I know about boards is they're dumber than shit," he says. "I went in and told them everything they wanted to hear."

It is hard to imagine anyone more different in temperament and leadership style from Lopez than the man he was hired to succeed at Oakland Charter Academy. Soft-spoken and unassuming, the bespectacled, salt-and-pepper-haired Francisco Gutierrez was easygoing and comfortable delegating authority. Four of his nine teachers comprised a "leadership team," tasked with overseeing the school's curriculum as well as its discipline. He also gave teachers considerable autonomy in the classroom. Former OCA math and science teacher Mirella Rangel recalls the arrangement fondly. "We were proud to teach kids to be bilingual and to have them appreciate their culture," she says. Gutierrez, she adds, "was really supportive of us."

After agreeing to work alongside Gutierrez for his first few weeks to ease the transition, Lopez formed a different view. "The teachers taught what they wanted to teach," he says. "And Mr. Francisco Gutierrez sat in his office and let it all happen. Like the sorry leader that he was." (Responds Gutierrez: "He is someone who feels entitled to say negative things about a person. I'm not interested in playing that game.")

Once aboard, Lopez quickly set about making Gutierrez's life miserable, insulting and demeaning him repeatedly and making a mockery of his staff meetings. Within a couple of weeks, Gutierrez was gone, vowing, he says, to "never, ever, ever again" agree to such a power-sharing arrangement. Next to go was the school's secretary, whom Lopez caught sympathizing with parents upset over the last-minute addition of a mandatory summer school for incoming sixth graders. Then, at the school board meeting in late June, Lopez employed a tactic he had learned from a book recommended by Chavis. The book: Sun Tzu's The Art of War, a copy of which Lopez still keeps in his office. The tactic: to obscure his primary objectives.

At the meeting, Lopez cited a looming fiscal crisis due to sloppy bookkeeping, and called for a 15 percent reduction in the school's budget. To cut costs, he proposed reducing teaching staff by switching to "self-contained" classrooms, where students stay in the same room with one teacher throughout the day. The board went along, unwittingly paving the way for Lopez to end the school's long tradition of teaching Spanish. In addition, since only one teacher had the necessary credentials to teach a self-contained class, Lopez was able to force the others out. Within weeks, the new principal had curtailed parent involvement and gotten rid of volunteering and planning committees, which were school fixtures. It was no less than a coup d'état. "It became no longer a community-oriented school," says Estella Navarro, an OCA cofounder, parent, and board member bitterly opposed to Lopez' changes. "It became his school."

The counterinsurgency was launched at the following month's board meeting, which Lopez had been told would be a "getting to know you" family affair. His baby daughter bobbing on his knee, Lopez watched as a group of students delivered a letter accusing him of firing their teachers unjustly, listened while parents railed against him for menacing their kids and taking away their soccer-playing privileges during the summer school then in session, and seethed as parents and teachers called for his ouster. "It was a three-ring circus," Lopez recalls. He accuses a former teacher of fomenting parent anger toward a last-ditch effort to get rid of him, but the teacher, David Barker, denies this. "The parents did that on their own," he says. "After the parents stood up [at that meeting] and told him they didn't want him there, he changed his behavior very quickly."

After a subsequent board investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing, Lopez determined to quell any lingering doubts. "Give me a year to show academic progress," he said at the final board meeting before the new school year. "If I don't," he promised, "I will resign and pay back my salary in full."

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