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.

“So when you look at me, all the sudden that’s the trigger to tell the truth?” the principal asked. “What do you think I’m going to tell you? How should you act in class?”

“Raise my hand?” Jose offered hopefully.

“Keeping that mouth shut,” Lopez agreed. He bent down and leaned toward the pupil’s ear. “Where’d you go to school at before?” he whispered to the sixth grader.

“Jefferson,” Jose said, confused by the sudden turn in the conversation.

“This ain’t Jefferson,” Lopez replied. “Don’t do that shit here. Do you understand me?”

Having made himself clear, Lopez let Jose pass. The boy walked to his classroom, looking as if it were all he could do to keep from running.

“A brilliant kid,” Lopez said after Jose was out of view, whispering so as not to disturb the quiet that once again surrounded him. “He just gets bored sometimes.”

Jorge Lopez’ desire to get his students out of Oakland is rooted in personal experience. Born in 1971, the second of three children to Mexican parents who’d had enough of picking lettuce in the Imperial Valley, he attended public schools in his hometown of Richmond, where he struggled from the start.

“They’d sit me in a circle and say, ‘What is your problem today, Jorge? Let’s talk about those feelings,'” he recalls bitterly of his days at Belding Elementary and Downer Junior High. “I sat in more circles than any Native American in the history of Indians.”

Without a firm hand to guide him, Lopez says, he developed into “a straight-F student” who repeated seventh grade before being sent straight to Richmond High in order to remain with his peers. “Richmond schools are — it’s like Oakland — they’re not meant to educate. They’re meant to just house you,” he says.

Although he struggled in school, Lopez excelled as a street entrepreneur. By twelve, he was a veteran brawler and an emerging drug dealer. “It all started everybody hustling joints here and there and it developed into something big,” he says. Soon, he was selling powder cocaine, speed, and whatever else interested people in early-’80s, pre-crack Richmond.

There was one line Lopez never crossed: “I was never a gang member,” he says. “I was always a hustler. I always sold anything anybody needed. I figured if I joined a gang it cut off half my supply.” This did not mean he was unaffiliated. When he flunked out of Richmond High in tenth grade, he was transferred to a continuation school. On his first day, a student welcomed him by pulling out a gun and pistol-whipping him. “It was a neighborhood thing,” says Lopez, who lived in a Norteño part of town. He did not return to the school.

Instead, at sixteen, he began helping his mother with her job cleaning houses. After three months of this, an elderly client in the Berkeley Hills, disgusted to learn that he had dropped out, enrolled him at Berkeley High using her address.

With the new surroundings came new opportunities, and not just of the educational variety. “There is nothing like some rich white people,” Lopez says. “They will buy all the drugs. And I came from Richmond with all the connections.” He quickly mastered the first rule of commerce: Buy low, sell high. “I made tons of money at Berkeley,” he recalls. “I had the biggest weed sacks all over Berkeley High School. I was known for it.”

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.”

“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.”

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.

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.”

Five-year-old Maceo, his eldest child, wandered out to the porch wearing a T-shirt from Alameda’s Rising Star Montessori School, where he is enrolled in kindergarten at an annual cost of $8,000. According to the Rising Star literature, the school promotes “academic excellence in a warm, nurturing environment that celebrates diversity.”

“They’re soft whiteys,” Lopez acknowledged, sipping a glass of water as he admired his son. “But he doesn’t need the same shit I needed. Look at what he comes home to.” He watched as Maceo climbed onto a massive swing set left behind by the daycare. “I want my kids to do whatever they want,” Lopez said. “I always say business or banking, but I really have no idea. But going into education? That’s dead. Anyway, they’d never be good inner-city school principals. They didn’t grow up in it.”

And his students?

“Some of them,” the principal said emphatically, “are going to make damned good administrators.”

This article was inspired by the writings of Carey Blakely, the site administrator at American Indian Public High School, a new Oakland charter school. Blakely is working on a book titled Crazy Like a Fox: The Ben Chavis Story, which examines her subject’s unique upbringing and influence on inner-city public education. Blakely, like Chavis, believes Oakland students can thrive in a learning environment that provides structure, rigorous academics, and high expectations.


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