Anatomy of a top-scoring magnet school: Inside King/Drew Medical Magnet High
Craig Clough | May 17, 2016
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Updated Feb. 10, 2021 | This is part of an LA School Report series taking an in-depth look at the different categories of schools that exist within the massive LA Unified school district.
Jai’Myah Henderson may have fallen right through the cracks somewhere else.
The African-American junior at King/Drew Medical Magnet High of Science and Medicine was raised by a single mother in an apartment near the Jordan Downs Housing Projects in Watts. While the LA Unified School District struggles to educate many students like her from low-income families and challenging backgrounds, Henderson thrives at King/Drew and is president of her class of 2017.
Henderson’s success story is not even particularly special at King/Drew. Despite having a student body with a poverty level higher than the district average, King/Drew is one of LA Unified’s top high schools when it comes to graduation rates, standardized test scores or just about any other metric. Even Henderson seems to shrug off her background and her current academic success as if it’s run-of-the-mill.
Despite being class president, Henderson said she doesn’t have many friends. The reason?
“School work comes first. If they want to hang out, homework comes first. I know if I don’t do my work I’m going to mess up myself, and I don’t want to mess up myself,” she said plainly, as if that’s just the way things are supposed to be for every student.
Henderson’s succes and the success of thousands of other students at magnet schools is becoming more than a just a nice story in an often troubled district, because LA Unified now more than ever is trying to devise ways of expanding, promoting and replicating stories like Henderson’s.
Magnet schools have been at the forefront of a very public discussion this school year as the district seeks to to halt a decade-long trend of students leaving in droves for independent charters. Of the district’s 650,000 students, over 100,000 are now enrolled at independent charters, and per-pupil government funding is taken out of the district every time a student leaves for a charter school.
The enrollment drain was already an issue before a well-funded non-profit, Great Public Schools Now, announced plans to expand all kinds of quality schools in LA, including charters, which some board members and union leaders have said could bankrupt the district due to the enrollment loss.
Last Tuesday, the LA Unified school board passed a resolution seeking to improve outside partnerships and woo philanthropic dollars to help expand the district’s popular school choices, including magnets. The resolution was only the latest in a string of comments and actions from district leaders shining a light on the 210 magnet schools or centers.
At the same meeting the board also voted to expand magnet access for the 2017-18 school year to make room for 4,677 new magnet seats and 13 new programs, in addition to the 14 new programs opening this fall.
The reason for the increased focus is because magnets’ success and popularity are hard to argue with. About 67,000 of LA Unified’s roughly 650,000 students, or 10 percent, currently attend a magnet school or magnet center, and the district began the year with 23,000 on the magnet waiting list. Magnets did better than independent charters and district schools on last year’s Smarter Balanced standardized tests, which were administered statewide for the first time. However, about 16 percent of magnet students are enrolled in one of 40 “gifted” programs that require a certain level of academic achievement for acceptance, while charters and traditional district schools are required to accept all students regardless of their academic achievement.
King/Drew, which opened in 1982, is not a gifted magnet, so it is open to all students who apply. It currently has a student population of just over 1,500 students. According to district figures, 839 students applied to get into the school this year and 353 were put on the waiting list, according to district figures.
Seventy-two percent of King/Drew’s tested students met or exceeded the standards in English language arts and 31 percent met or exceeded the standards in math, compared to a district average of 33 percent in English and 25 percent in math. The numbers become more impressive considering 82 percent of King/Drew students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a key poverty indicator. The district average is 77 percent.
King/Drew was one of the top high schools on the new California Office to Reform Education (CORE) school accountability index, which not only uses test scores but also considers graduation rates, absenteeism and the performance of high-needs students. On the CORE index, King/Drew scored a 96 out of 100, tied for fourth best of all LA Unified high schools. As of February, 88 percent of the school’s seniors were on track to complete their A through G courses, which are required for graduation, second best in the district.
Four of the top five high schools on the CORE index were magnets, and all four are schools that serve primarily high-needs students. Like Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet, which LA School Report also recently profiled, most King/Drew students are minorities, with a student body that is 45 percent African-American and 53 percent Latino.
AN OVERLOOKED STORY
Reginald Brookens is in his first year as principal of King/Drew. Despite the brighter light the district is shining on magnets, Brookens said he still feels they are overlooked.
“It’s only my first year here, but I don’t think we get the recognition. Because we are a wonderful place. Charters do a lot of promotion, but LAUSD doesn’t do a lot of promotion. LAUSD has an unfortunate dilemma of negative being on the radar,” he said. “So I don’t think we get the recognition we deserve and we have to do a better job of tooting our own horn. So I’m glad [the superintendents] are putting the spotlight on magnets because charters, they get the spotlight, they are on the news, they get the press. But as you see, we deserve just as much press and recognition.”
Among the keys to King/Drew’s success is a hyper focus on high academic standards. The school has about half the sports teams of neighboring high schools and no athletic fields, few electives and no musical instrument program — although more electives and a new music program are in the works for next year, according to Brookens. But what students get in place of those traditional offerings is a rigorous set of advanced placement courses, the opportunity to do hands-on occupational work at medical facilities and high bars that most students find the ability to clear.
One of the high bars is elevated graduation requirements that exceed the district’s. The A through G graduation standards — which require students to take a series of courses making them eligible for acceptance into California’s public universities — went into place districtwide for the first time this year, but King/Drew has had A-G requirements for over 10 years. The school also requires four years of science and three years of a foreign language, more than A-G calls for.
Of all the students, teachers and administrators LA School Report spoke to at King/Drew, perhaps none summed it up more succinctly than junior Robin Sanford when asked what makes the school’s low-income students perform so well and stay out of trouble.
“I feel that this school keeps your head on your shoulders. You don’t have a lot of time to be out on the streets because they pile the homework load on you, which makes you stay home,” she said. “Because if you want the good grades, you need to do the homework. I feel if I was at my [neighborhood] school I wouldn’t be taking school as serious. But I know at this school if I take it serious there is going to be a prize waiting for me at the end, and that’s college.”
POPULAR HOSPITAL OCCUPATIONAL PROGRAM
Tabitha Thigpen, the magnet coordinator at King/Drew, oversees the students who are placed in work-study programs at Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital, which is across the street, and other medial facilities in the city like West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. Two-thirds of the school’s juniors participate in the program. During an orientation meeting in the auditorium in March, Thigpen spoke to the school’s sophomore class about the opportunities they would have the next year in the hospital occupational program.
The high bar of expectations the school and Thigpen have for King/Drew’s students was apparent.
“In this audience, we know, not everyone will be in the program. So that’s the truth,” Thigpen said as her comments caused a murmur among the students.
She then explained that to be in the occupational program, students must have at least a 2.5 grade point average, but if they meet that criteria, “The only reason we would not want you in the program, can you guess? Behavior. You got it. We are here as your teachers and educators, we are paid to be here. When I send you to the hospital, they are not paid to be with you. They are adults, they have a full-time job. They did not sign up to be working with someone who is rude or insolent or disrespectful and cannot control themselves.”
Despite the mix of different races and students coming from economically challenged neighborhoods, students and administrators said there are few discipline problems at King/Drew, and the statistics back it up. Zero percent of students were suspended or expelled in 2015.
“I knew this school was going to be tough. I was looking for a challenge, something different,” said junior Carlos Leon, who said his home neighborhood school would have been Gardena High. “At Gardena in 2010 there was a shooting and I was discouraged to attend because I knew it would be quite dangerous. Here, I feel like students get along quite well despite our differences. We are closely knitted together, almost like a family.”
‘WE ARE ALL JUST FRIENDS’
Statistically there are zero percent Asians at King/Drew, but in reality there are several. One of them is junior Eun Jin Son, who goes by Shelly.
“When my friends hear about King/Drew, they of course talk about the location and the people who go here, and they are going to talk about the African-Americans and the Hispanics and the Latinos,” she said. “Statistically there is zero percent Asians, so I am the odd one. But despite all the prejudice and rumors and stereotypes that people have about certain races, everyone here is very nice and we are all just friends and we are all just close.”
Thigpen said the school makes sure to start guiding students in the right direction before their freshman year during a “summer bridge” program for eighth-graders. The intent is to prepare them for the stricter rules and higher academic standards. According to Thigpen, the average freshman class comes to King/Drew from over 70 feeder middle schools throughout Los Angeles.
“Sometimes they want to bring that (middle school or neighborhood) drama with them, and our dean of students is very busy with the summer bridge program to make sure we catch all of that early. Because if we don’t get them from the ground floor we cannot save them their senior year,” Thigpen said. “When you talk to ninth-graders, a lot of them say, ‘I don’t like this, and I don’t like that.’ And you talk to them in 11th and 12th grade, they are so glad they stayed. They’ve matured. They see we are on their side, and we want them to succeed.”
She added, “Sometimes they don’t realize what they are capable of because no one ever pushed them. Their low performance and their low behavior was accepted at other schools, but is not here.”
The occupational program Thigpen heads was frequently cited by students as a reason they chose to come to King/Drew. Students during their junior year — if they meet the criteria — get to do hands-on work one day a week alongside medical professionals.
“How many students applying to college do you think can say that they have done research, or observed surgery? Not many. So this puts you in a clear advantage,” Thigpen told the sophomores in the auditorium.
Two students who observe surgeries on a weekly basis are Stanton and Henderson. Each Wednesday they walk across the street to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Outpatient Center and spend several hours assisting doctors and nurses as they prep patients for surgery before sitting in the operating room and observing the procedures.
“The area I work in, most of the workers are predominantly black, so it’s kind of different because in videos and stuff you don’t see African-Americans in high positions, but there the doctors are African-American and it’s easier to talk to them,” Henderson said. “They are more open to try and teach me and they want me to learn to be like them.”
‘VERY PREPARED FOR COLLEGE’
Two of the nurses who supervise Henderson, Sheri Williams and Lori White, are African-American women who both had two children attend King/Drew. All are either in college or have graduated from college.
“I had a niece who went to King/Drew and my sister said she had a good experience. I was working here so it was very convenient. So that was my reason. It was a great experience,” said Williams. “I feel that my kids were very prepared for college.”
Henderson said she was not initially interested in the medical field and chose King/Drew because of its safe environment and academics, but the idea has grown on her. She now wants to become an anesthesiologist.
“I see surgeries all the time, and it was so amazing to me how they put people to sleep and then they come back. It was like magic to me. So I was like, I want to do that one day,” she said.
Thigpen said she believes the success of King/Drew and other magnets can be replicated and the district can compete with independent charters. Thigpen sees magnets, or the techniques that make them successful, as the answer.
“I’m very pleased to be at this school — and I’m just speaking for myself — because it is a full magnet, and all the programs are open to all the students. What I think is bad is programs that offer that for some but not others. I think if all schools ran themselves like a magnet they would be successful. We have always been a success piece to the district,” Thigpen said. “If this becomes the model, I hope the district can regain its student population. I don’t want to see us turn into a private system.”