L.A.'s most wanted

17th March 2000 at 00:00
Randolph Ward never goes anywhere without an armed guard. He's cleaned up the toughest schools in downtown Los Angeles, and made a lot of enemies along the way. But his policy of zero tolerance has proved so successful that now he's being headhunted by cities across the United States. Tim Cornwell watches him in action

When Randolph Ward took over Compton, the home of gangster rap in downtown Los Angeles, the local school system was spinning out of control, sinking in a mire of incompetence, corruption and bankruptcy - and failing its pupils.

The California state authorities had taken the schools out of local hands, but four administrators in three years could not turn things around. Then in 1996 they recruited Randolph Ward from neighbouring Long Beach. When he started work, he warned his headteachers that "I would be the last state administrator, that I would be successful, and the only question was whether they would still be there when we achieved that success. And many aren't."

Answerable to no one save the state superintendent of education, Ward was given almost unfettered authority to hire, fire, and set policy. He was also given the right to veto decisions made by the local school board. Like the agents who tackled Al Capone, he is untouchable.

While locals from the mayor of Compton down have repeatedly demanded an end to state control of their schools and objected to Ward's methods, he has become a wanted man. Wanted by the cities of Detroit, New Orleans and Oakland to take on their schools because he has brought down truancy and drop-out rates and raised academic scores. And wanted so badly by others that he has received death threats and travels everywhere with an armed bodyguard.

Compton, a district of 100,000 in the heart of south-east LA, became notorious for gang feuding over control of the crack trade, which gave birth to the violent lyrics of "gangsta rap". (Singer Ice Cube's group Niggaz with Attitude made their name with the 1988 track "Straight Outta Compton".) It is said that, to keep the peace, students were sometimes picked for high schools on the basis of their gang affiliation. Since then, as middle-class blacks have moved up and out, Latin American immigrants have become the majority - two-thirds of Compton pupils are Latino, most speak English as a second language - creating an undercurrent of tension with the black community.

But Ward, 41, is well qualified to negotiate these problems. One of nine children of a bi-racial black-white marriage, he worked his way through Harvard with a one-man car repair business and started his career as a pre-school teacher in Boston. He then embarked on a teaching tour of Medellin, Colombia, where he perfected his Spanish - and where his school was bombed.

When, in August 1989, he moved to California as principal of Whittier elementary school, located in a crime- and gang-infested area of Long Beach, he made zero tolerance his watchword. He planted lawns along the pavement and entrance to the school, and had murals painted on the walls. In 1991, the school became the first of 87 in its district to adopt school uniforms, raising money to supply them to low-income families. He found corporate sponsors for the school, and had "Whittier Wizards" inscribed on the uniforms. Attendance, discipline and achievement have risen sharply from a low base. In 1994 Long Beach became one of the first districts in the country to bring back school uniforms. This prompted a visit from Bill Clinton, an event which Ward, less than dazzled by politicians, avoided.

But in the early Nineties the performance of California's public schools dropped to levels not seen outside the poorest states of the Deep South, and Compton was the worst of the lot. Over the past two decades, Compton had seen everything from a cheating scandal where staff allegedly erased wrong answers on their pupils' test papers, to suspicions that at one time up to 200 dead people were on the school rolls.

The number of students going on to college from its three high schools was in single figures. It was in the bottom 1 per cent of schools in the whole of the US; in California, it came 997 out of 997 districts. Students were taught in "temporary" classrooms that were 40 or 50 years old. The roofs, door and window frames of its schools were so badly rotted that the classrooms had to be evacuated in the winter rains.

The education department's $200 million annual budget made it easily the biggest employer in town, and corruption had set in, it was alleged. One member of the school board had four relatives working for the district, including her husband as a typewriter repair man. Others were promoted to posts far beyond their ability, it was said. In one notorious case, $6,000 from a federal education fund for disadvantaged children paid for a junket to Hawaii. Deliveries, said Ward, would simply not arrive, with school vehicles and equipment being used off site. Televisions, microwaves and typewriters would grow legs and walk. At one school Thanksgiving turkeys had to be replaced four times after they were stolen. Stories of staff taking months of sick leave for minor injuries were common. There were people drawing benefits who had not shown up for work in five years.

When questions were asked about exactly who was being counselled in a $10 million counselling programme for staff and students, patients vanished. Finally, in 1993, in an unprecedented move, California's department of education judged Compton not just financially insolvent - it was $5 million in debt - but academically bankrupt.

"When we took over Compton it was the most dysfunctional district west of the Mississippi," says Delaine Eastin, California's education director and the elected superintendent of public instruction.

"It was pitiful," recalls the first state administrator, Stan Oswalt. Compton's dismal reputation and low salaries made it difficult to attract qualified teachers - a third were on temporary credentials. When Oswalt began probing the system, pamphlets were circulated accusing him of child abuse. Five shots were fired at him as he travelled to a school board meeting. He had to be driven from the scene in a three-car police convoy.

Tyrus Lee, a boulder-sized man with a pistol on his hip, was Oswalt's bodyguard that day and now watches over Ward, driving him from home to office and shadowing him on the job. "I was told," says Mr Lee, a member of California's dignitary protection squad, "that this is probably one of the most violent assignments of the detail."

It may seem like overkill, but Ward's methods have not been to everyone's taste. He has replaced all the principals and top administrative staff at his high schools, demoted or dismissed many others and, his critics claim, fostered "favoured" talent. (Ward is unrepentant. "Adults, like children, will live with your expectations," he says. "If you expect high, you will get high. If you expect low, you will get low.") During his first two years he says he went through "noisy hell" in board meetings, faced public protests and accusations of extortion and nepotism, and fought frequent law suits. One woman ejected from a raucous school board meeting rammed her car into Ward's before fleeing the scene, but he shrugs off the incident. "This place is a trip," he says.

On an unannounced lighting tour of five junior schools, barrelling between them in a black four-wheel drive, he hands out a stiff reprimand here, a thumbs-up there. He immediately homes in on the physical symptoms of neglect - a broken window, a flowerbed that's gone to seed - and in classrooms he looks first at the work on the walls to see if teaching has come alive.

Crisply dressed in a smart suit, with a military build (his father was a soldier) and more than a hint of muscle, he is fanatical about cleanliness and respect. On his orders, all broken windows are to be repaired within 72 hours, graffiti erased within 24 hours and lavatories cleaned, resupplied and if necessary repainted three times a day.

"You can at last walk in the front door and say this is a school," he says on the steps to Compton high, a grandiose late 19th-century building that has just reopened after a 30-month modernisation scheme. At the door, two uniformed cadets sign visitors in. In one classroom, students enthusiastically prepare Hallowe'en outfits. Ward is particularly proud of the remodelled auditorium, with its original moulded wooden seats.

But then he descends into the basement, the only area left untouched. The rooms are a wreck, dark and damp, and strewn with rubbish and waste. Threatening gang graffiti covers every available wall space.

"When I came here, it was all like this, and no one seemed to care," says Ward. "There was graffiti all over the walls, inside and out. Trash everywhere. The work ethic, that's the challenge. Not for the kids but the adults."

We visit a new library, computer labs, a tutoring centre run by a private firm, and refurbished classrooms. Half a million dollars' worth of textbooks used to disappear from the district every year. "Not any more," he says. But as we visit Centennial high school, his frustration rises. Litter is scattered about the parking lot, and teenagers loiter between low-slung buildings that look more like barracks.

Diving into four classrooms picked at random, he finds one teacher struggling to get his class, mostly Latino and black, interested in The Catcher in the Rye. In another, a teenage girl leans listlessly across her desk, not even bothering to pull out a textbook. "Why do you come to school?" Ward hisses from the back. "What you here for?" The girl jumps as if she's been hit.

Mention "problems" to Ward and he fixes you with a glassy stare. There are no problems, merely challenges to be met and overcome with his restless energy. When he sought new funding for Compton, he pleaded with legislators, telling them: "You are going to have to pay for them one way or another, and this is a lot cheaper."

His first task in Compton, he says, was simply "getting all the roofs fixed". He bricked up windows in some classrooms to control vandalism and theft; after complaints, he replaced them with reflecting plexi-glass.

He also replaced 200 old classrooms with new buildings, "literally begging" California for the funding. "They were just disgusting," he says. "You wouldn't even put your dog in here." Ward recently sacked a contractor who "didn't follow the specs". "I just fired them all and brought in somebody else," he says. "We'll sue them to death."

Ward then set about trying to create long-term, systematic change at every level. He instituted three-year contracts for teachers, created school site councils to get parents involved, reached out to the Latino community - all Compton's children are from ethnic minorities - and brought in young teachers from "Teach for America", a government-backed programme in which untrained students teach for two years in challenging schools (in exchange for a full starting salary and help with paying off student loans).

Three years into his tenure, he says he has turned a corner. The drop-out rate among Compton's 29,000 pupils has fallen sharply in the past school year and graduation rates have increased significantly. "In the latest state testing programme, we are up to the twenty-third percentile (about a quarter of the way up the school rankings," Ward says.

"It's still low. I wouldn't send my children to twenty-third percentile schools, but it is real progress." Even more significantly, he says, Compton has drawn level with neighbouring urban districts. "They've always been able to look back at us and say, 'At least we are not that bad'. Not any more."

He cultivates a leadership style that is relentless, tenacious and abrasive. He joined a national trend in ending "social promotion", the practice of pushing students up through the grades even if they had failed the previous year, to the point where some were entering senior schools unable to read. Instead of making students simply repeat a year, they were put into a mandatory summer school; about 1,200 students attended in the first year.

The academic focus of Compton's elementary schools has shifted to the basics of reading, writing and maths - and personal accountability. When textbooks disappear, either families must pay for a replacement or students lose privileges - in particular, playing sports. Not all of the problems have disappeared. Ward claims the 10 incidents of arson in Compton's 39 schools in six months last year were only "nuisance stuff", but the firebugs quit only when agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were called in. These days the deluge of complaints has subsided, and Ward has already been approached by bigger, struggling school districts to apply for jobs there, though so far he has declined their offers. Within Compton, the question is how soon the state can return the schools to local control.

Ward brims with angry energy at those who think that poor and minority kids can't learn, and others - adults - who by their behaviour allow them to think so. "There are some things that are a basic in life," he says. "Attendance is a non-negotiable issue. Dishonesty is a non-negotiable issue. Stealing from school districts is stealing from school children.

"I believe that children can learn, but you have to believe that adults can learn too. Otherwise you throw this district away because the adults are the ones that destroyed it."

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