Gov. Schwarzenegger has outdone himself with his new pick for state Board of Education: Jorge Lopez, head of the prison-like but high-performing Oakland Charter Academy.
Lopez is a foul-mouthed tough guy whose fiercest detractors still acknowledge that he fixed a broken school. The East Bay Express profiled Lopez in December 2006, describing how he “took over the school three summers ago, ruthlessly eliminating its entire staff and remaking the place in his own image …”
You have to wonder how Lopez will get along with his colleagues on the state Board of Ed, since he told the East Bay Express in a December 2006 article, "One thing I know about boards is they're dumber than s***."
Lopez is a protégé of Ben Chavis, the flamboyantly antisocial former principal of Oakland’s similarly scary and similarly high-performing American Indian Public Charter School who left after (though not necessarily because of) reports about his bizarre behavior kept popping up. Chavis, as described in a June 2007 Oakland Tribune article , “refers to black, Latino and American Indian students as ‘darkies’ … will swear at anyone who doesn't follow his rules, and … scoffs at the idea of defending his decisions to an unhappy parent.” He notoriously horrified a group of visitors from Mills College with his behavior, including launching a torrent of abuse at a graduate student who arrived late for the visit.
Lopez hasn’t attracted quite that much attention, but he's cut from similar cloth. When I blogged about Lopez and the East Bay Express article in December 2006, titling my post “Oakland Charter Not for the Faint of Heart,” I quoted a Craiglist ad the school was running for a resource specialist, which emphasized:
“Multi-cultural specialist, self-esteem experts, liberal progressives or their 'klan' relatives need not apply.”
Lopez took over the school – Oakland’s first charter, which had originally been founded to celebrate bilingualism and Latino heritage and was achieving embarrassing test scores – and unceremoniously dumped the multiculturalism in favor of a hard-nosed, relentless focus on tests. And even his detractors can't deny that the test scores soared.
From the Express article:
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 s*** from parents. I don't take s*** from kids. I don't take s*** from teachers.”
And no wussy whining about kids in need for Lopez, either.
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 bulls***. The biggest problem is obesity."
The article described Lopez’ first weeks at the school, when he was supposed to be working with his departing predecessor, Francisco Gutierrez, during a transition period.
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."
Lopez acknowledged to the Express that he doesn’t subject his own child to a drill-sergeant atmosphere. His son was in kindergarten at the private Rising Star Montessori School in Alameda.
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. ... "But he doesn't need the same s*** I needed.”
It remains to be seen whether Lopez’ concentration-camp approach is the secret to success for low-income Latino students in the long run – and whether he’ll play well with the others on a “dumber than s***” board.