“Where are you going?” the principal calls after a young woman taking the long way to her algebra class. “Where are you supposed to be?”
Ben Gertner, principal of the School of Communications, New Media and Technology (CNMT) at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, is part teacher, part administrator, and part warden.
Giving a walking tour of Roosevelt’s campus on a Thursday morning, Gertner regularly breaks the flow of conversation to intercept roving students, sends them in the direction of their classroom, and then jumps back into the subject at hand.
The Roosevelt campus is large, and CNMT is one of seven autonomous schools operating there. Gertner is directly responsible for just over 500 students among more than 3000, but he also keeps tabs on his part of campus in between classes and during lunch.
His school is in its first year of operation as a pilot “social-justice focused community school … with a thematic emphasis on communications, new media on technology.” Gertner began teaching at Roosevelt in 2002, moving into the principal’s role earlier this year.
Roosevelt as a whole has been undergoing dramatic change since its parents and teachers voted to join L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for L.A. Schools in 2007. Although still part of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and not a charter school, Roosevelt now runs more like one, with “more space for creative ideas and innovation.”
CNMT offers cross-disciplinary classes in video production, journalism, computer science (in addition to core curriculum like math, science, English, and social studies) with teachers collaborating with one another to create engaging projects for their students.
For example, the school held a “Gatsby Party” so that students could better understand America in the 1920s. Other projects have included creating a personalized “Declaration of Independence” and writing corridos – Mexican ballads.
“We’re taking a big school and breaking it into small schools,” Gertner said, explaining that Roosevelt once enrolled more than 5000 until two new schools alleviated some of the enrollment. “Otherwise, students get lost in the shuffle.”
He said that initially, parents and students worried that Roosevelt’s culture would suffer if the school were broken into smaller parts. That hasn’t happened, according to Gertner.
“You build a lot of the school culture outside of the school day,” Gertner said. All Roosevelt students share gym, athletics, and lunches, plus an array of extra-curriculars (including capoeira and one for English learners).
So far, Roosevelt’s new approach is yielding progress on key indicators of success. The school’s Academic Performance Index has grown by 57 points in two years, though it still lags behind most California schools. Its graduation rate is improving too.
“It’s not enough, but it’s good,” Gertner said. He’ll continue building culture and curriculum at CNMT, working with faculty to secure more funding for more technology equipment and secure partnerships with outside organizations.
The school still lacks adequate equipment, Gerter said, ironic given the school’s name and theme. It’s early yet, however. One teacher, asked how things are done at CNMT said candidly: “We’re still not quite sure how we do things around here.”
As a pilot school, CNMT will keep working to figure that out.