Creating an Oasis of Learning for Disadvantaged Students

At first glance, you might assume that Vista Middle School, one of 160 middle schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, can’t possibly provide an effective learning environment for its students.

Statistics show neighborhood violence; a 100% free and reduced-price lunch population; overcrowding; and a young, inexperienced faculty. Yet during the past three years, the suspension rate has dropped significantly, and the Academic Performance Index (API) has increased. (API measures the academic performance and growth of schools based on a variety of standardized tests. All Vista students are tested in English/language arts and mathematics. Eighth graders are tested in history/social science and science, as well.)

What’s the catch? Vista Middle School has benefited from the leadership of a principal whose motto is, “If you love them, they will learn”; a staff that, though inexperienced, brought commitment to helping students overcome their external risks; and the school-wide implementation of a social and emotional learning program.

Roadblocks to Success

Vista Middle School opened its doors in the fall of 2004 as the first new middle school in Los Angeles Unified School District in more than 40 years. Originally built to house 1,650 neighborhood middle school students, Vista has increased in population to approximately 2,100 students, taxing both facilities and personnel.

Located in a predominately Spanish-speaking community, the school is adjacent to a congested major thoroughfare and across the street from an old strip mall that houses a taco stand, dry cleaner, liquor store, and sundries market.

Vista Middle School serves a geographical area comprised of a primarily immigrant population living in moderate- to low-income apartment complexes. Most families live at or below the poverty level; 100% of Vista students qualify for Title I free or reduced-price lunches. Many residents share the burden of rent by combining multiple families into small living spaces, which has had an impact on student mobility at the school. The school’s transient rate is well over 50%—among the highest in the district.

Along with language barriers, overcrowding, and poverty, students are also distracted by the neighborhood itself. Crime statistics for the Van Nuys area show a marked increase in violent crimes from prior years, especially in robberies and aggravated assault.

Vista Middle School is located in the middle of three, well-known, neighborhood gangs. It has been noted, with dismay, that students at Vista must change clothing as they walk home, block by block, to avoid being assaulted by various gang members.

Adolescents who live in this context of fear and danger might be expected to merge these violent elements into a predictable pattern of poor behavior and attendance. And, while Vista Middle School addresses the need to create a safe and secure school environment, the potential for disruptive behavior carried over from the community is always a threat.

The Vista Middle School faculty is primarily new and inexperienced. More than one-third of the Vista teaching faculty has taught school fewer than two years. In the special education department alone, seven of eight teachers were new to teaching last year. Inexperienced teachers, often disproportionately focused on classroom management and routine tasks, frequently cannot address student skill building and do not have the tools their more experienced peers possess.

In addition, because Vista was a newly opened school, all of the staff members were new to each other. Traditionally, a small group of “new” teachers enters an established staff with experienced teachers familiar with the school culture, the community, and the student body. For the majority of new teachers, the needs of these student learners have been unfamiliar.

A Commitment to Reform

Despite these numerous would-be roadblocks, the faculty members at Vista are committed to school reform.

Vista Middle School is a safe and secure learning environment, where reduced disruptions to the learning process and a climate of empathy and respect have helped reduce its expulsion and suspension rates from among the highest in the district to among the lowest and raise its API ratings by 21 points during each of the past three years.

We all know that classroom disruptions interrupt the learning process. Vista has been able to reduce these disruptions dramatically. In the 2004–2005 school year, the school had 381 suspensions—almost double the district’s rate. In 2006–2007, the suspension rate had been cut in half to 182 total suspensions. For the first six months of the 2007–2008 year, the number of suspensions dropped to 83. Expulsions are down, as well. While five students were expelled in 2004–2005, only one student was expelled in 2006–2007.

Contributing to the API ratings growth and discipline problem reduction was Principal Suzanne Blake’s commitment to using Second Step: A Violence Prevention Program that helps students develop a foundation of empathy, emotion management, problem solving, and cooperation—the social and emotional skills researchers find not only affect behavior, but academic achievement as well.

Strategies for Change

Inspired by their principal, who relies on her instincts as a progressive leader, and incorporating the wisdom and research of such leaders as Linda Darling Hammond, Jeff Sprague, and Ruby Payne, Vista Middle School staff and faculty implemented many reforms. As a result, they have created a school where violence, destruction of property, and sexual harassment now stop at the school gate and learning is valued.

They did it by implementing a number of strategies that research confirms are effective, including

  • Creating an advisory period in which students retain the same advisory teacher for their full three years and all students are taught the Second Step curriculum. Second Step is an integral part of the newly adopted LAUSD Positive Discipline Policy. The program helps students learn and practice and also addresses substance abuse, bullying, and academic achievement. The program helps teachers spend less time on classroom management and more time on instruction.
  • Establishing block scheduling to increase the number of minutes an individual teacher spends with each student.
  • Pursuing numerous opportunities to change the trajectory of these students’ lives. For example, with funds from a High Priority Grant, students have broadened their horizons by traveling to such diverse locations as Washington, D.C., and Catalina Island, California.
  • Institutionalizing the personalization of student to adult relationships by training teachers in asset development with the Search Institute and Clay Roberts, co-author of Great Places to Learn: How Asset-Building Schools Help Students Succeed.

The development of these programs and a comprehensive approach to school-wide positive behavior can build the capacity for positive behavior change and enhanced success in student achievement. Research has suggested the connection; Vista students’ progress has demonstrated its reality.

Lori Vollandt is the coordinator of health education programs for the Los Angeles Unified School District. E-mail:

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, April 2009