There is a dead cat in front of Los Angeles’ Dorsey High School. It is unclear if this feline wretch is intended to welcome visitors or warn them. There are no obvious signs of trauma on the gray-and-white corpse, so my first guess is that poor Puss came to Dorsey to die. Given the discouraging scenes I’ll encounter inside the school, this cat isn’t the only one with a dubious future at Dorsey.
The Dorsey campus consists of several identical, long, low buildings that resemble military bunkers. Sprawling banyan trees in the overgrown courtyard give the impression of the ruins of an ancient Mayan high school. Inside C-building is room C-4 (an inauspicious name for a room with barricaded windows and windowless metal doors dead-bolted from the inside) and inside C-4 is history teacher Lacey Buidosik and her world history class.
The students, freshmen through seniors, are wandering around the classroom, chatting. A passing grade in world history is required for graduation, but apparently that isn’t enough incentive to take the class seriously. Buidosik is describing their assignment: a chance to teach each other and show Buidosik how they’d improve the class. A chorus of complaints showers Buidosik, but she shouts them down.“You guys should be using this time wisely!” she admonishes, “Especially since most of you didn’t do the last project!”
Buidosik’s words underscore the student apathy that she considers the greatest threat to her pupils.
“Education is not a priority for these kids, and it’s a family thing, a neighborhood thing,” said Buidosik after class. “Their parents haven’t gone to college and don’t understand that it won’t come easy.”
She tells me that earlier in the semester she offered one hundred extra credit points to anyone who could convince their parents to attend a parent-teacher conference. Only a handful showed up. When she went to the Dorsey homecoming football game later in the week, it was standing room only. Dorsey has produced eleven currently active NFL players, but only six of Buidosik’s students have hung a college pennant in her classroom.
To some degree, Buidosik can identify with her students. She is a product of Chicago public schools, which, like LAUSD, has a checkered past dominated by class conflict issues. Her parents weren’t college graduates either, but Buidosik said the difference was that she took pride in her work.“I can teach history, I’m good at that, but it’s a different kind of challenge to teach people to care about what they are doing in school.”
When I first knocked on Buidosik’s classroom door, the students were just starting to get settled. Edgar, a Latino version of Eddie Haskell, opened the door, peeking into the hallway. He appeared profoundly disappointed to see me and stuck his head further into the hall hoping to glimpse someone more interesting before Buidosik hollered at him to sit down. This scene played itself out six more times as tardy students trickled in.
While other students halfheartedly worked on their assignments, Edgar, a junior, roamed the room, chewing a toothpick, starting conversations, and concocting elaborate excuses to Buidosik whenever she chided him for disturbing his classmates.
“Why don’t you do your work for this class? You need a passing grade to graduate,” she said, finally cornering Edgar at his desk.
“I will, starting next week!” said Edgar. There were three weeks left in the semester and Edgar currently held an F average.
“Do you do your work for other classes?” pressed Buidosik.
Edgar shifted uncomfortably, trying to evade her gaze. “Sometimes, yeah, I do the work for English. I’ve got a C in English.”
Buidosik kept asking about the rest of Edgar’s schedule, and he slowly divulged other details about his academic career. He was failing biology, math, and art in addition to world history. He was holding a steady B in physical education. He once got an A from a teacher who was dating his brother. He didn’t want to go to college, or even see a point in going. For some reason, he brought up the possibility of an extra credit project.
“What’s the point, Edgar? You didn’t even attempt the one that you’re trying to make up for,” said Buidosik. There was an extra credit opportunity announced the previous week, but Buidosik seemed confident that she wouldn’t be receiving any submissions.
“Your 15-week grades will not be good,” Buidosik told the class. They didn’t seem surprised or even interested.
Buidosik, who has also taught at Jordan High School in Watts, said that while some aspects of Dorsey culture were frustrating, she had no desire to leave the district or even Dorsey itself. “I’m very involved, very invested here. I was on the district’s standard lessons board for the history curriculum, I was on a history grant appropriation board, I was a [representative] for Dorsey on the UCLA-LAUSD partnership committee. I’m just pretty invested in teaching,” she said. “If I went to another district I’d lose my seniority, I’d lose what control I have.”
So, Buidosik is entrenched. How would she improve Dorsey?
“In education, everyone’s blaming the teachers. It’s not easy,” she said. “But we’re circling the wagons.”
I asked what she meant, and it turned out that Dorsey teachers have an ace up their sleeve: Dorsey’s API (California’s Academic Performance Index – a test designed to gauge students’ grasp standard curriculum statewide) scores have risen nearly 100 points in the last six years.
“A lot of people want Dorsey, they want to take it over and make it a charter school,” said Buidosik, visibly bristling at the notion. She said there is no benefit to being ‘taken over’ and that special education students, ESL students, and physically disabled students. Dorsey, being only one story, draws disabled students from throughout the city.
In spite of Dorsey-wide success on API scores, Buidosik lashed out at the tests.
“They’re unfair. The content is unrealistic. Even just the history portion requires so much information to cover what they call ‘standard’ – we have to go from 2000 b.c. to 2000 a.d.”
I tried to jump in, but Buidosik was rolling. “We have kids who are reading English at a 4th grade level trying to take this test or first-time English learners trying to take this test. There is no Spanish option for the test even though a lot of LAUSD schools have subject classes taught in Spanish. There are kids with federally-defined IEPs who are taking the same test.”
I finally managed to interrupt her tirade and asked how, in spite of these myriad obstacles, Dorsey had managed to improve by 100 points.
“There was a push on the part of the teachers and the administration – we just made kids aware of what the test results would mean, and we tried to have the kids separated by what academic level they were at.”
While this type of separation means that classroom instruction can then be tailored to similar ability levels and learning styles, it is prohibited by law. I called Buidosik on this fact.
“No, you can’t legally say that you have all the A students in one class,” she said, stopping short.
Robert, a pint-sized sophomore with cornrows, is an A student in Buidosik’s world history class. I hovered over his shoulder while he prepared his assignment in class, but he didn’t appear distracted. In a classroom where Edgar’s are roaming the room in search of an escape hatch and Olga’s are escorted to the principal’s office by the assistant football coach, concentration is a valuable skill.
“I’m not just gonna stand up there and talk,” Robert told me about his project, which is supposed to teach his classmates about a chapter of their textbook. “The teacher wants something more. I want to do it proficiently.”
Behind Robert, an enormous senior with a thin mustache named Brian thumbed through his textbook. “There’s so many idiots here,” he said to no one in particular.
I asked Buidosik if Brian was right.
“No, there’s very few idiots here,” she said, “but maybe a lot of distracted students. The neighborhood isn’t conducive to learning.”
I asked her to elaborate.
“Well, there’s gangs, drugs, violence –“
I cut her off, saying that I knew about inner city archetypes. How did this translate to LAUSD schools? She made a comparison to a notoriously well-heeled school in Woodland Hills.
“It means that a lesson we teach here isn’t the same lesson at El Camino – and that’s the environment, that isn’t the fault of the teachers. The tests and all that look at numbers without considering the outside environment.”
As she stops talking, Edgar walks over to ask for a bathroom pass. This isn’t his first attempt, and the total amount of bathroom pass requests from the class must easily number in the double digits by now.
“No,” said Buidosik, “I’m not giving out any bathroom passes to anyone until further notice.”
“What?” Edgar protested, “No one? What if your own mother was here?”
Buidosik stuck to her guns. “Nope. Not even if my own mother was here.”
Deflated, Edgar shuffled back to his seat and, exhausted by his teacher’s indomitable will, opened his textbook.