Don't tell principal Howard Lappin that poor, urban minority kids can't learn. He's been known to lose his temper.
Once, a counselor told a student that Latino girls should be housewives, not go to college. Enraged, Lappin confronted the counselor, declaring such talk nonsense. "He's no angel, but we know where his heart is," said Regina Boutte, assistant principal at Foshay Learning Center in South-Central Los Angeles. "We were blessed that he had a wonderful vision."
The intense, no-nonsense 61-year-old who transformed Foshay--once considered the worst middle school in the Los Angeles Unified School District--into one of its most improved gave his final commencement speech last week. He will retire this summer. But teachers say his educational strategies will live on. "We want to make his vision continue," Boutte said. "We might surprise him and make it even [better]."
The evidence of his imprint is everywhere. On a wall inside the school is a giant construction-paper map of the United States, punctured by hundreds of pushpins tracking college choices of the school's recent graduates: Cornell College in Iowa, Ana Montanez; American University in Washington, D.C., Jorge Jimenez; Brown University in Rhode Island, Dawit Meles.
Look down. The words on two blue floor mats proudly announce: "California Distinguished School." Ceilings, doors and stairways are splashed with vivid murals that showcase the artistic talent of students. "Nothing in my school should be ugly," says Lappin, who refers to Foshay as his "child." A painting on Lappin's office door depicts four students dancing on learning blocks. It reads: "Foshay, where success isn't a choice. It's required." Only a dozen years ago, graffiti marred the walls here. Students carried guns and knives to school and class bells were ignored. Test scores were the lowest of any district middle school. One in five students dropped out and 400 were suspended each year. It was so bad that the California Department of Education warned that if Foshay didn't improve its performance, the state would cut off funding and send a trustee to take over the school.
In walked Lappin, the first white principal of the 100% minority school in 30 years. Many parents and teachers doubted that Lappin--whose resume included only well-regarded Los Angeles Unified schools--could boost student performance. "Without a doubt, we were skeptical," said Steve Moore, who has been a dean at Foshay for more than 15 years. "We kind of looked at him like, 'What is he supposed to do?' " Lappin won over the staff. "I don't care what color you are," said Moore, who is African American. "If you're doing the job, someone needs to take off their hat and say, 'Job well done.' "
Although Lappin admits that he almost cried when he first saw the dilapidated, depressing school, he decided to get to work instead. The California-bred UCLA graduate, who became a teacher to "give back to the community," set about aggressively reforming Foshay. The campus became semiautonomous so staff members could make decisions about curriculum and hiring without district interference. Teachers were no longer allowed to permit failing students to advance to the next grade. Lappin started the TNT program--Tolerate No Tardies--so students caught loitering in the halls would have to go to a detention room. School uniforms became a requirement.
Foshay expanded its reach, changing from a middle school to a campus for kindergarten through grade 12. And it started soliciting aid through a school grant-writing team. The school even bought its own bus so children could go to museums. It secured funding for a product development center with computers, scanners and video editing equipment, and for a $1-million library with 33,000 books. Lappin made a deal with USC, which provided free Internet access, sent tutors and helped open a dental clinic, a medical clinic and a family counseling center on campus.
Foshay, named a California Distinguished School in 1996, was ranked as one of the nation's top 100 public schools in Newsweek magazine. Its dropout rate plummeted to 2%. All of the school's 140 seniors this year have been accepted to college. Lappin was named principal of the year by the Assn. of California Administrators, and he has been nominated for national principal of the year and the Reader's Digest Hero of Education award. There is still work to be done, Lappin admits. Foshay lags behind other schools on the Academic Performance Index, ranking disappointingly low compared with other schools statewide. However, compared to schools with similar socioeconomic backgrounds, Foshay ranks exceptionally high. "We are showing improvement," Lappin said. "But no one is going to be happy until we are at the 50th percentile." Lappin proudly takes credit for the school's improvement, but says he wasn't motivated by a calling from God or a life-altering event. He was just doing his job. "I'm a principal," he said. "I do the best I can."
Now it's time to take on another challenge, he says. Lappin will become vice president for Pueblo Nuevo Development, a nonprofit group in the MacArthur Park area. His mission will be to create charter schools throughout Los Angeles. He also plans to complete his doctorate at USC.
At last week's commencement ceremony for Foshay middle school students, Lappin didn't cry. He didn't give a long goodbye speech commemorating his career. He simply smiled, shook hands and gave hugs as he congratulated his graduates. "I'm not very emotional," he said. "I don't like the kids to see that. I'm proud for them, not proud for me."