Large notepads with controversial "argument issues" written across their headers lay stacked on desks in Jennifer Nutting's seventh grade language arts classroom at in Cypress Park.
Below each heading were two columns, labeled pro and con. Small groups of students gathered around each notepad and filled out the columns with colored markers.
While they worked, the students were reminded by Nutting to keep in mind that they were not supposed to write in their own opinions, but to really consider what others might put in each column.
Rita, a seventh grader, said that this was a typical day in Nutting's class. Students are encouraged to debate--especially during the curriculum' s current Persuasion Unit--but to do so civilly.
"Here we actually have a chance to chance to write things down," Rita said. "We talk about our disagreements."
Nearby, a seventh grader named Jacqueline, who moved to Los Angeles last year after attending schools in Santa Ana in Orange County, said she probably wouldn't have been able to have this kind of debate in her old school.
"It's not as dangerous here, it's a lot safer," she said. "The teachers understand the students--they take the job seriously. The kids are nicer. There's less drama."
The comments of students like Rita and Jacqueline stand in stark contest to the reputation the school has developed in the surrounding community--referred to by some as "Nighting-Jail" for its supposed history of violence and gang activity.
Perhaps a decade ago Nightingale might have deserved that reputation, said Nutting, but not anymore.
"When I first got here, 12 years ago, I would say that this school probably deserved its reputation. There wasn't a lot of gang influence, but you could definitely see it," Nutting said. "When I walked around the hallways, I used to think, 'thank God I'm an adult, I'd be terrified if I was a student.'"
Nutting said that a culture of "academic apathy" flourished at the school.
"Before, if you brought in your homework to class, kids would make fun of you," she said.
Now, Nightingale leads all middle schools in LAUSD Local District 5 in Academic Performance Index (API) scores at 733, and is routinely near the top in attendance records. In the 2010-2011 school year, it boasted a 97.10-percent attendance rate.
Located in the Cypress Park, the economically poorest of Northeast Los Angeles' seven neighborhoods, Nutting said the challenges faced by Nightingale are in line with those of many inner-city schools.
Many students come from homes where parents don't speak English as a primary language, others have no homes to go to all, and instead live in cars or in shelters, according to attendance supervisor María Barran-Franco.
According to LAUSD figures, 25-percent of Nightingale's students are classified as English Language Learners; 100-percent fall under the category of economically disadvantaged.
Life outside of school for many of Nightingale's students is uncertain. In response, Nutting said that Nightingale has fostered student success by ensuring that life inside it is not.
One of the main forces behind creating a predictable environment at Nightingale has been the lack of turnover in its staff.
"The staff here is really like a family," Nutting said.
The head of that family, is Dean of Students Mitchell Summer, who has been at the school for more than two decades.
"He's pro-active instead of reactive," Nutting said. "We have clear, set guidelines for how kids walk through the halls. There are procedures for getting a bathroom pass, a hall pass. There's a consistency that kids like, which other schools haven't gotten a hold of."
There are no givens at Nightingale, no "arbitrary adults," Nutting said. Students are given explicit direction, rather than learning what's expected of them through punishment.
"The kids know what's expected of them," Nutting said. "Instead of, suddenly a teacher is yelling at them for--they don't know what--running in the hallways. Something that, to an adult may seem like a given, but to a child is something that's done because nobody told you not to do it."
Nightingale's disciplinary policy may stem from the fact that Summer simply isn't a fan of punishing students.
"The model I go by is that punishing is not a good way of trying to change behavior," Summer said. "In general, if you have to punish all the time, you're not doing it right. Either the students aren't hearing you, or you weren't clear with the expectations."
Summer credited the implementation of Dr. Randy Sprick's "Safe and Civil Schools" method for altering Nightingale's approach to discipline. Nightingale's rules aren't any different from most schools, he said, they're just more clearly defined.
Challenges still remain for Nightingale, though. Despite raising its API scores above 700, the largest portion of its population--Hispanic and Latino students--have yet to reach the benchmark.
Hispanic and Latino students make up 69-percent of Nightingale's population, and last year earned a 678 API score as a group. That's lower than the scores earned by Hispanic and Latino students at in Highland Park, which has similar demographics. Nutting said the school is aware of the problem and determined to improve those scores.
"We're trying to make the school more culturally welcoming to our Hispanic and Latino students, while balancing that with the needs of our Asian population," Nutting said. "One of the things that is difficult for them is the manner in which the district stresses the importance of every student going to college. But, the only people they hear that message from is their white teachers.
"When you're feeding that to them, you can just see in their eyes. They get this feeling like, 'what is this lady talking about?'" Nutting said.
To remedy this problem, Nutting said she's been calling in Hispanic/Latino alums to talk about their college experiences. She also talks about her own successes at college, despite being only one of two children out of five in her family to earn a degree.
"It's important that they see it really is a possibility for them," she said.
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