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Nightingale Middle School Flourishing Despite Bad Reputation

Teachers have fostered a safe environment for students at school that has long been known only for its violent reputation.

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.

"Immigration."

"Abortion."

"Gay Marriage."

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.

W. Koenig May 25, 2012 at 11:21 PM
Great article. Glad to see the success of our kids.
L. Zarate-Odulio May 26, 2012 at 01:29 AM
I nice to see our school, and our students, get the recognition they deserve! Go Nightingale!
J. Valdez May 26, 2012 at 01:58 AM
Nightingale is a great school with wonderful students and a dedicated staff.....Go Nighthawks!!!
Joe Walker May 26, 2012 at 02:09 AM
Coach Jeff is 100% correct, and he should know!
W. Villiers May 26, 2012 at 02:37 AM
Really positive article about the growth of our school......Yeah Nighthawks
Melissa Marquez May 26, 2012 at 02:48 AM
I previously worked as a substitute teacher for LAUSD and have had the opportunity to experience various middle schools throughout the Los Angeles area. Nightingale Middle School was my favorite because It's positive school culture and environment was unique and commendable. Administration, teachers, students, and parents together play an intricate part in producing academic excellence, evident in it's API success. Nightingale Middle School has some of the most caring and dedicated teachers that I have ever encountered. This school is a hidden gem!
Eve Martinez Puchlik May 26, 2012 at 04:34 AM
Nightingale is able to make that work because of the strong effort put forth by all the teachers, administrators, staff, and volunteers who al share the same vision. They are an inspiration to all schools, and an example of what love and dedication of a profession can achieve. Love you guys!!! :-)
El Cid May 26, 2012 at 05:04 PM
Great article! I'm a Nightingale Jr. High alumni and teach at Burank Middle School. Congratulations to the entire Nightingale student body, teachers, administrators, staff, and volunteers!
Carmela Gomes May 26, 2012 at 06:34 PM
I had the pleasure of being a teacher at Nightingale MS from 1994 to 2004 when I retired from the classroom. Jen Nutting is one of the teachers who has brought her enthusiasm and consistency to the classroom setting. During my tenure, I experienced interaction with delightful young people and dedicated teachers, administrators and staff. My colleagues who continue the tradition of care and support have made the difference. What we all know is that Nightingale is far from an inner city school. We are blessed with being in the Arroyo Communities and having a vista of evolving communities. Much of the work that has been done through the Arts and Sciences to broaden the other academic subjects has produced students who go on to become excellent university students and productive individuals in the other walks of life. As a member of the Nightingale Community we emphasize the positive influence of its graduates whose names read like a who's who of Los Angeles, California and National reputation. Go Nighthawks!
gabee castaneda May 26, 2012 at 07:02 PM
Nightingale is an awesome school ! I got to meet a lot of new people there. All my teachers were great ! Go Green ! Yeah ! Go Nighthawks !!!
Michelle Thoong May 26, 2012 at 08:57 PM
Nightingale is an awesome school! I met a lot of great teachers there and I made a lot of wonderful friends! (: Being at Nightingale Middle School feel like home to me. GO BLUEE! Nighthawks! <3
Scott Hunter May 26, 2012 at 09:20 PM
As a teacher who has been at Nightingale Middle School for seventeen years now, I have seen our school community identify the problems our students face and come up with solutions collaboratively so everyone who has a vested interest in our students has a say in how we will move forward. This has made all the difference in the world and has made Nightingale the amazing school it is today!! Keep up the great work Nighthawks !!
Scott Hunter May 26, 2012 at 09:22 PM
As a teacher who has been at Nightingale Middle School for seventeen years now, I have seen our school community identify the problems our students face and come up with solutions collaboratively so everyone who has a vested interest in our students has a say in how we will move forward. This has made all the difference in the world and has made Nightingale the amazing school it is today!! Keep up the great work Nighthawks !!
Denise Randol May 26, 2012 at 10:37 PM
One of the great positives about Nightingale is its fantastic Physical Education department. All the students have P.E. everyday. They learn multiple sports - including football, basketball, softball, volleyball, archery, gymnastics and track. In today's world of electronics, its great to see Nightingale kids getting the exercise and fitness training they need. They go to high school already prepared for varsity sports. Unlike charter schools that have no space or qualified staff to teach real athletics, Nightingale has real physical education. Success in athletics gives students confidence in themselves and the ability to work together positively. Thanks Nightingale for getting your kids moving.
Judy Chen May 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM
Nightingale has made a huge impact on me. All thanks to the teachers! Not only did i learn my math and english, I've learned to be confident and to work hard no matter what. Nightingale is awesome, and I miss everyone there! Go Green .(:
Qiao Er Li May 27, 2012 at 03:59 AM
Nightingale is absolutely a great school. I first went there as a..not so smart student, but quickly changed out of that as the sixth grade year progressed. Now, I'm what people consider "smart", and that's all thanks to the teachers that Nightingale have. They're dedicated, and give attention to the student's academics. Also, Nightingale has a friendly environment. I've gained many valuable friends over the years. Go Nighthawks! (:
Alexandra Tellez May 28, 2012 at 04:55 PM
I cried reading this article...it's good to know that a once very dangerous school is finally known as more than just a "ghetto" school. Nightingale has actually produced some very successful adults... I would love to come in and speak about how consistency and hard work can bring you success, even to a kid from Cypress Park.
Jennifer N May 29, 2012 at 04:17 AM
Get in touch Alexandra, we could make it happen. Come to our showcase night 6/7 4:30-7. jen7238@lausd.net
b chan May 29, 2012 at 04:18 PM
It's great to hear from you Judy; I trust that all is very well with you! Nightingale students past and present are tremendous individuals, and I have no doubt that you are doing excellently in everything ahead of you. :)
Stephanie Suntwanuparp May 30, 2012 at 04:09 AM
It is often much too easy to categorize a person, place or even a school based on past perceptions. A negative shadow can be cast and leave a long standing misperception. In the 13 years that I've been at Nightingale, I have witnessed a generosity of spirit, time and humanity in both the staff and students. This wonderful transformation is evident on Nightingale's campus. It would be such a life affirming experience for members of the community to visit our campus and talk to our students or talk to our staff. I encourage members of the community to make the effort to see who we really are and what strides our students are making. Come visit us on June 7th during our Showcase Night. We'll leave the lamps on for you :)
Stephanie Suntwanuparp May 30, 2012 at 04:12 AM
Eve, you'll always be a Nighthawk :)
Mr. R. Gutierrez June 01, 2012 at 04:19 AM
Is working at Nightingale Middle School really work? The abundance of laughter, the smiles you receive when young minds grasp a new concept, the humble attitudes of our students reflecting their upbringing really makes my job site a great place to work. I love my job. Nightingale Middle School has come a long way in such a short time. Our students' test scores, excellent attendance rate, and outstanding faculty make up the hidden gem that has been all along the core of our community and my second home, Nightingale Middle School. I invite you to come to our home, our school, on JUNE 7TH @ 4:30 to our OPEN HOUSE celebration.
Steven June 07, 2012 at 12:05 AM
Great article! I am going to check out their open house tomorrow to see the success for myself
Susan Isaacs June 14, 2012 at 04:13 PM
Congratulations on your continued work in creating a Safe and Civil School for the Nightingale students. I wish that folks reading this could witness the passion that teachers like Jen and Mitch have for students... They epitomize what great teachers do to motivate youngsters to do things they never thought possible. Diespite continued challenges, Nightingale proves that schools can and do make a difference for students!
LESLIE O. June 21, 2012 at 07:11 PM
I am currently a parent of a 7th grader at Nightingale MS and let me tell you we have had nothing but positive experiences! NMS has made such a turn around compared to when I attended in the 90's.. Mr. Gonzales the principle is so down to earth and understanding the staff is so welcoming and helpful..When I heard he was leaving I was truly saddened!! I just hope all the wonderful innovative programs and campus beautification continue at NMS so our students will be able to compete with the rest!! GO NIGHTHAWKS!!

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