Above: With encouragement from Principal Donald Moorer, seventh-grader Ze’Rion Rivera adds water to a ‘tree of life,’ part of a morning ritual designed to promote positivity, growth and reflection.
The first-ever boys academy in L.A. Unified is now midway through its inaugural year, and the students and educators alike are riding high on signs of success.
“It’s been a huge change since the year started,” said Principal Donald Moorer, who opened the doors of the Boys Academic Leadership Academy on Aug. 15. “We have young men who came from elementary and middle schools from all across Los Angeles. At first they didn’t know each other. Now, several months later, what you see is a unified group of young men with a strong sense of brotherhood.”
Two years ago, the Board of Education authorized the launch of the academy, which shares a campus with Washington Preparatory High School. Modeled after the successful Eagle Academies in New York City, the school opened this year to sixth- and seventh-graders and will ultimately serve grades six through twelve.
The school’s opening came a year after the launch of the popular Girls Academy of Los Angeles. Like its counterpart, the Boys Academy has a science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) focus and aims to instill leadership skills in its students.
Moorer says the school adopted many tried and true practices of the Eagle Academies while also making it a uniquely West Coast school.
“We are part of the District’s efforts to expand pathways for learning,” he said. “We know that not all students are the same and that trying to teach every student the same way doesn’t work. So, we aim to provide hands-on, interactive learning in an open environment where young men are encouraged to explore and understand their world in their own ways.”
At the beginning and end of each week, the school day opens with a town hall-style meeting in the quad, where students participate in rituals designed to start the day on a positive note. These include reminders of the school’s ‘Big Five’: resolving conflicts peacefully, using appropriate and positive language, being in uniform, respecting others and keeping electronics invisible and inaudible.
At one town hall, several students who had gotten into physical altercations during the week apologized to their classmates for bringing violence into the school.
“This is a peace zone,” Moorer said. “Of course, these are adolescent boys with high energy levels, and conflicts and tensions will arise. But, they learn to deal with conflicts effectively, handling disputes in a gentlemanly fashion.”
As their principal reminded students during the town hall that violence is not tolerated, the students began chanting “grades not fades!” – fades referring to a South Los Angeles slang term for goading others into fights. Moorer says they’ve taken the term and turned it into something catchy to help reinforce the school’s values.
“When students see a fight breaking out, they will circle around and begin chanting the phrase,” he said. “It’s had a tremendous impact, as we’ve seen the level of physical violence go way down these past few months.”
Morning rituals also include reciting “Invictus” written by 19th century poet William Ernest Henley with a message of fortitude in the face of adversity. Students also vie for the chance to pour libations, each adding water to a lemon tree as they say what they are thankful for.
“I think the rituals are great,” said sixth-grader Alexander Figueroa. “We get to watch as the tree gets bigger over time, and we say what we are thankful for. I am thankful for this school, because it’s helping us to get good grades to go to college after we graduate.”
While he doesn’t yet know where he wants to attend college, Figueroa has a clear sense of the kind of career he wants to pursue.
“I want to be some kind of an engineer,” he said. “Which kind, I am not sure yet. But, I love the idea of working in engineering.”
Students compete both as individuals and as teams to see who can accumulate the most merit points each week. The teams are in the form of four ‘houses,’ each named after a prominent male figure who embodies confidence, leadership, resilience and academic excellence: author James Baldwin, revolutionary leader Che Guevara, astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson and legendary boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
Each week, the house with the most accumulated merit points is celebrated along with the student with the most points who is dubbed “King of the Day.”
Celebrating a victory this week was the Niel Degrasse House and “King of the Day” seventh-grader Donald Brown.
“I’m really proud,” Brown said of his recognition. “Everyone really tries hard to get the most merit points. To earn then you have to stay focused, show up on time and not mess around during class time.”
Moorer says that while the points and competition bring fun and team-building to the school, it’s really a bonus.
“They really see themselves as a unified school,” he said. “The first half of this year, they have already developed such a strong sense of brotherhood, they look out for another and they congratulate one another on a job well done.”
Moorer’s point was underscored as teams of students exchanged handshakes and high fives when the week’s winners were announced.
With about 100 students this year, the school is still relatively small. Sean Williams, father of sixth-grader Charles, says that’s to be expected for a new school in the South Los Angeles community.
“Parents can sometimes be skeptical when you offer something new and different,” he said. “But, I have no doubt that when more parents see what this school can do for these young men, they will be pushing hard to get their boys enrolled here.”
Getting the word out early had an impact on parents like Williams, who drives his son each day from Downey to attend the academy.
Moorer continues to promote the school, holding community meetings, regularly touring elementary and middle schools around the city and even knocking on doors in the nearby neighborhoods. But, he says that the strongest marketing comes from the parents themselves.
“Dads like Sean have been with us since the beginning, helping us to build what you see today,” Moorer said. “Having parents as a strong base of support — and the school’s greatest cheerleaders — makes an enormous difference.”
Williams described Moorer as just what the new school needs.
“Mr. Moorer is a great principal and a great man,” he said. “He’s here for these kids. They know he cares, and they trust him to help them succeed.”