Above, Principal Lorenzo Garcia is leading a transformation of Nimitz Middle School, with a new focus on academics, parent engagement and campus culture.

Just like its namesake, Chester W. Nimitz Middle School in Huntington Park has set a course for excellence.

Since taking the helm of the struggling school two years ago, Principal Lorenzo Garcia and his team have worked together to improve academics and safety, morale and parent engagement. There is a new focus on more rigorous instruction, with every student receiving a District-issued iPad, while supporting the social and emotional needs of students. Taking the lead from Local District East Superintendent Jose Huerta, Garcia is using mutual respect to build a foundation of trust and loyalty among the school’s students, families and employees.

“I’m very happy and proud to be a part of Nimitz Middle School,” Garcia said of the campus, named for one of the U.S. Navy’s top administrators and strategists. “I’m thrilled the school is now a reflection of openness that offers a high-quality education.”

A welcoming parent center is essential to the success of Nimitz Middle School.

Assistant Principal Amy Uyeshima is overseeing the transformation of math instruction, which now includes college-prep courses, problem-solving and real-world applications. Instead of learning mathematical formulas by rote, students are working in teams to discover why the calculation works and how it can be applied.

“There is a strategic process on how you deliver instruction,” Uyeshima said. “All children can learn, but not on the same day and not in the same way.”

New methods are being used in other classrooms, with interactive instruction and in-depth discussions that spark interest in academics and develop students’ social and critical-thinking skills. The school’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Magnet has 365 students, with a waiting list of others seeking a 21st century learning experience.

Garcia’s team is also working to reclassify English-learners as proficient by the time they reach high school. They topped their 26 percent reclassification goal by 1 percentage point last year, and are striving to continue that upward progress.

Garcia’s team also recognized the significant social, emotional and physical changes that take place in middle school and made accommodations to provide support to the adolescent learner. Nimitz has four academic counselors, along with a full-time nurse, psychologist and Pupil Services and Attendance (PSA) counselor. Students are grouped by grade level in separate buildings to foster a sense of cohesiveness and belonging within their classes.

“Middle school is a development time for the adolescent brain,” said PSA counselor Maria Gutierrez. “It’s difficult for this group to think long term. It’s their social connections that form their identification.”

Restorative Justice strategies, which are used to build community bonds and restore troubled relationships, are helping to promote and strengthen a positive school culture. A cleaner campus, calmer lunch period and fewer disciplinary problems are evidence, officials say, that their efforts are paying off.

After-school enrichment clubs, such as Woodcraft Rangers, have helped promote a positive vibe on campus. The program is available until 6 p.m., providing volleyball, basketball arts, chess and tutoring for all students.

Parents have also been integral in the school’s transformation.

“Our parent center director, Virginia Flores, is the heartbeat of Nimitz,” Garcia said. “Here, the doors are always opened. This is now a community school. My staff and I are here to serve this great community.”

Parent Rocio Barrera said he has seen significant changes since 2011, when an older child was enrolled at Nimitz.

“Now, you see change,” he said. “It seems like a new school.

Another parent, Vicki Hernandez, said she has seen significant and positive changes. “It seems like a new school. Everyone is accessible and welcomed.”

Added parent Magdalena Lopez, “Change is good. I’m very happy to be here and participate. The changes have been positive.”

The changes undertaken by Garcia are in line with those envisioned by School Board Member Dr. Ref Rodriguez, who sponsored a resolution in January 2016 calling for the “re-imagining” of middle school so that students are better prepared to tackle the rigors of high school and adulthood.

“I’m proud that Nimitz Middle School has recognized our students’ diverse needs by providing social emotional resources and restorative justice programs,” said Rodriguez, whose district includes Huntington Park. “My school visits have shown me that the parents of Nimitz are extremely active and engaged. Through this partnership among the parents, school administration and staff, I believe that Nimitz will continue to flourish.”