Equity & Diversity

Suburban Schools Reborn: Compton, Calif., Is Charting a Hopeful Path

Fiscal discipline and visions of a more inclusive future guide Compton Unified Superintendent Darin Brawley
By Benjamin Herold — January 23, 2024 7 min read
Principal Bilma Bermudez looks at the virtual reality scene 8th grade student Miguel Rios created at Jefferson Elementary School in Compton, Calif., on Jan. 19, 2024.
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The following is an adapted excerpt from DISILLUSIONED: FIVE FAMILIES AND THE UNRAVELING OF AMERICA’S SUBURBS, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Benjamin Herold.

Fifty years ago, Compton, Calif., hurtled down the same fraught path of disinvestment and debt, demographic change and dwindling tax receipts now confronting thousands of newer suburban communities. The devastation that resulted should have set off blinking red warning lights for the rest of the country. But we’d long since forgotten how Compton rose out of the alfalfa fields 15 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, then developed into a prototypical bedroom suburb. We’d long since forgotten how Compton then became the largest Black-run city west of the Mississippi. And we’d certainly forgotten the brief window when Compton was on the cusp of real multiracial integration. Instead, we’d decided that the town’s history began with its collapse, which was evident most clearly in Compton’s public schools. At the dawn of the 21st century, the then-31,000-student system was still cycling through state-appointed administrators, the result of nearly going bankrupt almost a decade earlier. The first appointee announced he would save money by laying people off. He was shot at on his way to a school board meeting. Another tried to pass a $107 million bond measure to repair crumbling schools, only to see Compton’s mayor vigorously campaign against the plan.

By 2020, however, the Compton Unified School District was several years into a painstaking turnaround. Spearheading the effort was Darin Brawley, a 54-year-old Black man with broad shoulders and short hair that faded to bare scalp well above his ears. He was blunt, taciturn to the point of appearing disdainful, and content to let people squirm in the uncomfortable silences he unspooled the way others made small talk. But the superintendent also had a softer, more inquisitive side that emerged during his regular trips to the headquarters of high-flying companies such as Google or Boeing, visits Brawley arranged in part to help him fix in his mind a clear vision of the future he wanted for Compton’s children.

One of his most compelling visits had been to Apple’s futuristic new campus in Silicon Valley. The park was dominated by a sleek circular structure that ran like a supercollider around an orchard full of apple and apricot trees. Inside, open expanses of workspace were partitioned into pods for socializing, collaborative problem solving, and focused individual work. Squint hard enough, and you could see what the blended-learning classrooms Brawley envisioned as Compton’s bridge to the future might look like if given a $5 billion facelift.

But while the superintendent’s tour of Apple Park had illuminated possibilities, it also revealed challenges. Most notably, the company’s workforce was 85 percent white and Asian. That was nearly the inverse of Compton Unified’s student body, 80 percent Hispanic and 16 percent Black. It was thanks to Brawley’s own efforts that those kids now attended schools awash in iPads and other Apple products. Recruiters from the company, however, weren’t exactly lining up to hire Compton Unified graduates, fueling the superintendent’s fear that another generation of students of color would be largely shut out of the country’s best-paying and most important private-sector jobs.

“This old ideology that certain jobs are for certain people, and some people are relegated to just government jobs, that’s nonsense,” he insisted.

Murals with positive reinforcement for future education and success are seen around the campus at Jefferson Elementary School in Compton, Calif., on Jan. 19, 2024.

Before dismissing Brawley’s vision of building a new pipeline from Compton classrooms to Silicon Valley companies as a pipe dream, you first had to consider how far Compton Unified had come since Brawley took over in 2012. Back then, scores on California state assessments were still well below state averages. The district’s four-year graduation rate had sagged below 60 percent. Even the kids who did earn a diploma were rarely prepared for college; fewer than one in five met the University of California’s minimum admissions requirements. And faith in the district’s leadership was nearing an all-time low. The previous superintendent had been fired after an investigation found $14,000 in personal expenses on her district-issued credit card; the two Mexican American candidates won school board seats had since been voted out, spurring fresh complaints that Compton’s Black leaders were still shutting Latinos out of power; and 28-year-old board member Skyy De’Anthony Fisher had recently used a guest appearance on a local podcast to ridicule the claims of a local Latino father who said his daughter had been sexually assaulted by a teacher, then ask the podcast hosts to let him know the next time they wanted to do lines of cocaine.

As a result, the early years of Brawley’s tenure were largely spent absorbing the ire of a particularly vehement faction of local Latino activists. Sometimes literally. In March 2015, the superintendent and several members of the Compton Unified board convened a special meeting to hear complaints about Dominguez High School. The roof leaked, fed-up students and parents said. The water fountains didn’t work. Wasp nests hung outside classroom windows. Homeless people sometimes wandered the campus. When some in the crowd began jeering and heckling, Brawley and the board responded by adjourning the meeting, prompting a petite middle-aged Latina to stand up from her seat. Roba esto, she yelled. Steal this. Then she threw a handful of coins, hitting Brawley in the face.

“There’s no politics like Compton politics,” the superintendent said drily when I asked what lessons he gleaned from the incident.

Such fury was a big reason Brawley wielded his standoffish demeanor like a shield. His approach to addressing historical grievances and promoting racial equity was the polar opposite of that favored by many more liberal, affluent, highly educated suburbs which preferred to air it all out publicly. But America’s competing suburban dreams—of white exclusivity and advantage, of Black striving for equal opportunity, of harmonious integration—had already collided in Compton. All but a handful of the white families had already left, and the debt, disinvestment, and disrepair they’d left behind had already been compounded by decades of neglect, corruption, and denial. Because Compton had long since gone through all the ensuing heartache, the challenge at hand wasn’t the same in newer suburbs still trying to maintain exclusivity or make white families share or save a fading dream. Instead, it was to rebuild.

The foundation of Brawley’s plan had been righting Compton Unified’s shaky finances. Early in his tenure, he’d shed teachers and central office staff and renegotiated contracts that had been rubber-stamped forever. In a subtle rebuke to the cynicism that still permeated the town, Brawley had also shown he wasn’t too proud to search the sofa cushions for spare change, finding hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings through strategies like switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs. Still, even Brawley’s supporters weren’t exactly effusive in their praise.

“I’d almost liken him to a bean counter,” Compton Unified school board chair Micah Ali told me.

Cathy Velardez, a college tutor, helps students learn English in a blended learning environment at Jefferson Elementary School in Compton, Calif., on Jan. 19, 2024.

But that was how Brawley wanted it. And his approach paid off when the California Assembly passed a progressive new school-funding formula that awarded districts extra money for each low-income student, English learner, and foster child they enrolled. In Compton, that covered just about everyone. As a result, the district’s annual per-pupil spending jumped from $9,804 in 2013, just as Brawley’s tenure was beginning, to $14,707 four years later. Crucially, the funds were unrestricted, opening the door for Brawley to start implementing his ambitious instructional vision.

The first pillar was strategic use of data. Taking a cue from Silicon Valley product managers, Brawley and his team identified a set of key performance indicators, then built databases and dashboards that allowed them to track week-to-week fluctuations. The effort was led by Jean-Jacques Francoisse, a Belgian national who liked to describe his desk covered with flash drives and aspirin bottles inside a windowless office as Compton Unified’s “radar and compass.”

In its early days, the system had pointed to a glaring need: overhauling services and supports for English learners. Despite his shaky relationships with Compton Latinos and the potential for backlash from their Black counterparts, Brawley began reallocating resources, hiring bilingual instructional assistants, establishing dual-language immersion programs, and opening welcome programs for new immigrants. By early 2019, the impact was evident. I asked Francoisse to pull up on his twin 24-inch monitors the data for Jefferson Elementary, where I’d been following a bright, curious boy named Jacob Hernandez. (Note: Jacob Hernandez is identified by a pseudonym.) His parents were undocumented immigrants, and most of his fellow 4th graders had families that hailed from Mexico and Central America. The numbers on Francoisse’s screens showed that 83 percent of them had met or exceeded expectations on state math exams the previous year.

The second pillar of Brawley’s instructional vision had emerged from his evenings-and-weekends pursuit of a doctoral degree from the University of Southern California. For his dissertation, the superintendent chose to research ways to get multinational corporations to take a more active role in public schools. In April 2016, his fieldwork took him to Ireland. Between observing schools, attending a national student science fair, and sneaking in visits to castles and pubs, Brawley began visiting the Irish headquarters of large corporations. Apple, for example, had turned a modest manufacturing center in Cork into a buzzing hub for global logistics and technical support, largely on the strength of a highly skilled immigrant workforce. His inquisitive side piqued, Brawley sat down in a conference room and began firing questions at company executives about the skills they valued most and how their hiring priorities might evolve over the next decade.

Compton Superintendent Darin Brawley visits Ireland in April 2016.

Compton Unified’s big leap forward came after Brawley hired away from the San Francisco school system its highly regarded director of educational technology. Robotics competitions, engineering contests, and after-school app-development challenges soon followed. Several Compton Unified campuses were named Verizon Innovative Learning Schools, winning pallets full of new classroom technology and coaching on how to use it. The district also secured a ConnectED grant, bringing hundreds of iPads and more professional development into five additional Compton schools. Then Jefferson Elementary was named an Apple Distinguished School, spurring a quantum leap in the kind of technology-enabled, data-driven, real-world-problem-tackling education that scores of suburban districts in wealthier communities were still trying to get off the ground.

By 2020, the percentage of Compton students districtwide who met or exceeded expectations on state tests was up 15 points in both reading and math. The district’s four-year graduation rate climbed to 84 percent. Nearly half of Compton Unified’s Latino graduates now met the University of California’s minimum admissions requirements. And inside Jefferson, I’d soon watch Jacob Hernandez and his classmates use digital tablets and kits full of pulleys, axles, and other engineering tools to investigate the physics of potential energy. It was exactly the kind of lesson that had everyone so excited about Compton Unified’s fragile rebirth, which represented one of the earliest and most promising efforts to define a new social contract for America’s suburbs. Similar to the country’s post-war suburban boom, the basic contours still involved massive investment by every level of government in the children who would shape the country’s future. What was new, however, was Compton Unified’s determination to make those investments in a rising generation of children who were mostly Black and Brown, often poor, frequently immigrants still learning English, and sometimes undocumented. For so long, so much of suburbia had been organized around trying to keep those kids out, then treating them as a problem to be managed. But Brawley and the leadership of Compton Unified and Jefferson Elementary seemed to hold an absolute conviction that the country’s future depended on nurturing the gifts of children like Jacob Hernandez.

Third graders create projects using Canva on their iPads at Jefferson Elementary School in Compton, Calif., on Jan. 19, 2024.

“Compton is never again going to be what it was in the past,” the superintendent told me. “It’s going to continue to change. And you’ve got to do everything you can to prepare the citizenry and students you have to excel. They’re the ones that are going to be paying into your retirement, they’re going to be paying into the infrastructure in your city, so you may as well do everything possible to make sure that you provide them with the best possible education.”

Benjamin Herold would like to thank the EdWeek Research Center and Education Week Library for their support in the production of DISILLUSIONED. To learn more about the book, please visit www.benjaminherold.com.


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