For weeks now, incensed parents, students and teachers say they’ve been defending Long Beach Poly High School against a quiet effort by district administrators to dismantle a program that exemplifies what the world-renowned campus is all about.

Poly is a uniquely beloved school in Long Beach and beyond, famous nationwide for its rigorous academics and Grammy-winning music program as much as its football team that consistently pumps out NFL stars like Willie McGinest and JuJu Smith-Schuster. As Poly’s slogan next to its signature Jackrabbit mascot tells you, it’s the “Home of Scholars and Champions.”

So when recent graduate Anais Lopez heard from her younger sister that the magnet program they both attended was being hollowed out, she made a fuss. She started a petition to save Poly’s Center for International Curriculum, called CIC by everyone who knows it.

The program, she explained, had helped propel Lopez to UCLA and set her mother on a path to Harvard.

“My mother was undocumented and grew up on the Westside,” Lopez said. “For her, for me, for my little sister, it’s allowed us to succeed and then move on and succeed in college.”

Anais Lopez leads a protest outside of an LBUSD board meeting at Browning High School in Long Beach Monday, May 17, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Lopez’s petition quickly gained thousands of signatures demanding the Long Beach Unified School District stop “phasing out” CIC. The drive came to a head last week when about 75 people chanted and carried signs outside a school board meeting.

Inside, Superintendent Jill Baker reiterated the district’s response to the petition: Lopez’s warnings about the imminent dismantling of CIC simply aren’t true, according to the LBUSD.

“While the CIC team has been discussing for several years how to improve CIC, there have been no decisions to change the CIC program,” Baker said.

But Baker’s words have done little to quell a revolt among Poly employees, parents and students who insist this statement is misleading. In more than 50 interviews with the Long Beach Post, they consistently say the school’s administration and district-level employees have pushed changes to CIC in private.

More than a half-dozen teachers or administrators said they have first-hand knowledge of district leaders saying the LBUSD intended to strip CIC of its magnet status, a move that would effectively undercut its academically rigorous reputation and squelch the program’s power to draw in students from across the city.

Having magnet status gives the district power to set admissions requirements that include minimum GPAs or test scores, and gives extra flexibility in selecting dedicated teachers who best fit the program rather than bringing in teachers based on seniority. A magnet program functions as a school within a school, with students, teachers and program administrators able to establish long-lasting connections. In turn, CIC boasts a 100% college attendance rate.

On the left, Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Jill Baker is seen through a window during a school board meeting. Outside, protesters—including CIC founder Greta McGree—are shown reflected in a window while they demand the district leave the historic Poly High School program alone. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Despite the district’s denial of any changes, administrators have already made concrete moves to limit how many students CIC can attract, including removing the program’s full-time facilitator, according to the facilitator himself.

At a typical school, those behind-the-scenes moves may never have spilled into public. But there’s a reason they sparked so much outrage at Poly.

CIC is more than a set of honors and Advanced Placement classes: It’s a program that exemplifies the school’s history and a decades-old struggle that saved it from de facto segregation and the risk of closure.

That history has drawn major players from the school’s past into the fight, calling for the LBUSD to keep its hands off CIC.

As CIC founder Greta McGree put it, the high school’s magnet programs “changed the whole makeup of the Poly campus” and helped rescue it from a reputation as an inner-city school unable to escape the threat of racial conflicts.

“I’m appalled by the idea of converting CIC into a regular pathway,” former LBUSD Superintendent Carl Cohn said. “Knowing the history of the program, that’s downgrading an outstanding, stellar magnet program that is recognized throughout the country.”

Rebuilt from near ruin

Poly has been recognized many times over for its scholastic, athletic and musical prowess. It’s been honored by Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report for its academic rigor and twice broke the record for the number of National Merit Scholars at one school. It’s been named the nation’s top high school sports program by both Sports Illustrated and ESPN. It’s won six Grammy awards for its music program.

But in the early 1970s, rocked by five years of racial turmoil and violence, the school was hovering on the brink of being shut down or fading into obscurity, as were many other prominent inner-city schools at that time.

The tensions peaked in the spring of 1972, when the Poly campus endured a large-scale race riot. The entire quad erupted in violence, leaving more than two dozen students injured or hospitalized.

With federal intervention looming, the school board empowered the recently-formed Poly Community Interracial Committee to make changes that would improve racial harmony while preserving Poly’s diverse student population. The committee was comprised of prominent alumni and parents, representing the Black, White, Hispanic and Asian community at Poly.

Founders’ Rock outside Poly High School marks the year Long Beach Polytechnic High School was established in 1895. Poly moved to its current location in 1911. Photo by Tyler Hendrickson.

The committee made many recommendations, including an interracial relations camp and an International Ambassadors program still in existence today. It also suggested creating academic magnet programs that would attract students from across the city and prepare them for college.

After the riot on the quad, White parents were fleeing the school, sending their children to private high schools or using friends’ or relatives’ addresses in other neighborhoods to get the students into other high schools such as Wilson or Millikan. Even if it escaped closure, Poly was at risk of becoming segregated by default, serving only the students in the neighborhood, which was predominantly poor, Black and Brown.

In response, Poly teacher Nancy Gray was tasked with organizing and running the PACE (Program of Additional Curricular Experiences) program, a rigorous academic magnet designed to pull in wealthier, Whiter students.

It worked. The launch of PACE in 1975 was so successful that the school needed an additional magnet program to handle the demand and attract more students. In the fall of 1982, Greta McGree founded CIC as a supplemental magnet program to PACE. It would attract talented students from across Long Beach, but they wouldn’t just be the district’s academic superstars.

“Academically, we were very strong, but [CIC] was a place that allowed you to pursue other things,” McGree said in 2018, according to the book “Scholars & Champions,” which chronicled the school’s history. “We also tried to bring in more Black students and a more diverse group than PACE. We had honors and AP classes, but you didn’t have to take AP classes if you didn’t want to. It gave kids a chance to pick what they focused on, or gave them more time to play sports or music.”

The program opened with 200 students enrolled, but it doubled in its second year and would quickly rise to a 700-student program. CIC was structured as a business-focused magnet, fostering connections at the Port of Long Beach and other sectors, which continue to benefit Poly students today. The program also introduced foreign-language classes in Russian, Japanese and Chinese.

CIC gave rise to a new kind of student at the school, flourishing not just academically but succeeding in community or extracurricular activities as well. Recent graduates like Harvard football star Aaron Shampklin and UCLA basketball player/STEM diversity advocate Myles Johnson are both examples of this type of student.

The pairing of PACE and CIC was a success, according to McGree.

“The music programs, athletic programs and a whole bunch of other programs wouldn’t be attracting the same kind of kids that we attracted,” she said. “Both programs have really done a great job of doing what they’re supposed to do, and that’s desegregate Poly and bring a more diverse group of kids on the campus.”

McGree says she’s baffled why the district would now undercut a program that’s been so integral to the school’s success.

“It’s so strange.”

Resentment builds

There’s something unique about Poly, says Cohn, a heavyweight in the world of K-12 education who led the San Diego Unified School District and then ascended to the State Board of Education after his time as superintendent of the LBUSD from 1992 to 2002.

Cohn knows this because his career was formed in part by the riot at Poly, where he was a counselor in 1972. After the violence, he became the faculty liaison to the Poly Community Interracial Committee, the parent group tasked with saving the school.

“They did incredible work in making sure that Poly became the outstanding school that it is, and they aided the larger school district in voluntary desegregation,” Cohn said. “Sometimes people forget that aspect of it. It’s unique to Long Beach that people want to send their kids to an inner-city school for a great education. When I was the superintendent in San Diego, parents from La Jolla were not willing to do that.”

But Poly’s success didn’t bring universal acclaim.

A Poly yearbook photo of Carl Cohn, circa 1971.

As he rose through the administrative ranks to eventually become LBUSD superintendent in 1992, Cohn says he’s seen resentment within the school district over the perception that Poly gets special treatment.

He recalled a meeting in the early 1980s that he attended as the administrative assistant to Hank Garcia, the assistant superintendent in charge of high schools. Cohn said that while Poly was regarded in educational circles as a miraculous recovery, not everyone in the city was happy about it.

“I remember sitting in a high school principals’ meeting where everyone was rolling their eyes and getting up a head of steam about, ‘Why does Poly get this? Why does Poly get that?’” he said. “It was a huge lesson to me—the misperception that too much is being done for Poly is decades old. That resentment is not new.”

Poly employees who spoke with the Post for this story say that resentment turned into action over the last decade, as the school district whittled away the school’s ability to promote its most successful programs.

Connie Loggins is a Westside native who was a student at Poly during the 1972 race riot, and was inspired by the school’s recovery to work with students herself. She had a long, storied career at the school and served as the PACE magnet program counselor from 2006 until her retirement in 2019.

Connie Loggins shown in a 1974 photo from the Poly High Life student newspaper.

Loggins said that a few years ago, she was told to stop sharing information about PACE’s city-best college acceptance rate and AP passage rates. She said district officials also told her to remove slides comparing Poly’s performance to other schools from her presentations at High School Choice Nights, which serve as a recruitment event for the district’s high schools.

“It was frustrating because all we were trying to do was to do our job, to help students,” she said. “All we were doing was presenting the truth.”

The LBUSD declined to respond to Loggins’ assertions, but she described the school’s relationship with the district as a constant fight.

“It’s like, you shot us in the toe, but we’re still standing. So they’re like, ‘Now let’s shoot you in the knee. Oh, you’re still going? Oh my God let’s cut off a leg.’ How much more? What more do you want?” Loggins said. “We’re just committed to doing what we’re supposed to be doing, which is educating children, the whole child, whatever that takes.”

Current CIC facilitator Jeff Inui said several districtwide changes have made it increasingly difficult for Poly to advertise its award-winning programs throughout the city.

For instance, Inui said the district eliminated shadow days, where eighth-grade families could visit campuses to see what student life was like, and also limited where magnet programs could make pitches to families. Once upon a time, he said, facilitators visited each middle school in the city to make presentations, which no longer happens.

The district also removed magnet programs’ ability to pick which applicants would ultimately win a spot, instead centralizing that process in district headquarters. There, students who marked PACE as their first choice and CIC as their second choice were no longer admitted to CIC, according to Inui. Before the district took control, students weren’t picked for PACE and who marked CIC as their backup option still had a chance of attending.

“To my discredit, I played along with those rules,” he said. “I made the best of it and adapted. I gave in on far too many things without protest.”

In its statements addressing the controversy around CIC, the district has noted applications to the program have declined in recent years.

When this happens “central office staff support the school in considering shifts in the pathway course sequence, electives or other areas that attract more students,” LBUSD spokesperson Chris Eftychiou said. “This has been the case with CIC.”

However, Eftychiou said the drop in applications was not isolated to CIC, with similar programs at Millikan, Wilson and Lakewood high schools also seeing fewer applications over the last three years.

In her statement at last week’s school board meeting, Baker said the district would “continue to collaborate with our CIC staff to increase the number of applications in the future.”

But Inui characterized the district’s efforts over the last few years as an encroachment, with CIC teachers being told in meetings with district administration that the LBUSD was considering stripping the CIC program of its magnet status, so that Poly would only have one magnet program like the other high schools in the city.

Eftychiou denied this.

“The school district no longer has traditional ‘magnet’ programs,” he said, referring to programs like PACE and CIC as “specialized programs.”

In recent years, the district has moved away from large broad-appeal high schools and programs, instead shifting all students to essentially attend smaller schools within schools known as “pathways.” Not all of them, however, have the same privileges and academic standards as the traditional magnet programs. Teachers and parents interviewed by the Post unanimously refer to programs like CIC as magnets, as they’ve been known for decades.

Regardless of what they’re called, Eftychiou said the district is committed to maintaining CIC and other specialized programs, “into the foreseeable future.”

But longtime CIC teacher Dan Adler said the school district’s messages about CIC have been contradictory and confusing, causing intense frustration.

“The district put out an email to teachers and a statement to the Post that said they’re not phasing out CIC, that there are no plans to do that,” said Adler. “Well, wait a minute—I’ve been sitting in all these meetings being told they’re dismantling it.”

Adler is not alone. Several employees echoed his comments but declined to go on the record for fear of district or school administration reprisal. Brian Dokko, who has been a teacher at Poly for 18 years, said he’s heard that concern from most CIC teachers.

“Everyone is worried about retribution. It’s well known that people are transferred and it’s widely felt that it’s punitive for when they speak out,” he said. “Anxiety, fear and stress are endemic to the CIC program right now—there is a very palpable sense of kneecapping. You’ve got teachers coming out of these meetings crying because of what they’re being told about their work.”

The conflict has put the staff at Poly in a difficult position. Teachers are acutely aware that they’re participating in a half-century-long miraculous recovery of an inner-city academic and athletic powerhouse, the kind of comeback that other inner-city schools in California didn’t make after the turmoil of the late ’60s and early ’70s. But, they say they feel unappreciated and actively attacked for their success.

“I’m really sad—not for me but for the program,” said Inui. “I’m seeing a lot of things that teachers built and I’m seeing teachers holding ashes.”

A reckoning arrives

Those tensions finally exploded into public view when Lopez’s petition made it public that Inui’s position as the CIC facilitator had been eliminated. The news immediately raised alarms that the magnet may be a target for major changes.

Kira Ybarra, a Poly senior who attended last week’s protest at the school board meeting, said Inui’s departure was the talk of campus.

“As soon as I heard that, I knew something wasn’t right,” she said. “Mr. Inui is beloved.”

Students and parents place their protest posters against a window as they rally to keep the CIC magnet program during an LBUSD board meeting at Browning High School in Long Beach Monday, May 17, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Inui said he was notified a few months ago that his position was being eliminated, something that was not announced or explained by the school district at the time.

After anger erupted over the change, Baker said last week that such staffing decisions are made “at the site level” with any decisions being the responsibility of “the school team, led by the principal.”

Poly principal Bill Salas referred requests for comment to the district. Eftychiou, the LBUSD spokesperson, reiterated that the decision was made by the school’s administration. Eftychiou said that CIC’s facilitator position was unique in the district and the school had to make a cut somewhere because according to the student-to-teacher ratios, Poly was “overstaffed.”

But parents said they’ve been given shifting and contradictory stories about the decision.

“What’s been challenging is that, from district officials, we’ve heard that it was the school making the decision. Then when we talk to the school administration, we’re told that it was the teachers,” said Noaki Schwartz, a CIC parent. “But we all know the teachers don’t want this. So something’s wrong.”

Jenny Kuo, another CIC parent, said that she and others were finally invited to a Zoom meeting recently with the school administration. But she said they were dismissive, muted parents, and reverted to reading prepared statements when questioned.

“We could see their eyes looking away to statements, scanning back and forth to read the script,” she said. “The meeting started at 7 and it was adjourned at 7:15 with several parents still trying to ask questions. There’s just a very strong feeling that no one is being honest with us.”

Students and parents protest outside an LBUSD board meeting. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Further inflaming tensions was that school and district administrators allegedly began telling parents that Inui’s position wasn’t eliminated, but that he’d left voluntarily to spend more time with his family.

Parent Mary Yung said principal Salas told her Inui chose to step down, something she later learned wasn’t true.

“It’s very frustrating,” Yung said. “Just be transparent with us.”

Inui is a humble personality who has expressed extreme discomfort at being in the middle of this fight, but he admitted that when parents informed him of what they’d been told, it angered him.

“None of this is prompted by me wanting to leave the position. They dissolved the position,” Inui said. “I sent an email asking the school and district administrators who had been saying that to stop misrepresenting that part of this.”

The district and principal Salas did not respond to questions about why some parents were told Inui left of his own accord.

The district has continued to say there are no plans to phase out CIC or to make major changes to the program, but—even if that’s true—the district has lost any credibility on the topic, some teachers said.

“Parents asked me what we’d heard, and I said that it was very clear to us that they were going to change it into a regular pathway and remove its magnet status,” said Adler, the longtime CIC teacher. “If that’s not what they were intending, then the communication was really, really bad because it was super, super clear to every teacher in those meetings that’s what they were talking about.”

Outsiders, too, have recently criticized the district for unclear communications. In an audit, the National School Public Relations Association said communication breakdowns across different levels are common, with employees frustrated by an inability to influence district leaders and “a feeling among staff members that central office decisions were not communicated down to school administrators and teachers in a timely manner.”

Whatever happens next, parents involved in the school board rally and online petition say they won’t stop until they’re confident CIC is protected, Inui is restored to his position, and they get some kind of explanation.

Former superintendent Cohn said he hopes the district will do right by its premier school. He called on Baker and other top-level staff to embrace “overwhelming transparency” in explaining whatever happened.

“I don’t want to armchair quarterback a place I’ve been gone from for almost 20 years,” he said. “But clearly someone poked the bear or, in this case, the Jackrabbit.”