"There was constantly fights," said Stephanie Salazar, a senior. "Every day there was a new fight."
Locke recently became a charter school, publicly funded but privately run. The teachers are energetic, attendance is up and a dress code ended fights over gang colors.
"I feel like I'm actually coming and learning something new every day," Salazar said.
The Department of Education says Locke's changes are exactly what their new Race to the Top program is encouraging. The administration will dole out $4.3 billion next month to states that have the best school reform plans. Forty states have been competing for the money. Just 15 of them are now finalists.
But President Obama and the secretary of education alone decide which states get the funds -- so there are big strings attached. If states want a shot at the money, they need to allow more charter schools to open and start judging teacher performance based on student test scores.
"In the overwhelming majority of states and districts, there's no link between teacher evaluation and student performance," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "Doesn't make any sense to me."
But the administration's approach has it at odds with teachers unions who have historically supported Democrats. The unions say the president's plan puts all the blame on them.
"Teaching is really only one aspect of a whole systemic problem which really begins with massive under-funding and a lack of resources in public schools," said Joshua Pechthalt, the vice president of the California Federation of Teachers.
Back at Locke, math teacher Fernando Avila says accountability is an issue.
"Teaching has been the only profession that I've experienced so far where it didn't feel that I could get fired," Avila said.
A mindset the government wants to change.