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Signs of Progress Slowly Emerge After Takeover in Compton, Calif.

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After 4 1/2 years under state control, small signs of hope are surfacing in the notoriously troubled Compton, Calif., schools.

McNair Elementary School boasts new language arts books this year, though more than a third of the teachers do not yet have their state credentials.

Whaley Middle School has a new roof, but on rainy days its outdoor hallways still flood because of clogged drains. A class at Laurel Elementary School moved out of the library and into a new bungalow, but the building still lacks an auditorium.

"Unlike in the past, if a window breaks, it does get fixed," Cathy Figel, a teacher at Whaley Middle School, said last week. "But we still have a ways to go."

Compton High School teacher Pat Ryan, who is seeing the first major renovations in her 40 years with the district, agreed. "It's a deplorable, depressing situation," she said. "But I can't deny some progress is being made."

Several Compton educators attribute the limited progress to Randolph E. Ward, the fifth in a series of administrators appointed by the state to lead the 29,000-student system and the only one to last longer than a year.

A state law passed last year calls for the district to return to local control by 2000 unless an independent state assistance team says the district isn't ready. ("Calif. District Takeover Faces Political Threat," June 11, 1997.)

Bond Issue Is Key

Perhaps the biggest test for Mr. Ward--and the only way Compton will be able to orchestrate widespread renovations without state largess--will be persuading voters to pass a $107 million bond measure in April for construction and renovation. Many residents of the impoverished community just south of Los Angeles distrust the education system after so many years of neglect.

The district's announcement last month that the bond issue would appear on the ballot coincided with a decision by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California to drop a 6-month-old lawsuit that accused school leaders of giving students a "substandard education" in "uninhabitable facilities."

The settlement--which did not involve any admissions of liability--included guarantees by state officials that all windows, playgrounds, electrical wiring, bathrooms, and water fountains would be in working order by Jan. 1.

The district's spokeswoman, Vivien Hao, said last week that the terms of that agreement were met.

"If, over the weekend, something happens or there's a problem ordering a part, that's unavoidable," she said. "But if someone goes into a bathroom today and it's not working, it will be repaired immediately."

Ms. Hao emphasized that the renovations would have occurred without the ACLU lawsuit. But several people in the school system said the suit generated sorely needed attention to the problems.

Saul E. Lankster, the outspoken president of the school board, which lost all of its powers under the state takeover, said the lawsuit pressured the district to make improvements and should not have been dropped.

"The ACLU sold out the children of Compton," Mr. Lankster asserted. "If you have someone on the ropes to do things that they're supposed to do, why make this agreement to drop the suit?"

The ACLU's co-counsel, Los Angeles lawyer Robert Myers, defended the agreement, saying it provides that the lawsuit can be resumed by the end of the year if the state breaks its promises. He also said spot checks on the schools will be done periodically.

Signs of Improvement

Over the past three years, the district has spent $16 million on renovations at nine of the 38 schools, $3.5 million on new books, and $8.5 million on emergency repairs, mostly to roofs.

"When I came to this school three years ago, it was in terrible condition," said Brenda P. Ross, the principal at Laurel Elementary. "Now I'd say we're one of the best-cared-for schools in Compton."

Laurel's transformation is due largely to Ms. Ross' zeal. Every year, she organizes a clean-up day, enlisting scores of parents for painting classrooms and planting flowers.

She got rid of two maintenance workers who weren't up to their tasks and hired two energetic ones. "I'm very aggressive, and I make the district do what they're supposed to do," Ms. Ross said.

Ms. Figel, a physical education teacher, is thankful that the new roof at Whaley Middle School means she doesn't have to mop her classroom on rainy days, but she still has complaints. Five of the 12 basketball backboards in the gymnasium lack rims, graffiti often defaces the building, and none of the lockers is usable. The school of 1,100 students employs only two counselors.

"The district has focused on certain things, like the roof, but the overall picture still isn't right," Ms. Figel said.

Most significantly, Compton's test scores and dropout rate remain among the worst in the state.

A major roadblock is that more than 600 of the district's 1,300 teachers lack state certification, said Lois C. Hale, the president of the Compton Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. Many teachers with experience leave the district, Ms. Hale said, because salaries aren't competitive.

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