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Published in Print: January 31, 2001, as 'Comeback' From State Control Means Solvency for Compton

'Comeback' From State Control Means Solvency for Compton

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Call it the tale of two districts.

Under the leadership of a strict administrator, one district is on a slow but steady pace to recovery, posting incremental gains in student achievement, repairing crumbling school campuses, and repaying a multimillion-dollar state loan.

Meddling state officials run the other school district, where textbooks are scarce, students learn little, and staff morale is low, frustrating the local community and leaving the school system in a never-ending cycle of failure.

Welcome to the Compton Unified School District—an embattled school system facing myriad, complex contradictions and an uncertain future.

Still, the first California district to lose control of its schools to the state for financial and academic reasons is gradually regaining power. After almost eight years of state rule, Compton is scheduled to make its final payment on a $19.6 million state loan in July. The school board is taking steps to begin a nationwide search for a new superintendent. And some predict the transfer of control could be made by year's end.

It's that prospect that has some people in this 31,000-student district south of Los Angeles offering to send state officials packing.

"They haven't made things better," said Carol Bradley Jordan, a member of the city's school board. "It's an abysmal failure."

Others are more apprehensive about the state's departure, concerned that any progress made over the past few years could be undone especially by a board that includes a convicted felon and a witness in a federal bribery case.

"I've seen a lot of improvement," said Claudia Soto, the parent of a child at Mayo Elementary School here and a plaintiff in a 1997 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the district. "Things were terrible here. Broken windows. No playground. Kids with no books. People pointing the finger don't point the finger at themselves."

Ready for Control?

Compton, a community of more than 90,000, is itself in a time of tenuous transition. What was a predominantly African-American city in the 1970s is now home to a growing Hispanic population, much like the school district.

About 66 percent of Compton's enrollment is made up of Hispanic students, while 32 percent are African-American children. Almost all qualify for free and reduced priced lunches and about 40 percent of Compton students are not native English speakers.

Lorraine J. Cervantes, the president of the Compton Council of the League of United Latin American Citizens, opposed the state takeover because she believed Compton's schools were being singled out, but now she feels the community is more aware of the challenges the schools face.

"They realize they have to monitor what's going on," Ms. Cervantes said.

The state won't pull up stakes entirely, however. Once Compton meets the requirements to regain control of its schools, a state trustee will be assigned to oversee the district for two more years. A consent decree the district and the ACLU agreed to last year guarantees further monitoring.

But the chief administrator for the state review of Compton's progress said the only way for the district to achieve success is for it to be led by the community.

"I believe the best-run districts are locally run," said Thomas E. Henry of the Fiscal and Crisis Management Assistance Team, an agency created by the state legislature to help school systems meet their financial and management obligations. "It's very difficult to administer a school district from a distant location. The quicker you can provide local control to a community, the better off they are."

Still, he cautioned: "That doesn't mean you do it before they're ready."

When the state took control of Compton's schools in 1993, the district was on the verge of financial and academic bankruptcy. The district was $19.6 million in debt, and its students posted some of the state's lowest test scores, ranking in the bottom percentile in performance. The system, some people here say, was rife with nepotism, cronyism, and neglect.

"There were people who were custodians one day and teachers the next," said Vera R. Cincore, a librarian at Centennial High School.

But three years and four state administrators later, not much had changed.

"Things were running backwards," said Mark D. Rosenbaum, the legal director of the ACLU of Southern California. "There was a revolving door of administrators."

By the time Randolph E. Ward, the fifth and last state-appointed administrator to lead the district, arrived in 1996, the civil liberties group was gearing up to sue the state for what the ACLU said was a denial of Compton students' right to an adequate education.

"It was horrible," Mr. Ward said, burying his head in his hands as he recalled his first visits to Compton's schools.

"There was trash everywhere and graffiti. The bathroom was so funky you couldn't walk into it," he said of one elementary school. "The portables looked like they were from internment camps."

State schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin and Mr. Ward tried unsuccessfully to get the county's former district attorney to investigate the millions in mismanaged dollars.

"This is the worst case I've seen in my life of stealing from children," Ms. Eastin maintained in a recent interview.

Mr. Ward, a Harvard University-educated former area superintendent for the Long Beach, Calif., schools, quickly summed up what his first task would be: Fix the roofs. Next, he purchased about $500,000 in textbooks and established a bar-coding system to keep track of them.

In the classroom, he found teachers he knew had been fired from Long Beach schools and others who were merely serving as babysitters. Eight hours of work for eight hours of pay was an "extreme concept" to many employees, he said.

"You have to try to get students to achieve that poorly," said Mr. Ward, his Boston accent exaggerating the point. "The problems here were an adult issue."

Armed with the state's support and helped by the pressure from the ACLU lawsuit, Mr. Ward was able to make much-needed staff and facility improvements.

Principals, teachers, and district-level administrators were fired, transferred, or strongly encouraged to retire. Mr. Ward, who is accompanied at work by an armed plainclothes California Highway Patrol officer, estimates that at least half the district's 1,500 staff members are new.

More than 200 buildings were reroofed; another 150, including many portables, were condemned. Fences and alarms were installed, campuses were landscaped, and playground equipment was purchased for elementary schools. Schools are subject to unannounced facility inspections and receive a grade that is posted on campus. Privately run tutoring programs are helping to inch student test scores upward, too.

Perhaps most important, administrative policies and procedures were created to ensure that once the local school board resumes control, a process will be in place to maintain and continue the school system's growth.

All of those changes, Mr. Ward said, would have been impossible without having complete administrative control.

Yet it's that kind of iron-hand leadership that has kept the community at a distance. Takeover critics complain about voter disenfranchisement and allege that the state's actions were rooted in racism. There's talk of seeking relief from the federal government or abandoning the current school system and creating a new one.

"We're just like slaves on a plantation," said Ms. Jordan, the board member. "You go to the master and you beg for certain things. If the master wishes to listen to you, that's his prerogative, but you may be punished just for speaking."

'Coming Back'

Compton often conjures up visions of gangs and drug deals from rap- music videos and movies like "Menace to Society."

But while the city had 46 murders last year, that is not an unusually high number for this part of Los Angeles County. Iron bars on the windows of neighborhood houses are the only visible signs of potential crime.

"They say Compton is a ghetto," said Eduardo DeLatorre, a Compton High School senior. "I don't see it. I don't see students coming to school shooting like Columbine. It's safer."

Ariana Reynoso, also a senior at Compton High, said the local schools are unfairly tainted by people's views of the community. The learning environment at her school has improved, she said.

"People think they don't teach anything here," Ms. Reynoso said. "It's not true. I have four hours of homework and three [Advanced Placement] classes. Schoolwork is harder."

Conditions in Compton's classrooms appear to vary from school to school. At Mayo Elementary, Joseph V. Williams rushed to pick up scraps of paper and candy wrappers in the schoolyard one day as Mr. Ward made one of his frequent unannounced visits.

Mr. Williams, the school's plant manager and a district employee for 12 years, said he tries to create a positive atmosphere for Mayo children to counter the difficult home life of some. He installed a fountain and planted shrubs and flowers in the school's courtyard.

"This gives them a place to get away," he said. "It's their haven. They don't want to leave."

The new emphasis on accountability has changed the culture in Compton's schools, said Cuauhtemoc Avila, a Compton High graduate and the principal of McKinley Primary Learning Center, which has some of the district's poorest test scores.

More than half of Mr. Avila's teaching staff is new to the school, including seven teachers from Spain learning to navigate the American education system. In the classroom, some teachers have been overwhelmed with discipline problems, leaving little time for lessons.

At Vanguard Learning Center, which has made some of the district's greatest test-score growth, teacher Rachel Johnson Neal said the state's involvement has brought a greater emphasis on testing. At the same time, more technology and textbooks are available, and students are able to take class trips, she said. While low pay continues to be an issue, Ms. Neal, the district's "teacher of the year," said Mr. Ward's emphasis on academic achievement had helped students.

Compton students' test scores have improved, but despite the gains, they continue to lag well behind their counterparts in most other California schools. Still, Mr. Ward said, some faith in the district has been restored.

"People believe that they can get an education here now," he said, adding that enrollment has increased by 11 percent since 1990. "They're coming back."

But Compton Mayor Omar Bradley paints a grim picture of his city's schools.

Mr. Bradley, who is school board member Carol Bradley Jordan's brother, said the brown athletic fields and burned down buildings of his alma mater, Centennial High School, are a stark reminder of the lack of enthusiasm and pride he sees infecting the school. He said students complain to him about not having textbooks.

Most black families abandoned the district years ago, he added.

"It's a nightmare. Everybody knows there is no education going on over there!" Mr. Bradley said, slamming his fist down on his desk during an interview at City Hall.

Centennial seniors Tiffany Brown and Kortney Tatum were so frustrated with the textbook shortages and uninspired teaching at their school that they organized student protests and wrote a letter of complaint last fall to the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights. A spokesman for the office said there would be no investigation.

Ms. Brown said she hasn't seen any dramatic changes in Compton's schools since the state takeover. She said teachers aren't strict enough.

"It's like you come to school and the teachers say, 'If I like you, I'll pass you,'" she said. "We don't feel prepared going to college as students coming out of Centennial High School."

The youth and inexperience of new teachers and administrators has hurt the schools, Ms. Cincore, Centennial's librarian, said.

Those teachers "tore down morale and split the faculty," contended Ms. Cincore, an educator with almost 20 years' experience. "The students are not getting what they should have gotten."

Mayor Bradley, peppering his comments with obscenities and racial slurs, claimed that the Compton schools continue to be in trouble because Mr. Ward—an African-American, as is the mayor—is an "Uncle Tom" and a "yes man" who simply acts as Ms. Eastin's puppet.

Black people had control of the district for two decades, the mayor said, while the schools have been "torn up for 80 years when white folks had them."

"They're destroying the lives of little black and brown children," he said.

Mr. Ward declined to respond to racial charges, but acknowledged in a discussion with teenagers at Centennial High School that insults are commonplace in his job.

"I get called more names now as state administrator than I did as a kid," he said of his childhood in a tough neighborhood in Boston. "I know that's part of the deal."

Signs of Improvement

The fourth state review of Compton's schools showed enough improvement that the agency recommended giving the school board greater responsibility.

The district is rated on a scale of 1 to 10 in five areas: community relations, pupil achievement, personnel, facilities, and financial management. The district's average rating in all areas was 5.98 last summer—a gain from the previous average of 5.19, but short of the 7.5 rating needed to trigger a withdrawal of state control.

Citing progress in two areas, however, the agency urged the California education department to draft a memorandum of understanding with board members and Mr. Ward to outline a resumption of the local board's responsibilities over facilities and community relations. Mr. Ward, though, would still have the authority to change or stop any board action that he determined was illegal or fiscally irresponsible. The agency will release another report next month.

Board members, meanwhile, continue to negotiate with state officials over the transfer of power. So far, the board has been given permission to start searching for a superintendent, although the terms and conditions for employment have not been decided. Board members' names will reappear on the district's letterhead and the word "advisory" has been dropped from their titles.

Although the state takeover was painful and unpleasant, it was the only way to get the district the help it needed, said Gorgonio Sanchez Jr., a two-term board member and the only Latino elected official in Compton.

Mr. Sanchez described the state's involvement as a success and praised Mr. Ward's efforts to transform the district. He said takeover critics are in denial.

"I think if it had been a total failure ... what else could have happened?" he said. "Closing the schools would have been next."

The missing links needed to complete the "Compton Comeback"—as Mr. Ward likes to call it—are raising the number of qualified teachers and repairing the district's relationship with the city.

About 55 percent of Compton teachers were working under emergency credentials last year, meaning they had not fulfilled the requirements for a full teaching license. The state average is 13 percent. Mr. Ward said the district has hired young and enthusiastic "missionary types" to fill the void, but it's not enough.

While addressing the teaching gap is an ambitious goal, mending the hostile relationship with city officials could be a lost cause.

Conversation between Mr. Ward and Mayor Bradley has been minimal. And the city has sued the district and the state over the years about state control, graduation requirements, and a local bond issue, with little success.

Fausto Capobianco, the district's spokesman, said the city's interest in the schools is about control over the system's $220 million budget, and the jobs and contracts that accompany it.

Mr. Bradley, who also works as an assistant superintendent in the neighboring Lynwood district, said he would consider serving as Compton's superintendent once the state leaves.

Whoever ends up running the district, it seems likely that Mr. Ward won't remain in Compton much longer. His success here has made him a frequent speaker at education conferences and a top candidate for superintendent posts across the country, including the recently filled job in Dallas.

Before he leaves, Mr. Ward, 44, who has yet to start a family, said he hopes to improve the district to the point that he would enroll his own children.

Have the schools reached that standard?

"No," he said, shaking his head emphatically. "A few elementary schools are. Maybe a few classrooms at the high school."

Later, he added: "It's not the job of the state to bring the schools from zero to 100. The state brought the district from zero to functional."

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

Vol. 20, Issue 20, Pages 1,14-15

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