Published Online: July 12, 2007
Published in Print: July 18, 2007, as L.A. District Faces Mounting Pressure Over High Schools

L.A. District Faces Mounting Pressure Over High Schools

After nearly eight months on the job, Superintendent David L. Brewer III has rolled out his strategy for improving student achievement in the 708,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. Three new, reform-minded members also have been sworn in on the school board.

But so far, the momentum for improving high schools in the nation’s second-largest district has been coming from outsiders, centering largely on the fate of one troubled campus—Locke Senior High School in Watts.

Earlier this week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $7.8 million grant to help one of the city’s most successful charter school operators open small high schools in Watts, which would be alternatives to Locke. Green Dot Public Schools, already preparing to open two new charter high schools there this fall, will now expand its portfolio in that neighborhood to 10 schools within the next year, said Steve Barr, Green Dot’s founder and chief executive officer.

Mr. Barr, who for months has been challenging the district for control over the 2,800-student Locke campus, said he still hopes to work with Los Angeles Unified officials and United Teachers Los Angeles on a joint plan, rather than open charter schools that would siphon students from the school.

“Look, we want to transform Locke for all the students who go there and not set up a ‘have and have-not’ situation in Watts,” Mr. Barr said in an interview last week.

Los Angeles has been slower to embrace the district-led initiatives that have shown promise at the secondary school level in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, observers say. When there has been dramatic change—such as the adoption two years ago of a requirement that all LAUSD high school students take a college-preparatory curriculum—the pressure has come from the outside.

“We are beyond ready to see this district be a force for change,” said Veronica Melvin, the executive director of the Alliance for a Better Community, an advocacy group that organized support to stiffen high school requirements. “What we’ve seen for a long time has been a defensive school board, and not one that has said, ‘We have a district that isn’t performing for too many of our kids, and here is what we need to do it turn it around.’ ”

‘Be Patient’

Attention to the district’s education woes has been intense. Citing high dropout rates, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa lobbied for, and then won, a new state law last year granting him partial authority over the district, which encompasses his city and 26 smaller municipalities. (Calif. Lawmakers Grant L.A. Mayor Partial Control Over School System, Aug. 30, 2006.)

Los Angeles District Under Pressure

MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA
• Won partial authority over the school district last year through a state law that was later found unconstitutional. Now hopes to run a cluster of low-performing schools beginning in the fall of 2008.
A.J. DUFFY
United Teachers Los Angeles
• Helped create the Belmont Zone of Choice, a network of public college-prep schools slated to open this year in downtown L.A.
ELI BROAD
Broad Foundation
• Financially backs Green Dot and the Alliance for College- Ready Schools, another charter operator in the city.
STEVE BARR
Green Dot Public Schools
• Plans to expand his portfolio of small charter high schools by opening 10 more in Watts in the next two years.
Communities for Educational Equity
• Alliance of parent and community groups pressed the school district to increase graduation requirements.
Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools
• Charter school operator won $6.5 million grant from the Broad Foundation this spring to expand its network.
David L. Brewer III
Superintendent
The superintendent says the district’s new Innovation Division for Educational Achievement will partner with outside groups to turn around low-performing schools and will work with district educators to replicate successful programs. “Change is coming,” he says.

But the school board fought back, winning a battle in state court earlier this year to keep the law from taking effect. (Mayor of L.A. Appeals Ruling Against Law on School Governance, Jan. 10, 2007.) Instead of appealing to the California Supreme Court, the mayor turned his efforts toward raising millions of dollars for three school board candidates who would support him in his bid to play a role in operating one or more of Los Angeles’ struggling high schools. (Mayor’s Candidates Win Board Seats in L.A., May 22, 2007.) The mayor’s allies won, giving him a majority on the seven-member board that includes the president, Moníca García.

“New York and Chicago have had stable governance in their systems, and that is really the key point,” observed Donald R. McAdams, the president of the Houston-based Center for Reform of School Systems. “When Los Angeles gets governance stability, then there can be some meaningful change. With the new board and new superintendent and a mayor who helped get everyone focused on the performance of Los Angeles Unified, the opportunity seems to be there.”

Mr. Brewer, a retired vice admiral in the U.S. Navy who was named to the superintendency last fall, believes that Los Angeles Unified itself will become the driving force for improvement in middle and high schools. His predecessor, Roy Romer, is credited with raising scores at the elementary level.

To that end, Mr. Brewer has formed the Innovation Division for Educational Achievement Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader, which he said will develop plans on two fronts: with outside groups focused on turning around low-performing schools; and internally, with LAUSD teachers and principals, to “replicate across the district the best programs and schools that we already have.”

The innovation division, he said, will consider everything from longer school days to single-gender academies. Reform models like the series of small, college-preparatory “pilot schools” that are to begin opening this coming school year in the Belmont attendance zone would be candidates for replication, he said. An agreement on the pilot schools, negotiated by community and business organizations as well as UTLA and district officials, took three years to hammer out.

Frustration at the district’s slow pace on high school improvement has been mounting and has not been confined to Locke, where teachers this spring signed a petition to turn the school into a charter under California law. Teachers at two other high schools have since met with Mr. Barr, who said he has also had calls from faculty members at several other high schools.

Mr. Brewer said he took a clear message from the events at Locke.

“That was the teachers crying out that ‘we want change,’ ” he said. “We just told them to be patient—that change is coming, and it’s coming through [the innovation division].”

‘Something Drastic’

In May, a majority of the tenured teachers at Locke signed a petition to support converting the campus into a series of smaller charter schools run by Green Dot, which now operates 10 charter high schools in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Though Locke was divided into theme-based “small learning communities” a few years ago, graduation rates hadn’t budged. Last month, 332 seniors graduated, out of the 1,300 students who had started 9th grade at the school four years earlier. A group of Locke teachers reached out to Green Dot officials, who had been tussling with the district over a joint reform plan for the school. When those talks broke down, some teachers opted to try for charter conversion.

“There was not uniformity about whether to support turning Locke into charter schools, but I think a lot of us felt that the only way to get some real change here was to do something drastic,” said Susan Slanina, a chemistry teacher at Locke for six years who signed the Green Dot petition. “We felt like we were all alone and we were losing these kids. I mean, I’m a chemistry teacher and I am teaching kids to add two and two together.”

Confusion and chaos erupted. District officials and UTLA leaders said some faculty members hadn’t understood what they were signing. Locke’s principal, Frank Wells, was relieved of his duties. District and union officials convened hasty meetings to offer alternative reform plans to Locke’s faculty, including the option of becoming an “affiliated charter,” which would keep the school in the district’s fold.

Then, late last month, district officials announced the petition was not valid because 17 teachers had rescinded their signatures. Mr. Barr of Green Dot said state law doesn’t allow for district administrators to unilaterally decide the petition’s fate; the school board must act.

Richard Vladovic, a new board member and a former LAUSD administrator, introduced a measure last week that would force the board to vote up or down on the Green Dot petition next month.

In the meantime, Locke’s teachers remain in limbo. “It puts us in chaos again,” said Ms. Slanina.

‘Brightest Hope’

Green Dot isn’t the only charter manager expanding in Los Angeles. The Alliance for College-Ready Schools, which uses a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum in the seven schools it currently runs, has won multimillion-dollar grants from the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader to add to its network of small middle and high schools across the city. The Broad Foundation also has financially supported Green Dot.

“The models for success—and certainly the brightest hope for students in Los Angeles—are high-performing charter school organizations like the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools,” Eli Broad, the founder of the philanthropy, said in a statement when the grant for the alliance charters was announced in May.

In the meantime, Mayor Villaraigosa’s education team has put together an improvement plan for one or two low-performing high schools in the city, a partnership that Superintendent Brewer said wouldn’t be in place until at least the fall of 2008.

Ms. Melvin, whose Alliance for a Better Community was a leading proponent in the grassroots campaign to require high school students to take more rigorous courses for graduation, said the district should be immersed in preparations to support what will be an enormous change.

The new curriculum mirrors the minimum subject-area requirements for freshman admission to the University of California system, core academic courses and electives known as the “A-G sequence.” Approved by the Los Angeles school board in 2005, the courses are to become the default high school curriculum starting with the freshmen who enter high school in fall 2008, and will require a more demanding course load, including Algebra 2.

Now a member of an advisory committee set up to help district officials develop a strategic plan for implementing the tougher curriculum, Ms. Melvin said she is concerned that the district has not taken advantage of the three years it was given to prepare teachers, students, and parents for “this huge cultural change.”

Mr. Brewer said the district will be ready. “A-G is alive and well,” he said, “and fits in with our overall vision to make sure that our children graduate college-ready and career-ready.”

But Ms. Melvin believes time is running out. “I think as long as the district stays in this holding pattern, charter schools are going to be the option that more and more parents turn to,” she said.

Vol. 26, Issue 43, Pages 1,18

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