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School & District Management

L.A. to Break All Secondary Schools Into Smaller Units

By Caroline Hendrie — October 12, 2004 3 min read
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Joining a national trend among urban school districts, the Los Angeles board of education last week approved a plan to scale down all the sprawling district’s secondary schools into smaller units of 350 to 500 students apiece.

The policy sets up a framework for how the nation’s second-largest school district will start new schools from scratch and break down existing large ones. Two years in the works, the policy approved Oct. 5 is being billed as a milestone on a journey expected to take a decade or more.

“It set in motion a process of change,” said Liliam Leis-Castillo, who is heading the small-schools effort as the executive assistant to Superintendent Roy Romer.

The policy describes in broad strokes a plan to expand the system’s limited foray into small schools and learning communities into a districtwide undertaking. Many of the details, in areas ranging from personnel to budgeting, are not spelled out.

District officials see the policy as a compromise between giving substantial autonomy to what they are calling “small school learning communities” and maintaining centralized control. “We want to make sure that we’re flexible enough but that there’s accountability involved,” Ms. Leis-Castillo said.

How the leadership of the 778,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District addresses that challenge may be key to the future of an initiative that many say could prove unusually far-reaching in its impact.

“If L.A. Unified is able to do this … to make this a reform effort for every single high school, that would be phenomenal,” said Linda B. Guthrie, the secondary vice president for United Teachers Los Angeles. At the same time, she said, the 48,000-member union is concerned about such issues as how teachers will be placed and how the learning communities’ budgets will be set.

“We think there has to be more guidance from the central office,” she added.

Aiming High

Goals of the plan are to improve the academic achievement of all secondary students, increase the graduation rate, and “prepare all students for a wide range of postsecondary opportunities.”

District officials cite a four-year graduation rate of 68 percent, but outside estimates have pegged the percentage as far lower. A study issued last February by Christopher B. Swanson, a dropout expert at the Washington-based Urban Institute, for example, calculated the rate at 46 percent.

Under the new policy, learning communities are each to have a theme or focus. Some are to be in new facilities, although typically not as stand-alones, while others are to be housed in existing schools in “identifiable, contiguous space.”

To reduce anonymity, the policy calls for lowering the number of students that teachers work with and setting up advisory groups to foster student-teacher relationships. The learning communities must “implement a rigorous, standards-based curriculum” under the policy, but will be able to use alternatives to districtwide standardized tests if they “assure comparable performance.”

Building on grants the district has already received from the federal government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the district will be seeking outside funding to help support a restructuring effort that Ms. Leis-Castillo estimated would cost about $1 million per school. She said the district has about 80 middle schools and 50 high schools, some of them serving more than 5,000 students.

Marie Groark, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation, called the district’s move “a good first step” toward carrying out the kind of sweeping high school improvements the Seattle-based philanthropy is supporting in districts around the country. (“Major Gates Foundation Grants To Support Small High Schools,” June 16, 2004.

“It’s a good vision statement,” she said, “and the details need to be worked out.”

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