School & District Management

Troubled L.A. School Roiled by Protests Over Principal

By Linda Jacobson — August 28, 2007 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

A Los Angeles school with a reputation for violence is embroiled in another type of controversy—this time involving some of its teachers and highest-achieving students.

The storm erupted in mid-July when, according to students and teachers, Vincent Carbino, the principal of Santee Education Complex, dropped or changed numerous courses—including some Advanced Placement offerings—in the middle of the semester, even though some students will need those classes in order to graduate.

Teachers allege that the principal cancelled the courses without warning in advance of a scheduled inspection required by state legislation known as the Wiliams settlement, because textbooks for the courses had never been ordered and teachers had not been trained.

Morale is now so bad that some teachers are considering filing a petition with the district’s board of education to convert to a charter school, said Jose Lara, a history teacher at Santee and a union representative for United Teachers Los Angeles, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Tracy Mallozzi, a spokeswoman at Green Dot Public Schools, a Los Angeles-based charter schools organization, confirmed that preliminary conversations with Santee teachers have taken place. Earlier this year, some teachers at Locke Senior High School, another low-performing high school in Los Angeles, signed petitions asking the school board to have Locke converted to a charter under Green Dot, which is opening small high schools in Watts, the neighborhood served by Locke.

“If things don’t get better soon, many teachers are going to go that route,” said Mr. Lara. “It’s been a roller coaster ever since.”

A former police officer, Mr. Carbino was brought in a year after the school opened in 2005 to address safety concerns as well as academic performance. He refused to be interviewed for this article.

But Los Angeles Unified School District officials say they are trying to work with students and teachers to calm the situation. The district also denies charges that the number of AP courses at Santee has been reduced. Instead, they say that Mr. Carbino increased AP offerings from two last school year to 13 this year.

“It’s a fairly small group of teachers and students who are engaging in these protests,” said Hilda Ramirez, a spokeswoman for the 708,000-student district.

Mandatory Inspections

Santee opened two years ago under then-Superintendent Roy Romer and was supposed to be a symbol of educational renewal in a low-income community. Instead, the campus has been known for fighting, crime, and teacher turnover.

“It’s been a disaster from day one,” said Jordan Henry, an English teacher and a union official. The latest controversy appears to stem from inspections required under the 2004 settlement that ended a lawsuit called Williams v. California, in which plaintiffs argued that many schools, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods, were lacking basic necessities such as textbooks, clean and safe facilities, and properly credentialed teachers. (“L.A. District Faces Mounting Pressure Over High Schools,” July 18, 2007.)

The mandated inspections, conducted by county offices of education throughout the state, include a textbook audit to make sure students have the books they need.

Mr. Lara said no one was alerted to the course changes made in advance of the Williams inspections. Teachers found out, he said, when they logged on to their computers to take attendance and saw that the names of the courses they were teaching had changed. In some cases, AP courses were replaced with regular courses, he said. During the actual days of the inspection, he added, teachers didn’t speak up to members of the Williams “team” either because they were afraid, or because they didn’t understand what had happened.

Police escorted one teacher who complained about the unexpected changes from the building, according to Mr. Lara. Since then, dramatic photos and videos of students protesting in the auditorium and outside the building, chanting “Fire Carbino,” have shown up in local news reports and on Web sites. And last week, students and parents, and even teachers from neighboring schools picketed and held a rally. Some teachers are also expected to speak before the board of education next month.

“I’m not going to receive [AP] credit,” said 12th grader Araceli Aca, who says her AP English class was changed to a course called Writing Seminar. “My mom is really furious because she hasn’t been able to get any answers.”

District Response

The district denies claims that the number of AP courses at Santee has been reduced. In a written statement, Carmen Schroeder, the superintendent of Local District 5, which includes Santee and is located in South Los Angeles, said the principal added the writing courses to help students pass AP exams.

The school also is part of a new partnership with Los Angeles Trade Technical College and the University of California, Irvine that allows students to graduate with both a diploma and college credit, or even an associate’s degree. Ms. Schroeder called the arrangement “a wonderful opportunity for the South Los Angeles community that has traditionally had very little access—or financial means—to college.”

But Mr. Lara argues that students at the school—which has three academic calendars, or tracks—don’t have equal access to AP courses. Most of the new AP courses, he said, are available only to those on the A track, which most closely follows a traditional school calendar. The students that started school July 2, before the changes were made, are on the B track.

A chart he has compiled shows that 35 classes, primarily English classes, have been changed, and more than 850 students have been affected.

In spite of the latest controversy, Ms. Schroeder expressed support for Mr. Carbino.

“I believe that everyone at Santee has the same goal: providing students with a rigorous and relevant education that will prepare them for college and careers,” her statement said.

Ms. Ramirez, the district spokeswoman, also said the principal has worked with students on conflict resolution and peer-to-peer counseling. And a profile of the principal published last year in the Los Angeles Times discussed his determination to keep the school from being taken over by the state because of low test scores.

But A.J. Duffy, UTLA’s president, said he doesn’t blame Santee’s staff for talking to charter school operators about leaving the district.

“Do I want that? No. Do I understand? Yes,” he said, adding strong words for Los Angeles Unified Superintendent David Brewer III. “If he doesn’t remove and fire [Carbino], he’s going to have another Green Dot school, and he’s going to be superintendent of nothing.”

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