Law & Courts

Inspecting for Quality

By Linda Jacobson — January 03, 2006 10 min read
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Omar Sepulveda steps quietly to the front of a science class at Ganesha High School and asks for the students’ attention. Holding up a thick textbook, he asks: “Does everyone have this book, Earth Science? Does anyone not have this book? No one is going to get in trouble.” Most of the 30 or so students respond with a blank stare. A few nod their heads, affirming that they do have the text.

Roger Chang, a Los Angeles County school facilities inspector, tests a light switch at Lincoln Elementary School in Pomona, Calif. As part of a 2004 legal settlement, California's lowest-achieving schools are routinely inspected to make sure that they are clean and safe, and that students have enough materials.

Finally, two students raise their hands.

Following the well-rehearsed procedure, Sepulveda takes the students’ names and pulls their teacher, Jennifer Watrous, over near the doorway for a few questions. “Is there any way we can take care of this right now?” he whispers. “We can’t leave until we see the books in the students’ possession.”

Watrous wants to cooperate. She sends one of the students to the library, where textbooks are assigned, and the other to the classroom next door, where she thinks he left his book. “It’s more convenient for him to use mine in class,” she explains. “Juan has been told to go get his book. I can’t hold his hand. He’s 15.”

After visiting a couple more classrooms, Sepulveda returns to Watrous’ class. Both students hold up their books. “Sometimes students fall through the cracks and nobody notices,” explains Sepulveda, adding that students who have recently transferred to new schools are usually the ones without books.

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Facilities Inspection List

A former high school history teacher from Colombia, Sepulveda conducts similar textbook inspections throughout Los Angeles County as part of a landmark legal settlement against the state that aims to improve the quality of education in some of California’s neediest schools.

In 2000, Sweetie Williams and his son Eliezer “Eli” Williams—who graduated from high school last June—became the lead plaintiffs in Williams v. California. In the class action, they charged that the conditions of the school Eli attended in the San Francisco Unified School District were “dismal and unacceptable,” according to a statement the elder Williams wrote in 2004 when the case was settled. Restrooms were dirty, toilets didn’t work, fences were rusty, and many teachers didn’t even assign homework because students didn’t have books to take home with them, he added.

“Every child should have the opportunity to go to a school where they are given the basic materials and facilities that all children need to learn,” Sweetie Williams wrote, summing up the case and describing the reasoning behind the inspections that are now mandatory for hundreds of California schools.

The site visits like the one at Pomona’s Ganesha High, which Sepulveda completed with the help of four other team members, are just part of the detailed process through which officials monitor the physical and academic conditions of the schools targeted in the lawsuit.

The settlement reached between the plaintiffs and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also stipulated that each county office of education, which by law is responsible for supervising the school districts within its borders, conduct facility inspections and monitor whether teachers are properly certified, especially if more than 20 percent of their students are English-language learners.

Most teachers here at Ganesha High take the visits in stride, acting as if the inspections are just a routine part of the day—as they are for the inspectors, most of whom are former educators or school district personnel. “Teachers are naturally territorial, but we’re not there to evaluate the instruction,” says Marvin Williams, the leader of the team at Ganesha High. He’s no relation to Sweetie and Eli Williams, but he sometimes jokingly introduces himself as the plaintiff in the case, just to break the ice.

While all 58 county education offices are in charge of the inspections, no office has a heavier load than that of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which is responsible for the inspections at 598 schools in 39 school districts.

Early reports show that the Williams settlement is having a positive impact, though some parents say school officials continue to ignore their complaints.

All California schools must meet the standards in the laws known as the “Williams legislation,” which were passed following the settlement. The inspections, though, are required only at the state’s lowest-performing schools: those in the bottom third of the 2003 Academic Performance Index, the state’s annual measure of academic achievement. This school year, more than 2,100 schools met that criteria.

“When we were first told that we had this enormous responsibility, we were all taken aback with, ‘My gosh, how are we going to get this done?’ ” says Darline P. Robles, the Los Angeles County superintendent.

Robles responded by inviting schools in the county to participate in a round of voluntary inspections, just so school officials and their staff members and consultants hired to do the work would get an idea of what was ahead of them.

Promise to Parents

The Uniform Complaint Process required by the Williams case is posted in Los Angeles County schools.

Parents and Guardians:
This notice is provided to inform you of the following:

1. Every school must provide sufficient textbooks and instructional materials. Every student, including English-learners, must have textbooks or instructional materials, or both, to use in class and to take home or use after class.

2. School facilities must be clean, safe, and maintained in good repair.

3. Each class should be assigned a teacher and not a series of substitutes or other temporary teachers. The teacher should have the proper credential and subject-matter training to teach the class, including training to teach English-learners, if present.

To file a complaint regarding the above matters, complaint forms can be obtained at one of the following locations:
• Principal’s office

SOURCE: Los Angeles County Office of Education

“We wanted to develop clear and consistent methods prior to full implementation,” Robles says. “And we wanted to be sure that we would learn from the experience.”

By all accounts, the inspections are thorough.

Shining a small flashlight along the floor in the kitchen at Lincoln Elementary School, a couple of miles from Ganesha High, inspector Roger Chang looks for small white specks, which would indicate roaches. He doesn’t find any of the droppings.

He notes that even though one meal has been served this morning, the stainless-steel countertops are clean and clear of food debris.

Outside, Chang gazes up at the trees in a courtyard to see whether they are cut back from the rooftops, thereby eliminating an easy access point for rats and squirrels. The original complaint alleged that school cafeterias were infested with rats, mice, and cockroaches.

As he enters classrooms, he looks first at the ceiling to check whether tiles are missing or discolored—a likely sign of leaks. He checks to see if children’s artwork has been mistakenly hung from sprinkler heads, and picks up the phone to make sure there is a dial tone. In the restrooms, he flushes the toilets, checks whether paper-towel dispensers are stocked, and turns the faucets on.

“I’ve been in restrooms where there’s so much graffiti, you’d be afraid to go in,” says Chang, who so far appears impressed by conditions at Lincoln.

Built in 1936, the 620-student school is registered as a local historical landmark. While its high ceilings, large windows, and hardwood floors are attractive, the potential for facility problems are greater in an older building like this one.

In a boys’ restroom, a urinal continues to run after it’s flushed. Chang informs a Pomona school district official with him, who immediately gets on his cellphone to report the problem.

In one classroom, he finds stained ceiling tiles. The stains, he learns, are due to a drip from the air-conditioning system. In another room, a fire-extinguisher inspection tag wasn’t properly punched—another point he’ll enter on his report.

These are just some of the more than 50 items that Chang, a former building manager for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, must check every time he inspects a school.

But Chang says he can tell that Lincoln Elementary’s principal, Jorge Amancio, expects teachers to contribute to keeping the school clean at the end of each day.

“At home, we want our living room, we want our kitchen spotless,” Amancio says. “It’s the same with the classroom.”

Chang says that while Lincoln—which ultimately earns the top score of “good” on his report—might be the “one of the cleanest, [most] fully functioning” schools he’s evaluated, the 33,700-student Pomona district also tends to earn high marks under the Williams settlement.

The fact that the district volunteered to be part of the pilot inspection process shortly after the settlement probably has contributed to the district’s good ratings, Robles says.

“They want to make this work,” Chang adds.

Other county superintendents also report cooperation from their districts.

“We anticipated that there would be some grinding of teeth,” says Peter G. Mehas, the superintendent of the Fresno County Office of Education, which oversees 34 districts and conducted inspections at 118 schools. “But overall, we’ve been extremely pleased.”

It appears as if Williams v. California has spurred improvements statewide, according to a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, which represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“Tens of thousands of students have new books and materials. School facilities are being inspected and repaired. Districts are correcting teacher misassignments and vacancies,” concluded the report, released Dec. 15.

Maisie Chin, the lead organizer and director of Community Asset Development Redefining Education, or CADRE, a nonprofit community organization in South Los Angeles, adds that the complaint process required by the Williams legislation has also given parents in her disadvantaged neighborhood a new sense of confidence.

“We’re trying to create a political experience for parents,” she says. “It’s a way for parents to recognize how much influence they have.”

But despite the “tangible results” across the state noted in the ACLU report, concerns about implementation of the settlement remain.

Last April, CADRE organized a “day of action,” in which the group helped two dozen parents file complaints with the 736,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. The district’s response to many of the complaints was to rebut the points made by the parents, Chin says.

“We’re still looking for a little more earnestness on their part,” Chin says of district officials. “The message we were pushing is that, ‘You need us. You need our eyes and ears.’ ”

Renee Jackson, an executive liaison between Los Angeles Unified and the county office of education, says an investigation is conducted for each complaint.

“We don’t haphazardly say, ‘You’re wrong,’ or ‘You’re right,’ ” she says, but adds that sometimes parents complain about issues not covered by the legal settlement. “It’s a learning process.”

Textbook Inspection

As part of the Williams settlement, California passed laws that require officials from the state’s 58 county education offices to visit lowperforming schools to determine if their learning materials are “sufficient” under the terms of the settlement.

For example, each student, including Englishlanguage learners, must have a textbook and/or instructional materials to use in class and to take home.

To help districts—and county offices—comply with the requirements of the Williams legislation, the California state budget for fiscal 2005 included more than $600 million for instructional materials, facility repairs, and inspections. The settlement also authorized a total of $800 million in future years for emergency repairs in low-achieving schools.

Teacher Evaluation

Also under the legislation, county offices of education must make their lowest-achieving schools a priority for reviews of certified teachers and must investigate district efforts to ensure that teachers of English-language learners are properly trained and certified. The offices also must submit annual reports on teacher-assignment practices to ensure that teachers are qualified to teach English-language learners.

One problem identified by the ACLU report, however, is that not enough districts are taking advantage of those funds, says Brooks M. Allen, a staff lawyer at the ACLU of Southern California and the author of the report.

While the standards required by the legislation seem to focus on basic needs, Allen says the message goes much further. “We’re not saying that this is all students need,” he says. “But at least this ensures equal conditions.”

Still, Robles sees validation of the Williams settlement in a recent study by EdSource, a Mountain View, Calif.-based think tank.

Titled “Similar Students, Different Results: Why Do Some Schools Do Better?” the survey focused on 257 California elementary schools. It showed that an adequate supply of textbooks and instructional materials, strong management of facilities, and experienced teachers—the three pillars of the lawsuit—were among the characteristics that can make a positive difference in the achievement of schools serving poor children.

While most school leaders in Pomona and other districts agree with the intent of the legal settlement, some feel the inspections have added a new burden to their already busy schedules.

“Someone said to me, ‘You know, Mike, it seems like you’re an event planner,’ ” jokes Michael Hernandez, the principal at Ganesha High. Along with the federal No Child Left Behind Act requirements, accreditation visits, and other state monitoring efforts, the inspections amount to one more demand to prepare for, he says.

“I think my colleagues would agree that there is no reason why all these accountability programs couldn’t be woven into one visit,” he says.

Robles, the Los Angeles County schools superintendent, says she realizes the lives of principals are getting more complicated all the time. She says that when possible, textbook and facility inspections should be combined. Teacher-assignment data already is collected through a report from the schools.

But even if the inspectors are sometimes thought of as an intrusion, the teenage students at Ganesha High hardly acknowledge the visitors, who stroll from class to class, making notes on a clipboard. Some inspectors are even young enough to blend into the high school crowd.

Younger students, though, are often more curious. “The little ones are so excited to show you their books,” says Elvira Hernandez, an inspector who joined Sepulveda on the Ganesha tour.

Still, some aren’t sure what to make of these strangers in the hallways, says Hernandez, who tells this story: “A little girl came up to me saying, ‘Oh, Miss, Miss, I was so afraid. I thought you would be wearing black glasses and a suit,’ ” Hernandez laughs. “Like ‘Men in Black.’ ”

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