COMPTON — So far, Gloria Brown says, things are off to a good start. As the new principal of Compton High School, she is confident that "this year will be totally different from last year."
A similar enthusiasm comes from Kelvin Filer, president of the Compton Unified School District board: "I really think it's going to be a very good school year."
Finally, there is Supt. Ted D. Kimbrough, now in his third September as head of the 28,000-student, 38-school system. "Each year seems to be getting better," Kimbrough buoyantly declares.
All of which illustrates how eager Compton officials are to put a good face on the 2-week-old school year and to put behind them the last 12 months, which have marked another period of upheaval in a system that has suffered more than its share.
"We did, of course, go through some trying times," Filer concedes.
First, gang fighting in the stands at a Dominguez High football game last fall nearly cost the school its season when several teams refused to play in Compton. A month later, nearly 200 parents temporarily pulled their children out of an elementary school to protest poor heating conditions. Amid an emergency shortage of substitute teachers, parents again kept their children at home for several days to show support for higher teacher pay.
A record number of arson fires swept through school facilities in the months that followed. And district leaders constantly squabbled in the headlines, with Kimbrough being accused of snooping into the backgrounds of his bosses and one board member calling for his resignation.
As if that wasn't enough, in mid-summer, state funds were briefly cut off when Compton trustees became the first in California history to fail to pass a tentative budget by the legal deadline. Ailing member Manuel Correa, who had undergone quadruple-bypass heart surgery a month before, rose from his bed to cast the vote that broke a 3-3 deadlock.
But Kimbrough said there is ample reason to believe that the new year will bring calmer times. The district's roughly 1,250 teachers are working under a new contract that gives them higher pay, he said, and every teaching spot is filled. Enrollment levels are beginning to stabilize and student test scores have shown steady improvement, he said.
"It's somewhat of a new day," said Compton High Principal Brown, a district educator for 26 years, who assumed the job when Henry Jennings was transferred to become principal at Willowbrook Junior High. "Students are coming in to us very much more versed than they have been, especially in reading and math."
In a special summertime drive to boost enrollment in the Compton High and Centennial High areas, the district also dispatched a team of representatives to talk with the parents of many first-year junior high or senior high students.
"That's where we had the lowest enrollment in the junior and senior high schools," Kimbrough explains. "Parents have always felt pretty good about our elementary schools."
But at the secondary level, he said, "there have been some things that happened to make parents concerned" about both the quality of education offered and the safety of their children. Complaints have ranged from inadequate textbooks to dilapidated and dirty school facilities. As a result, some Compton students have illegally enrolled in other school districts.
"There have been some things that we have to live down," Kimbrough acknowledged. "But the fact of the matter is our children are performing as well as those students who are going (out of the district). . . . Our schools are as good or better than the school's they're attending."
Kimbrough said it is too soon to tell if the enrollment drive was effective, but some parents have reported that they appreciated the chance to meet with a district representative.
Yet, the new year has already seen some of the same old trouble. On the Friday before classes opened, officials said, a fire was deliberately set in a school administration building next to Compton High. Damage was estimated at $250,000, Kimbrough said. Because the district suffered the highest incidence of school arson in Los Angeles County last year, with more than $1 million in damage, in order to continue insuring the district underwriters insisted on raising Compton's deductible--which was $75,000 last year--to a staggering $250,000, he said.
The district continues to offer a $5,000 reward for information that leads to the conviction of a school arsonist. Within the next few weeks, trustees plan to honor a man who helped authorities arrest a suspect in the $400,000 fire last spring at Laurel Street Elementary School. Kimbrough said $2,500 will be paid to the man because the suspect "got out on bail and skipped the state" without being convicted.