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New Day Is Dawning for L.A. Schools : Education: The ambitious LEARN project, called the last hope for the troubled district, is about to be launched on 5 local elementary campuses.

August 22, 1993|LOIS TIMNICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTSIDE — Five Westside elementary schools will reopen next month as pilots in the ballyhooed LEARN project, which has been held out as the last hope for Los Angeles' troubled schools.

The privately funded school reform effort, an acronym for Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, chose 35 schools throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District (out of more than 100 applicants) to test its plan for redistributing power--including financial control--to principals, teachers and parents. The chosen schools are receiving help from the district and 15 months of training through UCLA's Advanced Management Program, a collaborative effort of its graduate schools of management and education, as well as from the Los Angeles Educational Partnership.

The pioneer schools on the Westside are Carthay Center, Cowan Avenue in Westchester, Overland Avenue, Topanga and Wonderland. Venice High School, which fell one vote short of the necessary teacher approval, participated in summer training sessions and is expected to join the project shortly.

"LEARN is the best chance we have to make (reform) work," Board of Education President Leticia Quezada said earlier this year. "If we fail at this, I think all hope will be lost."

LEARN, a coalition of business, civic and education activists, was formed two years ago to overhaul the massive 640,000-student district--second largest in the country. The plan, approved by the school board in March, is viewed by backers as the preferred alternative to two other reform plans that also enjoy significant political support: One is a voucher system set forth in a November ballot initiative that would subsidize private schools; the other is a proposal, backed by state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) and others, to break the Los Angeles school district into smaller districts.

Under LEARN, individual schools will be freed from bureaucratic district control and encouraged to develop and maintain a distinct character; that uniqueness will become important farther down the road when Los Angeles parents are to be given a choice about what school their youngsters will attend.

Exactly what distinguishes a LEARN school at the outset, however, is hard to pin down. Its proponents talk of stakeholders (teachers, students, parents), strategic planning, empowerment building consensus and a common core of learning dissected into seven areas of knowledge, nine skill sets and seven sets of values .

They can point to few changes, however, that will be apparent to returning students this fall. "It's just a whole new attitude," one principal ventured.

But all seem excited and hopeful that these schools will be able, each in its own way, to set and meet otherwise unattainable goals.

"This is nothing that lends itself to quick fixes," said Mary Chambers, LEARN executive vice president. "It's elusive, in that every school is going to do things differently. The old way just won't work. But what makes sense in South-Central may not be the answer in Topanga."

What LEARN schools do have in common is control over 85% of their money, starting now, and the freedom to develop their own detailed plan for using it to best advantage.

To that end, principals and lead teachers from each school participated in a $1.2-million (paid for by LEARN), month-long training program that included two weeks in residence at Cal Poly Pomona and two more weeks, just completed, of all-day sessions at Loyola Marymount. They learned about everything from spreadsheets and financial planning to improving parent participation and "reflective writing" that will chronicle and assess their progress.

"It is not going to be business as usual when we go back next month," said Cowan Avenue Principal Joyce Dixon. "Everyone is going to be involved in making decisions," beginning with a Sept. 1 community meeting at her school.

"I don't call the shots anymore," she said. "Final decision-making is left to the principal, but I want input from everyone. "

Early next month, each LEARN school will begin developing a master plan with targets to which they will be held accountable. Each will determine what its school day should look like (it need not consist of 50-minute segments), how it will be staffed and how that staff will be trained, what changes are necessary in its physical plant, and what social services--be they health clinics, counseling, literacy or job programs--will improve learning for its student mix.

A second $1-million component of on-site training will kick in as school resumes, and schools will later choose and buy various kinds of further training from a menu of professional development options being compiled by LEARN.

It remains unclear where the money will come from to implement most of the envisioned improvements, however.

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