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Will School Experiments Make the Grade? : Education: Big changes, such as the charter and LEARN programs, are in store for children returning to Westside classrooms. Officials hope they can lure students back to the troubled district.


WESTSIDE — They don't realize it, but the more than 70,000 youngsters returning to Westside schools this week are part of a grand experiment that will mark the turnaround--or demise--of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In no other area of Los Angeles are so many creative, innovative approaches to education under way, or stakes and expectations higher.

"We're hoping it's the dawn of a new day," said Westside board member Mark Slavkin. "The most significant development is the Palisades Complex of charter schools, which everybody is looking at as a model for the rest of the state, and the six LEARN schools on the Westside, pioneering a concept the district has committed to implementing in all its schools."

This school year starts with no teachers contract under negotiation, no threatened strike, no budget fights. "For once, we can use all our energy to implement these reforms," Slavkin said.

On the Westside, "these reforms" include not only a dozen charter and LEARN schools, but also reconfigured schools and a new science magnet. More than 20 local schools will start the year with new principals.

Observers say that if the programs the Westside is trying prove successful--or at least appear to be headed in the right direction--students who have fled the district for other school systems or private schools may return, and both the voucher initiative on the November ballot to subsidize private schools and a legislative proposal backed by state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) and others to break up the massive 610,000-student district into smaller entities will appear less attractive.

Here's what the excitement is all about:

* The Open School: Center for Individualization, a tiny magnet school housed in a cluster of bungalows at the edge of the Crescent Heights Boulevard Elementary School campus, has become the first "charter school" in the district. It was freed from bureaucratic district and state control earlier this year under new state legislation and is now largely autonomous, although it still looks to the district for busing, budget and general services.

The Open School groups students into unorthodox clusters, regardless of age, and uses team teaching and a thematic approach.

* A consortium of schools known as the Palisades Complex was granted charter status this summer, launching Palisades, Canyon and Marquez elementary schools and Palisades High School on their own, soon to be joined by Paul Revere Middle School. They will institute a humanitas program (connecting different subjects by theme), a community service requirement, and special tutoring for at-risk youngsters, and will involve parents to a greater degree in their children's education. The schools are open to any student in California, and calls to the Palisades charter hot line, (310) 454-0823, are running high.

Palisades High Principal Merle Price says 150 of his 200 new slots are already filled, with many of the new enrollees coming from private schools and from distant points on district buses. The charter schools have made a commitment to improve student performance while maintaining the racial balance of Los Angeles (38% white and the rest minority). The majority of charter schools are located on the Westside, but all stressed that local control does not mean turning them into facsimiles of all-white private schools.

* Westwood Elementary School is the sixth Westside school--out of a districtwide limit of 10--to become a charter school, grouping its student body into multi-age, multi-grade "families" to create a sense of belonging in a large school and instituting a building project that mimics a small city.

* Meanwhile, Paul Revere Middle School has been deluged with applications for its new science magnet, and overall enrollment is also expected to rise by 150. "We had 700 applications for 160 (seventh-grade) slots," said Principal J.D. Gaydowski, despite the fact that approval came late, long after the annual brochure describing available magnets had been mailed to parents throughout the district. A later flyer drew applicants not only from the immediate Westside but from the Crenshaw area, Baldwin Hills and the San Fernando Valley.

* Five Westside elementary schools--Carthay Center, Cowan Avenue in Westchester, Overland Avenue, Topanga and Wonderland--will reopen as pilots in the ambitious LEARN project. Venice High School is expected to be added soon. Thirty-five schools throughout the district have been designated as LEARN schools (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, a privately funded coalition of business, civic and education activists). After intensive training that began this summer and will continue during the school year, the schools will chart their own individual courses while remaining tethered to the district for support and training.

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