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First-Day Jitters : Troubled School District Braces for the Worst, but Calm Prevails

September 12, 1993|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COMPTON — No one knew what to expect when Compton's schools opened last week after a summer of discontent. The district's ongoing budget crisis led to layoffs, salary reductions, an emergency state loan and a state takeover. Unhappiness over these events prompted allegations of racism against the state Administration and threats of litigation, protests, student boycotts and violence.

When the bell rang Wednesday, however, nearly everyone put anger, grievances and uncertainty aside--for the moment at least.

It was essentially school business as usual despite reassignments that put a different principal at every high school, most middle schools and some elementary schools. Parents gratefully released energetic children into elementary schools, where principals hugged returning pupils. Students filed quietly into partially renovated middle schools.

The school police force, smaller because of layoffs, efficiently patrolled calm campuses. A smaller number clerks and secretaries gamely answered phones and managed offices.

Administrators still faced problems, including last-minute vandalism, first day of school confusion and a shortage of teachers and crossing guards.

Overall, state-appointed Administrator Stanley G. Oswalt said, he was delighted.

"The students were in the classrooms; the schools were organized, learning was taking place," Oswalt said. He and other top administrators spent much of the day visiting schools.

"I was impressed by the work of the principals," he said. "We had an excellent opening of school."

Critics of Oswalt and the state takeover were reluctant to give him credit.

"No thanks to him the schools opened smoothly," said Amen Rahh, Oswalt's most outspoken critic on the school board. "It's thanks to the hard work of seasoned, veteran administrators and faculty and staff that have been opening schools since we had a Compton school district."

The district did have to cope with vandalism.

Maintenance crews hustled Wednesday to make repairs at Willowbrook Middle School, where vandals broke into the library and spread graffiti throughout the school. The damage occurred just after the staff worked into the Labor Day weekend repainting murals and replacing damaged floor and ceiling tiles. Other schools also have suffered recent repeated vandalism.

At Willowbrook, the smell of fresh paint permeated the school Wednesday. Plywood covered several windows and at least one door. Officials said they hope to repair damage from vandalism more quickly than in past years.

"There's no more graffiti here," said Principal Melonka Renaldo-Turner, reviewing the touch-up work. Interspersed between the murals were messages such as "Enter to learn."

At Whaley Middle School, a wall of graffiti was virtually still drying as Acting Supt. Harold L. Cebrun arrived for an opening-day inspection.

"It's a battle we fight everyday," said Cebrun, who preferred to talk about improvements at the school.

Last year, Whaley became symbolic of the district's struggle to overcome crippling internal and external problems. Students and parents led protests over unusable bathrooms and locker rooms, and shortages of books and athletic equipment. Many students complained of poor teaching. Some parents said they felt unwelcome at the school.

"There used to be kids running around everywhere here," Cebrun said. "There's no kids outside (of classes) today. What a difference. I'm seeing order here that I've never seen."

Administrators at Whaley and other schools were grappling with a shortage of teachers.

New Whaley Principal W. Charles Littles had to use substitutes in four classes. District recruiters are looking to hire about two dozen teachers to replace instructors who retired or resigned. Proposed teacher salary cuts and uncertainty over the school system's future probably led to defections, said Personnel Services Manager Jack E. Killian.

As in past years, more than 300 of the district's 1,500 teachers are only partially trained and work on temporary contracts. The school system remains short of bilingual teachers to serve Spanish-speaking students.

Middle school libraries are closed due to budget cuts, a heartbreaking consequence of last year's estimated $19.6-million deficit, Oswalt said.

About a third of the district's crossing guards unexpectedly failed to show up Wednesday and Thursday morning. For safety reasons, Oswalt had authorized the district to pay for these guards after county supervisors voted to discontinue funding. Oswalt said the problem was corrected by Thursday afternoon.

Katheryn McFarland walked her foster children through an untended crosswalk near Carver Elementary on Wednesday morning. Vehicles struck two Carver children at the crosswalk last year, officials said.

A warm opening-day reception and a hot breakfast awaited Carver students and parents. Principal Ann Cooper dispensed directions and bearhugs.

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