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Bad News About Scores Means a Windfall for Private Schools : Education: Inquiries and applications began as soon as test results were announced. But a public school official says it is 'very short-sighted to think the solution is running.'

March 14, 1994|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Phone calls flooded Los Angeles area schools last week after the new statewide test scores hit the streets, but parents were not calling their local schools. They were besieging private schools, seeking appointments and applications.

The latest blow to public schools contained in the disappointing test scores is proving to be a boon to private schools, which are waiting in the background whenever negative publicity afflicts the school system.

From the tony Marlborough School in Hancock Park to the lesser-known Halsey School in Woodland Hills, private school operators say the onslaught of upset parents began as soon as the test scores were released.

"We've got parents coming in saying, 'I've had it. I'm fed up.' They just feel their hands are tied," said Ann Herman, the principal at Woodland Hills Private School, a small west San Fernando Valley campus with 110 students and an annual tuition of $4,240.

She was not totally surprised by the calls. "Very often when something comes out about public schools--whether it's test scores or something else--we tend to get a number of calls," Herman said.

The California Learning Assessment System test scores released Wednesday showed that most Los Angeles area students in grades four, eight and 10 are performing below tough statewide standards in reading, writing and mathematics. Even students at usually high-achieving schools looked weak on the new tests.

While public school principals and district administrators spent the week on the defensive, private schools quietly scheduled appointments, arranged for campus tours and mailed brochures. "I had one woman call asking about the kind of testing we do--she wanted to know what kind of results we have," said Sue Fritsche, principal at Egremont School in Chatsworth, which has about 180 elementary students and an annual tuition of about $5,000. "For those parents who can, they are looking for a better education for their children."

The test scores revealed that students in areas thought to have good public schools still did not score in the top ranges of the statewide standards. In the Beverly Hills Unified School District, half of the fourth-graders showed little or no knowledge of math concepts. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, more than 80% of the students in the three grades tested showed only a limited understanding of math.

"One assumes when you buy a house in Beverly Hills, a good education system comes with it," said Earle Vaughan, area manager for the Page Schools, with campuses in Beverly Hills and Hancock Park. "That seems not to be a guarantee anymore. All the indications public school parents get is that their needs are not being met and test scores prove that. They definitely affect the overall notion a parent has about public schools."

But public education officials say the answer to low test scores is not for parents to flee.

"I think it's very short-sighted to think the solution is running and jumping," said William D. Dawson, acting state Superintendent of Public Instruction. "The solution is to improve education for all students."

Though Dawson said he was not surprised that parents who can afford private school tuition are considering that option, he said the test scores should be seen as a wake-up call to public schools.

"I don't think you have to look beyond the test results themselves for everyone to see that schools need to improve," Dawson said. "We've got a job to do."

Given the high numbers of poor, immigrant students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Supt. Sid Thompson said the schools are doing well, but he acknowledged that they need help.

"This district still does a damn good job," Thompson said. "If your youngster is motivated and you provide the support, we can provide a good education for them. If parents choose to leave, I think they're making a mistake."

But the Los Angeles school district has been anything but stable the past several years. District officials have faced unprecedented budget cuts, teachers strike threats and nasty political infighting. Schools have been left lean, without extra spending money and few enrichment classes.

Previous district crises led to the creation of several private schools now drawing parent interest. Halsey School, and Village School in Pacific Palisades, sprang up in 1978 during the bitter battles over busing for desegregation. Windward in West Los Angeles was formed in 1971 by Los Angeles teachers on strike that year.

"Busing made us a big-time thing," said Richard Halsey, owner and founder of Halsey School. "It was very disruptive for kids' education, but business-wise it was nice."

Only parents who can spend $2,000 to $12,000 a year on tuition can consider leaving public schools, but private school administrators say they have increased scholarship and financial aid programs because of the renewed interest in their campuses.

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