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Rethinking Schools: Scenes From the Front Line of Education Reform in L.A. : Making the Grade : Just 5 Years Ago, Foshay Middle School Exemplified the Worst in Education; Today, It's a National Model of Successful Reform


Back in 1989 the scene at Foshay Middle School in South-Central Los Angeles could hardly have been worse. Students ran wild in the corridors, ignoring the bell schedules. Fights erupted during lunch. Graffiti marred the walls. One in five students dropped out.

Worst of all, Foshay's test scores ranked the lowest of any Los Angeles Unified School District middle school.

So alarming was the downward spiral at Foshay that the State Department of Education issued an ominous threat to the school district: Turn this campus around or funding will be withheld and a state trustee appointed to run the troubled school.

Fast-forward to 1994. Foshay Principal Howard Lappin stood with a student and her mother on the South Lawn of the White House, handpicked by the U.S. Department of Education to help celebrate the signing of President Clinton's education initiative, Goals 2000.

In five years, Foshay Middle School had become a national model for school reform, an evolving case study on how educators can bring the best of public education to the worst of schools.

"People used to tell me that if you sent your kid to Foshay, you sent them to fail," Lappin said. "It's been a long process to get where we are now. But now, you can't tell me that the kids who come here don't want to learn. . . . We are a school where education reform is working."

Two key ingredients fed the Foshay turnaround, say the school's staff and outside education experts. First is Lappin, a charismatic, aggressive principal who jump-started the staff the minute he arrived on the scene in 1989.

He was quickly able to galvanize and motivate the school's other valuable resource--teachers who were looking for a way "out of the pits," Lappin said.

"Educators talk so much about the importance of the principal," said Guilbert Hentschky, dean of the USC School of Education and an expert in education reform. "Howard shows us all what an awesome thing a good principal can be."

The second factor in Foshay's success: A mix of veteran teachers and younger ones who asked to come to the campus decided to take on the challenge of the state edict with a vengeance.

"We all felt outraged and had kind of a fight-back mentality," said Debra Laidley, a lead teacher in the school's reform movement. "Many teachers were insulted. Teachers were very much convinced that our kids could learn, but we knew the old ways weren't working and we needed help."

Foshay is pursuing three major reform efforts, harnessing an almost unheard-of amount of staff training, new equipment and outside resources at a time when other Los Angeles public schools have been reeling from the effects of deep budget cuts.

In 1991 the school won a $1.5-million state grant to help restructure teaching. The grant made it possible to pay for the training of teachers in new classroom methods and for the hours of extra time they spend at school. This year Foshay is buying its own bus so that students can "get out and access the community," Lappin said, adding that it would be foolish not to take advantage of county museums, the Coliseum and USC less than a mile away.

Foshay was also one of the first Los Angeles schools to join the LEARN reform plan. Under LEARN, schools become semiautonomous campuses, free to make decisions that range from staff hiring to curriculum innovations. Participation in LEARN brings with it specialized school management training for some staff and parents.

Last year Foshay also was selected by a private education group to become one of nine prototype schools for the New American Schools Development Corp., a private, nonprofit organization funded by business leaders during the George Bush Administration. The organization paid for five extra teachers, pumped in about $1 million in computer equipment and is providing nearly one month of paid training time for every teacher.

As part of this program, Foshay will soon become a kindergarten-through-12th-grade Learning Center, keeping students at the same campus throughout their educational careers and letting the same teachers monitor their growth.

The infusion of support and program changes are bringing results. Slowly but steadily, student achievement is on the rise. Test scores are up by 15 points in reading and about 10 points in math.

Test scores "still aren't great and have a long way to go," Lappin says. A high transient rate--40% of students leave during the year and are replaced by a like number of new pupils--makes assessment difficult. But, the principal said, there are other indicators of progress.

Attendance is up to 96% each day. Dropouts are down to 4%. The few students walking the hallways during class carry a permission slip. Suspensions are half of what they were five years ago. Lappin says he can't recall the last time there was a fight on campus.

And more than 200 students stay after school every day and arrive on Saturdays for tutoring.

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