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Rethinking Schools: Scenes From the Front Line of Education Reform in L.A. : LEARN Freedom Unleashes Excitement at Roscoe Elementary : Empowered by the reform program's emphasis on local control, parents, staff and students create a stimulating and positive environment at the Sun Valley campus.

October 23, 1994|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roscoe Elementary School is a work in progress.

Desks, chairs and tables line the hallways as workers refurbish a front office damaged in an arson fire more than 2 1/2 years ago. Half the library remains closed off behind thick plastic sheeting as the school prepares to open a media center.

Teachers and administrators proudly show off the unfinished rooms--the dust, the workers and the noise--as proof that the school is making a move. From the offices and the library to the classrooms, the Sun Valley campus buzzes with activity.

"You see this kind of excitement in magnet schools, in some private schools and some schools in more affluent areas," said Ruth Bunyan, the principal at Roscoe. "It's rare to see this kind of excitement in a school like this. But we're a LEARN school."

LEARN, the acronym for the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, is a reform program designed to raise student achievement by giving schools more local control.

Releasing the constraints has unleashed Roscoe. Eager parents took over an abandoned building and created a parents' center; teachers have adopted new lesson plans and redesigned report cards; administrators make fewer solo decisions.

Nineteen classrooms have new carpets. Offices left with blackened walls and plywood door patches from the arson fire in March, 1992, finally are being refurbished. A new security system is being installed to prevent the weekend break-ins that had all but wiped out the school's computers.

Roscoe had an active staff long before the LEARN program was launched there last year. But the program has given the Roscoe team the ability to shed the shackles of district rules and regulations.

"Before, they would entrust you with the minds and lives of 30 young children but never give you a set of keys," said Susan Gilliam, who teaches kindergarten students and first- and second-graders. "We have a lot more control now over the school.

"I think in the old days teachers were a victim of the system. My God, don't touch the holy system."

The system is all new in Kim Deal's classroom. A signboard outside the classroom bungalow reads: "Something Is Fishy."

Deal's fifth- and sixth-graders, most of whom speak Spanish in class, have transformed the classroom into a marine world. A huge paper whale hangs from the ceiling. Brightly colored murals depicting ocean scenes line the walls, along with short essays in Spanish. The room even smells like the sea (thanks to an air freshener).

The theme fits a method of teaching known as the "Scottish story line" in which students learn most academic subjects by creating a story and following plots, characters and settings. Teachers select the theme and help steer the story using science, social studies and English, but students create the characters and develop the plot.

"You saturate them with whatever topic you're doing," Deal said. "I want every sense to be involved. I want every subject covered. I want this in their brains 24 hours a day--and it is."

In another room, Susan Stealey's fifth- and sixth-graders were just beginning a story line on plantation life after the Civil War. As some students painted on butcher paper, others drew wells, a slave house and several characters. A small group of students sat at the front of the classroom reading a chapter on slavery in their social studies textbooks.

The room bustled with activity. The students appeared engaged and interested.

"This brings in all the kids--even those who might not be real interested in school," Stealey said. "And we're doing the work when it's best for us. Nobody's telling us to teach reading and then math and then social studies. We're not cutting them off when they're just getting interested to switch to another subject."

Roscoe teachers said they were drawn to the story line concept after they agreed to organize classrooms with different age groups--rather than grade levels. Looking for a way to engage students at varying educational levels, the teachers discovered the method at a LEARN workshop.

The school's 1,050 students typically score well below state and district averages on standardized tests. Although Bunyan said she is trying to protect the teachers from worrying about test scores, she said she anticipates measurable results eventually.

No studies have been completed to determine whether students taught in the Scottish story line method do in fact improve, but officials familiar with the program say they expect test scores to rise.

"I really expect to see significant improvement in test scores," said Jeff Nelson, a visiting professor at UCLA who conducts training workshops for the 87 Los Angeles schools participating in the LEARN program. "It's a graphic, artistic representation of content-based curriculum. It draws on prior knowledge, and it involves a significant amount of writing."

Students and their parents know something unusual is happening on this campus, which sits between the mountains on one side and Burbank Airport on the other.

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