Los Angeles Unified School District may be viewed by some as a hopelessly fumbling albatross, but to Oakland officials concerned about their city's similarly troubled school system it instead represents hope.
Top Oakland leaders visited Los Angeles last week to examine the secrets of the LEARN school reform program and came away with ideas they might be able to use.
"Within California, (LEARN) is the broadest, most comprehensive educational initiative going on," said Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris. "Excuse the pun, but we want to learn from LEARN."
The Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now plan--engineered by Harris' former state Assembly colleague Mike Roos, along with educators and business people--intends to provide budget and decision-making autonomy to all participating Los Angeles Unified schools.
It requires that a school-community panel at each campus propose a reform plan with specific goals, then prove that it is meeting them.
Currently, 87 schools have signed on to the LEARN plan and 103 more are up for school board approval Monday. As LEARN's influence has grown, so has criticism. An outside audit said the district was dragging its heels on implementing the program and parents have complained that they were excluded from key decisions at some schools.
But for the entourage from Oakland--including Harris and Oakland's school superintendent--LEARN was a laboratory for the possible.
During visits to two schools and a lunch with educators, they shared with their Los Angeles counterparts the passwords of equally discouraging statistics: soaring poverty rates, high dropout rates, low test scores. Yet that common ground was not reason to commiserate; it was merely the frank entree for a discussion about change.
Inside the teachers lounge at Reed Middle School in North Hollywood, the Oakland delegation quizzed Principal Larry Tash about coping with the added responsibility of being a LEARN school. For one, he must devise and control the campus budget with a panel of teachers, staff and parents called the "stakeholders." In non-LEARN schools, that duty is handled by the district.
"That has always been my reservation about moving wholesale into on-site management," said Oakland school board member Tonni Cook. "If you have no budgetary background, to be held responsible for a $3- to $4-million budget just won't cut it."
"The budget was probably the scariest part of all for me," Tash agreed. But he said that using expertise gained during LEARN-required training at UCLA, he was able to shave enough money here and there to retain a needed bilingual teacher.
Oakland has instituted its own promising reform measures, but most have occurred piecemeal--teacher or principal innovation at individual schools.
Harris, who ran for mayor five years ago on a platform of improving education, envisions for Oakland a LEARN-like structure that will weave innovations together and spread them over the 136-school district. There may soon be money to help finance such an effort because Oakland is part of a consortium of San Francisco Bay Area districts under consideration for a $35-million Annenberg education reform grant.
Even with an infusion of money, the job will be tough, Harris knows, but perhaps no tougher than rallying back from the 1989 embarrassment when--at then-Assemblyman Harris' request--the state appointed a trustee to run the district after an audit uncovered rampant political patronage and a gaping deficit.
Harris contends that Oakland can speed up the process by borrowing ideas from Los Angeles because "Oakland is a microcosm of L.A."
At 52,000 students, Oakland Unified is less than one-tenth the size of Los Angeles Unified, but there are many similarities.
In Oakland, 93% of the students are ethnic minorities; in Los Angeles Unified, 87%. In Oakland, more than a quarter speak little or no English when they enter school; in Los Angeles, the figure is nearly half.
Half of the Oakland district's families are on welfare; in Los Angeles Unified, nearly a third. In both districts, about two-thirds of the students qualify for federally subsidized lunches, another indicator of low family income.
And they struggle academically: Nearly a third of high schoolers in each district drop out of school, and results of the California Learning Assessment System tests released last month showed Oakland and Los Angeles toward the bottom of the state. Fewer than a quarter of students in each district demonstrated basic proficiency in reading, writing and math.
Even Harris, who once promised to raise test scores, now concedes that the goal proves elusive. He has turned his attention to a joint city/school/business effort known as Project 2000, aimed at improving the success of children headed for kindergarten at the turn of the century--starting with improved prenatal care.