Only seven San Fernando Valley schools are listed among the 100 worst campuses being compiled by the Los Angeles Unified School District, good news for residents and educators worried about the decline of local public education.
Educators cite several reasons that such a low proportion of troubled schools are in the Valley, a region that accounts for nearly one-third of the district's students.
One of the most important, say experts, is economic. The Valley has more affluent families with children who grow up speaking English and whose early advantages in schooling allow them to perform better on standardized tests, the measure used to rate the schools.
A Times analysis of district records shows 31% of students at the seven targeted Valley schools come from families receiving some form of welfare, compared to about 42% for all 100 schools on the list. Thirty percent of the students in the district's remaining 465 schools are from families receiving government assistance.
Experts also point to less tangible factors, including the perception that the Valley has better-quality schools and brighter students.
"Reputation is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy," said Crystal Gips, associate dean of the Cal State Northridge College of Education. "If Valley schools are reputed to be better, then families and teachers do what they can to get there."
Gips said she occasionally hears Valley campuses referred to as "country club schools" with abundant resources and teachers.
"The schools out here are no more generously equipped or staffed than schools elsewhere in the district," she said. "But there is a belief that life in the schools of the Valley is better than elsewhere."
Parents offer their own explanations.
Lisa Keating, a mother of three students and the president of a PTA council that covers 17 schools in Granada Hills and Mission Hills, said parental involvement plays a significant role.
One example she cites is a successful effort by parents who raised money this year to install fans and air conditioning in schools that operate during the Valley's hot summer.
"The Valley is extremely politically active. If we see something that needs change, we have a can-do attitude," Keating said. "If your teachers and parents are motivated, then you have students who are motivated. It starts at home."
The preliminary list of the 100 worst schools is part of an effort by new district Supt. Ruben Zacarias to boost achievement. Zacarias promised the list while campaigning for the job.
The seven Valley campuses are clustered in the communities of Pacoima, Sylmar, Sun Valley and Van Nuys, mostly working-class neighborhoods with large immigrant and Latino populations.
Principals at two of the schools say their campuses suffer the same troubles that plague low-performing schools elsewhere in the district. Most of the schools on the list are located in South Los Angeles.
The obstacles to improvement are formidable, the principals said. There are too many youngsters in too few classrooms, many students speak little or no English, and many of their teachers are inexperienced.
At Pacoima Elementary, which placed 37th in the preliminary ranking, nearly one-fifth of the 70 teachers are rookies. To house large numbers of students and to meet state mandates to shrink class size, several classes had to rove from room to room every few months to accommodate the school's year-round schedule.
Pacoima Principal Lawrence Gonzales said that even if he could hire the extra personnel he needs--tutors and counselors, for example--he doubts that improvement would come quickly or easily.
"I might need two or three years," Gonzales said. "We're talking about changing the system. It's a hell of an undertaking. It can burn you out if you care."
At nearby Charles Maclay Middle School in Pacoima, which is ranked 36th, Principal Cecilia Lucente Costas is also struggling. The school finished its first year as a LEARN campus, but Costas says the district's downtown bureaucracy has yet to relinquish control over the school's day-to-day operations.
"There's no question that the kids come with very special needs," Costas said. "But don't ask me to be accountable for that which I don't control. It's not fair to us and not fair to the kids."
Both principals said they welcome Zacarias' efforts to assist schools that are performing poorly. But they say compiling the list is easy compared to providing more teachers and extra classrooms. They wonder whether the district will allow individual schools to come up with their own solutions and whether they will be provided the means to carry them out.
"There is no one way to change test scores on 100 campuses," Costas said.