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Laggards Feel the Heat

Pressuring the 100 worst schools should be only a start

September 06, 1998

Supt. Ruben Zacarias is continuing his carrot-and-stick approach to the Los Angeles district's 100 lowest-achieving schools, praising the 68 campuses where test scores rose and placing on academic probation 30 campuses where test scores fell or were unchanged. The improvements ranged from an insignificant one percentile point to an amazing 18 points; losses were up to eight points. (Results for two campuses remain under review.)

If scores decline a second year, Zacarias threatens to eliminate local decision-making at the affected schools and put them under downtown control. A third year of decline, he says, would result in personnel changes, a threat he and the school board must fulfill. The only question is whether the students have three years to lose. Let Zacarias be unafraid to put everyone in the district on notice: Children can learn, be they poor or rich. Children can learn, no matter what their native language. Use the methods proven to work elsewhere and get to work. No more excuses for dismal school scores.

Academic probation must have teeth and strong follow-up that will require cooperation from the teachers union and the administrators union. Both groups claim they are committed to reform, but their leaderships have already attacked the superintendent's solid prescription. Where are the teams of outstanding educators designed to improve poorly performing teachers and principals that the unions promised more than a year ago?

The spotlight on the 100 worst schools got results, though it's only a small step in a hard climb. Test scores, the re-designation rate of limited-English students, student and teacher attendance and parent involvement generally improved. Twenty elementary schools and one middle school on the list boosted test scores by a significant five or more points, which exceeded the superintendent's modest districtwide goal of a two-point annual increase. Let's keep this all in perspective; two points up from the district's previous average--the 33rd percentile--is still not much to cheer about.

The 18-point rise took place at the predominantly black 54th Street Elementary School in Southwest Los Angeles. Scores rose substantially in reading, math and language. Principal Lynn M. Williams, a former mentor and master teacher who is in her seventh year at 54th Street, put to use her classroom experience and her expertise in curriculum and instruction to strengthen the academic program. Her detailed plan focused on state standards, grade-level instruction, phonics and reading, math basics, test-taking skills and parental involvement. She credits a good staff of many eager new teachers and a few supportive veterans. She also used UCLA tutors and Jack and Jill of America Inc., a black middle-class family enrichment organization, to help children after school and on Saturdays.

At Weemes Elementary, a much larger and majority-Latino school near USC, students posted a six-point overall increase and went from the 18th percentile to the 26th in the most critical area, reading. On Aprenda, the test given in Spanish, scores rose from the 39th to the 44th percentile in reading. The rate at which limited-English students transferred into classes taught in English nearly tripled. Principal Annette A. Kessler hired a retired principal to help her new teachers. She also implemented a single, strong, consistent phonics-based reading series with coaching to make sure teachers knew how to teach it. She examined past records of children who performed poorly to determine whether they had ever been held back, how long they had attended Weemes and what teachers could do to help them succeed. USC provided tutors and other help.

As successful principals share their strategies and plans, the school district is also analyzing schools that failed to improve. Why do even neighboring schools perform so differently? Test scores at the 116th Elementary School rose eight points while results at the nearby 118th Street campus dropped eight points. Same neighborhood, similar kids. It shouldn't be hard for the district to find out why and then attack the problem.

The superintendent says he plans to keep up the heat on the 100 campuses. He must toughen his follow-through as he extends the model throughout the district. A hundred schools? That's a good start. But the next hundred schools, and the next hundred, are also performing poorly by any objective standard. They all must improve.

Zacarias' toughest job is ahead. Pronouncements that improvements must come are easy to make when you inherit a district with the mammoth problems of the Los Angeles Unified School District. But making sure that the words trickle down into action in a hardened bureaucracy is the true challenge. The elected school board and the superintendent must demonstrate that the words of reform carry the power of action; that there will be consequences if the reforms don't occur. This district has to change fundamentally if it is to accomplish what it must: educating hundreds of thousands of children each year to enter the 21st century as literate and functioning adults.

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