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State Steps In at 10 Lagging L.A. Schools

Education: Audit teams are visiting the campuses and will recommend plans to shore up weaknesses.

October 03, 2001|RICHARD LEE COLVIN and ERIKA HAYASAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The state Department of Education is poised to assume broad decision-making authority at 10 Los Angeles Unified School District campuses that have failed to meet goals for improving their test scores despite four years of warnings.

Only three other schools in the state were targeted by the highly unusual intervention.

Partly in response to his district's poor showing, Supt. Roy Romer will announce a turnaround plan today to retrain principals and boost reading and math teaching at those and as many as 10 other low-performing schools. He also warned that principals at schools that do not improve rapidly enough could lose their jobs.

"We've got to elevate these lowest-performing schools," Romer said. "We have to have this happen."

Another reason for urgency, he said, is new figures showing that only 44% of the district's ninth-graders passed the English-language arts portion of the state's high school exit exam this year. Only 24% passed the math portion. All students must pass both sections of the test by 2004 in order to earn a diploma. The test was voluntary this year only.

"Our performance is not good, we know it and we're focusing on changes," Romer said in an interview.

The schools where the state will intervene include: Avalon Gardens Elementary School; Gompers, Mt. Vernon and Sun Valley middle schools; Mann Junior High School; and Fremont, Locke, Roosevelt, Jefferson and Wilson high schools. Of the three other schools in California coming under state scrutiny for their weak performance, two are in the Visalia Unified School District in the Central Valley: Goshen and Houston elementary schools. The other school is Lower Lake High in the Konocti Unified School District in Lake County.

The schools were first identified based on their test scores on the Stanford 9 test in 1997; each failed every year since then to make improvement targets and did not avail itself of funds from a key state school improvement program.

David Tokofsky, a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education, said the district's dominance on the target list demonstrates "a failure of instructional urgency."

Each of the 13 targeted schools will be visited within the next few weeks by a state-appointed scholastic audit team that will recommend a detailed plan for shoring up weaknesses. If the schools do not improve, the state can ultimately convert them into charter schools or authorize students to transfer elsewhere.

The process, never before tried in California, is authorized by the $9-billion federal Title I law serving students who are educationally disadvantaged. The teams of educators are supposed to make sure that schools receiving that money are using it effectively.

But it remains to be seen whether the teams will have enough clout, resources or skill to transform schools plagued by stubborn problems that include large numbers of unprepared teachers, many children not fluent in English and substandard facilities. All but one of the targeted schools in Los Angeles Unified are middle schools or high schools, and principals said their students come to the campuses far behind.

"We have to make up eight years of education in 2 1/2 years and you can't, you're struggling all the time," said Ron Hirosawa, assistant principal of Roosevelt High School, a 5,000-student campus in Boyle Heights.

Roosevelt's students are poor and working-class Latinos, most of whom are not fluent in English, and about one in four drops out before completing high school. About one in four of the teachers is working under an emergency teaching credential.

"It's a compliment for teachers in all these schools that they get as much done as they do," he said. "But I don't think there's any teachers here who will say . . . what we're doing is fine."

The state quietly launched its oversight efforts last week, sending its audit teams into three schools, including the 1,700-student Samuel Gompers Middle School in Watts. The team visited every classroom to observe instruction and interviewed parents, students and administrators.

As in other targeted schools, the team will negotiate an agreement with school officials that will set explicit quarterly goals through the next 18 months. If the goals aren't met, the state could take further action to spur improvements.

"I hope they'll take into consideration all the factors that we as a school have to deal with," said Gompers' principal, Willard Love, who has been at the school for six years.

He said about a third of his teachers lack credentials. A third of his students are not fluent in English and two-thirds live in poverty. He said the school's test scores are improving, although not fast enough to hit the state's targets.

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