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Tough Love for L.A. Schools

January 15, 2002

The woeful Los Angeles Unified School District is taking what for it is a radical step, belatedly making the sort of disciplined decision that successful companies and agencies consider routine. The children who receive an inadequate education due to district blundering and timidity have reason to hope, now that top management has begun to sweep out ineffective personnel at some of its worst campuses, as first reported last week by Times education writers Duke Helfand and Richard Lee Colvin.

Last fall, state auditors identified 10 particularly bad schools in the district. Supt. Roy Romer is now getting tough, in part to satisfy state officials, who must prove to Washington that federal dollars sent to California to help poor children are not wasted. School districts that receive funding from a program known as Title I must demonstrate measurable progress through rising test scores. That requirement followed decades during which the federal government spent money with little evidence that it did any good. Such accountability will soon become even more demanding because of education legislation signed last week by President Bush. It's about time.

The district has discussed major shakeups in the past, but hyperprotective unions and meddling school board members always got in the way. The change is possible today for two reasons. First, voters tossed out most of the micromanagers on the school board (the current board didn't even get a vote on Romer's plan). Also, although no one will say so publicly, this time the teachers' and administrators' unions, to their credit, are cooperating with the superintendent.

Such major campus shakeups should bring in a fresh team supported by outside experts, eliminating a death-grip culture of failure fueled by years of poor leadership, management problems, uneven teaching and low or no expectations for students. The problem, as Romer knows all too well, is finding outstanding principals and teachers to replace those shoved aside.

In this round of district reforms, only four principals will be removed from the 10 targeted campuses: 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. Classroom teachers can keep their jobs if they sign a contract committing to higher standards and agreeing to extensive retraining.

The superintendent initially considered an even more aggressive approach, but he knows that the district could not fill every position, especially in the inner-city schools. Past mismanagement has allowed some of these schools to deteriorate to the point where restrooms are filthy and graffiti-plastered and unruly students rule the classrooms.

In education-speak, removing the top administrators and faculty from a school is called "reconstitution," a practice already tried in more than a dozen other states. Most companies or agencies would call this "cleaning house."

Finally the district seems to have realized the superiority of this necessarily harsh tactic over the old, easy approach, in which principals and teachers get paid and promoted even as students flunk.

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