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State Praises Turnaround at School

New leadership is cited in success of L.A.'s Fremont High, listed as one of the state's worst.

November 14, 2002|Doug Smith | Times Staff Writer

State auditors are crediting new leadership at John C. Fremont High School for stunning improvements in classroom instruction and student behavior less than a year after they declared the campus to be hopelessly disarrayed.

A report by the state superintendent of public instruction's office released this week called the progress at the South Los Angeles a transformation.

"It was as if the monitoring team was on a different school campus," the auditors wrote, summarizing an October inspection of the school that was placed under state review last year because of chronically low test scores.

The report said Fremont was progressing on almost every front specified in an intervention agreement between the state and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The 4,600-student high school, which was profiled in a July article in The Times, is one of 13 schools in California -- 10 of them in Los Angeles -- singled out for a state audit over poor academic performance. Each has 18 months to improve or face sanctions that include a state takeover.

Gordon Jackson, who leads the audit team at Fremont, said the final judgment on Fremont's progress will be based on test scores next spring and the year after. But he said the changes he has seen since his visit in June show how quickly a poor-performing school can turn the corner. He said most of the improvements came after the appointment of a new principal, LaVerne Brunt, in August.

"I would say that on the whole, I think it's a little bit on the phenomenal side," Jackson said. "I can't imagine anyone saying the school is where it needs to be and they're comfortable, but the goal seems far more attainable now than it did before."

In last spring's state standardized testing, Fremont's students ranked in the bottom 10th of all schools in the state and made negligible progress toward the school's state-imposed growth target. Sixty percent of Fremont's 10th- and 11th-graders and 75% of its ninth-graders scored below basic or far below basic in English/Language Arts compared with less than 40% statewide.

On his initial visit last November, Jackson observed hundreds of students routinely milling about campus as class was in session and many teachers failing to engage students at the level required by state standards. There also was a legacy of antagonism between instructors and administration.

The climate was dramatically different in October, according to his report.

"Where there were once 200 to 300 students out of class during class time, during this visit there were no more than a handful after first period and these few students all had hall passes," the report said.

The three-person auditing team visited 40 classrooms during two days on campus.

"We observed teachers utilizing deliberate and effective classroom teaching techniques and instructional time was maximized," the report said. "More teachers appear to be in control because they have developed thoughtful plans of action.

"Teachers are no longer distracted by a flow of students walking in and out of their classrooms. Students, even those who appeared to be unengaged regardless of the teacher's efforts, were respectful and more likely to be on task than not."

Jackson, the lead auditor, praised central Los Angeles Unified School District administrators for choosing Brunt, previously an assistant principal at Marina del Rey Middle School, for the difficult assignment and in providing her adequate support. He said her qualities of self-assurance, verve, openness and resolve are just what Fremont needs.

"If we could find somebody like LaVerne and put her in every low-performing school, it would really make a difference," Jackson said.

Brunt has implemented a new tardy policy and led regular sweeps to get students in class.

She also enlisted teachers in weekend sessions to develop new curriculum units based on state standards.

Teachers and students are embracing the changes with an ease that surprised Jackson.

"I would have expected to see a few more remnants, or a few more teachers or students lost in the process, as opposed to what I saw in October, which was a smooth operation."

"They were ready for the change," Brunt said Wednesday. "Everybody wants to be on a winning team."

Wendy Basgall, the teachers union representative on campus, concurred that most teachers support the changes, but said some have noticed that they have more trouble with disruptive students.

"Some of the teachers are struggling with that at this time," Basgall said. "How do we intervene with the students who are not motivated and who can suck up all your time trying to motivate them?"

She said she has found Brunt receptive to the concern and is optimistic it will be addressed.

The report also commended the school for opening more bathrooms to students.

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