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A Failing School Perks Up

November 15, 2002

Designated one of the 10 worst schools in Los Angeles, John C. Fremont High School had nowhere to go but further down. At least that seemed to be everyone's expectation when it came to this and other failing schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Test scores in the basement today? Wait until next year -- they'll be lower. Then along came a real leader and genuine help from the district. It's no miracle, but the rate of change has state and local officials breathless.

A year ago, state officials gave the 4,600-student high school 18 months to improve and assigned a team of monitors. In a Times profile of the audit in July, even the state monitors described themselves as "blown away" by the school's failings, from widespread class ditching to the two weeks of firecrackers set off near a girls restroom.

Today they are amazed by its fledgling turnaround. A dynamic new principal, LaVerne Brunt, arrived in August, kicked off her high heels and sprinted into action. First she went after the slackers who milled about in the hallways during class time. A year ago, the state auditors noted that hundreds of loiterers never even budged when the class bell rang. They do now.

It's still a leap from getting students into classrooms to making sure they learn. But Brunt knows that one can't happen without the other. And she sends a message that teenagers -- and teachers -- need to hear: Someone is in charge.

The state auditors are seeing other dramatic changes too. Once-unfocused classes are livelier and more engaging, due in part to teachers' willingness to follow Brunt into weekend coaching sessions. It's too early for new test scores, and there's no sugarcoating the challenge at a school where last year one-third of incoming freshmen tested at third-grade reading levels or lower. Still, the early reports are dazzling.

Brunt isn't doing this alone, of course. With the state threatening to take over Fremont if test scores don't go up, the LAUSD has temporarily reassigned administrators (who typically mill about in district offices) to help keep students in line. UCLA and the nonprofit Los Angeles Educational Partnership are helping coach teachers. And Fremont teachers and students themselves seem to be embracing the changes, happy, as Brunt put it, "to be on a winning team."

Students at this South-Central high school start with few advantages. About 80% are poor and many of their families don't speak English at home. Few have parents who graduated from high school. No one lacked excuses for failure -- until a dynamic leader came along to raise expectations and bring the right resources to meet them. Every principal and administrator who has blamed failure on the shortcomings of students had better be paying attention.

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