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Principal Hits the Ground Running

Schools: At troubled Fremont High, LaVerne Brunt cracks down on chronic tardiness.

September 17, 2002|DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 12:41, the lunch bell rings. LaVerne Brunt springs from behind her desk, strides down a short hallway and immerses herself in a throng of students on the quad at Fremont High School.

Brunt, the new principal at a school that epitomizes some of the failures of public education in Los Angeles, is taking this opportunity to let students know she's available to talk.

But they had better be ready to listen, too. As she moves purposefully from group to group, she watches, cautions, cajoles and counsels.

When the fifth-period bell rings at 1:12, the students quickly head to all corners of the campus. Brunt joins the group squeezing into the narrow alley between two rows of bungalows.

"Young man, go inside," she tells a straggler.

"No, baby, go inside," she tells a girl who pleads for extra time.

Barely two weeks ago, Brunt, formerly an assistant principal at Marina del Rey Middle School, was called upon to lead Fremont out of its academic malaise--easily one of the most challenging jobs in the district.

Because of test scores that hadn't budged from the basement in five years, the South Los Angeles campus was singled out for a state audit. It was one of 10 in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and 13 in the state, to be targeted. The 4,500-student school, profiled in a Times article in July, was given 18 months to improve, or it could face sanctions that include a state takeover.

On his first visit in November, state auditor Gordon Jackson observed a campus in disarray. Dozens of students milled about while school was in session. In class, teachers resorted to using picture books and movies in their lessons to accommodate students' inability to read. Instructors were antagonistic toward the administration and vice versa. Two-thirds of each ninth-grade class never made it to graduation.

Brunt has already made a big first impression, simply by declaring--and personally enforcing--one basic rule: Students will get to class on time.

"Let's go!" she yells as a student jogs down the empty alley. "You're going to get caught. Hurry up!"

Under the shade of the lunch pavilion, she begins to write down the names of students caught tarrying.

In a meeting last week with parents, Brunt spelled out a new policy of progressive discipline for tardy pupils, including detention, parent conferences and suspension for multiple offenders.

The changes got a mixed reaction from students.

"I think she's a pretty nice lady," said 12th-grader Deon Gibson. "She's laid down some rules and it really makes kids get to class."

Some of Gibson's friends thought differently.

"I think they should take off the tardy sweep thing," said 10th-grader Danny Williams. "She needs to take that out."

Staff members, however, were openly enthusiastic.

"Oh, I love her. She's going to be good," said campus aide Darrion Wright. "Her first day ... she was out of her business shoes and into her flats. She came with the proper attitude."

"It feels like we're making headway," said counselor Ron Craven. "Everybody feels it."

With Brunt's appointment, the district has replaced principals and other staff members at six of the 10 schools audited by the state. "We know how critical it is to have that leadership," said Supt. Roy Romer. "This new principal, LaVerne Brunt, has real potential."

Brunt is taking on problems that have festered for years. The lack of leadership and disorganization on campus have led to protests by students, teachers and community groups over everything from a textbook shortage to counseling deficiencies.

Brunt said the pressure doesn't faze her.

"I don't feel as if I'm in a fishbowl," she said. "I know there is work to be done and we're going to do it."

Two years ago, Fremont's most recent principal, Margaret Roland, was promoted to the job even though she didn't seek it, had no prior experience as a principal and had no knowledge of the school's turbulent history.

"I don't know exactly where we're going," she told Jackson, the state auditor, during their first interview. "Whatever it is you would have us do, our goal this year is to do it."

Roland has been reassigned to the district office but now is on leave. She could not be reached for comment. Sylvia Rousseau, superintendent for Fremont's local district, declined to state the reason for the reassignment.

Jackson said Monday that he had not requested the leadership change, but supported it.

"I think her heart was in the right place," he said of Roland. "The question was [whether] her talent and expertise [were] a good match for where Fremont was at the time."

Brunt, 42, was picked for the assignment by the local district's high school director, Marcia Haskin, who was principal at Palms Middle School when Brunt was an assistant principal there.

A former discipline dean, Brunt has unusual self-confidence with teenagers, mixing soft-spoken compassion with an unbending application of the rules. At Marina, she is remembered for balancing a collaborative style with a firm adherence to policy.

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