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Students, Schools Find Few Pluses to Applaud

January 01, 2003|Duke Helfand and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

Dazed and confused. That's how many California public schools felt by the end of 2002 -- a difficult year despite some promising moments for the state's 6 million schoolchildren.

Schools struggled to produce better academic results and obey a bevy of new rules from Washington even as they were forced to consider layoffs and other desperate measures because of the state's gaping budget shortfall.

"We're expected to do more with less," lamented Dick Van Der Laan, spokesman for the Long Beach Unified School District.

Campuses were fascinated at times with such student life issues as backpack loads, junk food and cell phones and whether the Pledge of Allegiance should be recited in class. But those, as the new year approached, seemed minor compared with statewide money shortages and new federal rules.

School district leaders and state education officials scrambled to comply with the new No Child Left Behind education law that President Bush signed last January. That measure requires campuses serving low-income children to hire only "highly qualified" teachers and for students in failing schools to have the option of transferring to better campuses.

District superintendents around the state called the law unrealistic, given their shortages of qualified teachers, classroom space and other resources. But the Bush administration stood firm, insisting there would be no cause for denying transfers.

Even as state educators fretted over No Child Left Behind, they began discussing whether to delay enforcement of California's new high school graduation exam because of poor passing rates. Fewer than half of the state's current 11th-graders have passed both the English and math portions of the exam, state officials reported in October.

Still, California schools had cause to celebrate last year: Stanford 9 standardized test scores rose for the fourth straight year, albeit less than in previous years. And California voters reached generously into their pockets for public schools, approving about $22.4-billion worth of school construction bonds in November, the largest amount from a single election day in state history.

In Los Angeles Unified, voters handily approved a $3.3-billion school construction bond that, along with state funds, will help the overcrowded school system to build as many as 120 new campuses over the next 10 years.

The sweet taste of victory turned sour just a few weeks later when the district revealed that two of the six buildings at the half-finished Belmont Learning Complex sat over an earthquake fault. The district had revived Belmont earlier in the year after deciding that pollution problems, which had stalled the project, could be mitigated.

The seismic revelation, however, led district officials to once again halt plans to finish the school and further study what to do with the 35-acre property near downtown Los Angeles.

L.A. Unified also launched a promising remedial program for 35,000 middle school and high school students who read below a third-grade level. And the district, responding to scathing state audits of Fremont High School and nine other troubled schools, began replacing principals and teachers in an effort to restore order and boost morale.

In 2002, California's largely unregulated charter schools came under more scrutiny, facing new financial and geographic restrictions.

For their part, California's students regained the right to carry pagers and cell phones on campuses under a new law that reversed a long-standing ban on the devices, feared as tools of drug dealers.

And students even got a little help lightening their loads in an era when so many schools have banned lockers. The state passed a law requiring the state Board of Education to establish maximum weight standards for school textbooks.

A growing number of students can't handle the extra weight. A December report by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy found that more than one-quarter of the state's schoolchildren are overweight and nearly 40% are not physically fit -- most pronounced in Los Angeles County.

Schoolchildren also saw one of their classroom routines challenged when a federal appeals court found the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional.

The decision, stemming from a Northern California case, struck down a 1954 law that added the words "under God" to the pledge. The decision is on hold while appeals play out.

But state budget woes dominated the education agenda as the year drew to a close. Just weeks before the December school break, Gov. Gray Davis announced more than $3 billion in cuts to public schools and universities.

"It's going to be very painful and tough," said Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer, whose district will have to cut about $140 million. The district already slashed more than $425 million in the current school year, partly by raising class sizes in grades 4 to 12.

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