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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

School Program for At-Risk Kids Is at Risk Itself

Continuation schools must not lose their independent leadership.

May 10, 2003|Michael Vetrie | Michael Vetrie was the California Continuation Education Assn. Teacher of the Year 2000.

The inequalities between public schools in working-class neighborhoods and more affluent areas have served to deny students an equal opportunity to compete in the public school system.

The poorer schools are overcrowded, with many of their teachers untrained and without credentials. The restrooms are dirty; the classrooms lack technology or teachers trained to use it, and fine-art classes like drama and music are limited or nonexistent.

This appears to be the reason behind the governor's proposal to take money from the more affluent public school districts and give to the poorer ones.

If the schools are to be a jungle of survival of the fittest, the reasoning goes, let's try to maintain some semblance of an equal playing field.

The one exception to the existing system of inequality has been the continuation school. Established to give a second chance to at-risk students, the continuation schools have been independent, small islands of hope for the disadvantaged. Most exist as a separate unit on the campus of a comprehensive, or regular, school.

With a principal, usually three or four teachers, an office manager and classes that average 15 to 20 students, the continuation schools manage to graduate thousands of students each year who would have otherwise been lost.

Even for those who do not graduate, the continuation experience is an opportunity for counseling and personal interaction with caring teachers, as opposed to being lost in a system of chaos and overcrowded indifference. Many of the students who don't graduate still move on to productive, contributing lives.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, a plan has been proposed to eliminate the principal and return control of the continuation schools to the comprehensive high school. This move would effectively destroy the continuation school.

Because continuation schools have their own administration, faculty and staff, the school's independence from the regular school is maintained. Removing the principal would weaken this independence. Without a principal, it would be only a matter of time until the larger, overcrowded school reshaped the small school into a mirror of itself, one that reflects an unappealing picture of crowded classrooms and uninterested students.

The principal functions as an administrator, counselor, fund-raiser and sometimes teacher. The principal is the glue that holds the school together. The administrator provides teachers with support that is crucial to the discipline of the students and their success.

Without its principal, the school loses its identity and independence and, realistically, becomes just another overcrowded classroom where at-risk students are warehoused.

One of my students wrote in a journal of the continuation school's importance. He said the school "saved my life."

This student had been a gang member, a drug abuser and a creative pain to the teachers at the regular high school. After his two years at the continuation school, he delivered the valedictorian address at the districtwide graduation exercise for continuation and other option schools held each year in Pacific Palisades. He now is attending college and serving as a reserve Marine.

Continuation schools may not actually save lives, but they certainly turn them around. The LAUSD continuation program is one of the few successful programs in a district that has very little to brag about. Why change it?

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