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Learning Curve

In one parent's eyes, things don't appear so rosy. Her experience is one of reading, writing and rage.

September 07, 2003|Carol Lynn Mithers | Carol Lynn Mithers is a Los Angeles writer.

To be the parent of a child attending Los Angeles Unified schools is to spend countless hours in frantic, furious or anguished phone and schoolyard conversations with other parents. Have you heard about the new math and reading program? Why isn't the air conditioning installed yet? Is X or Y a decent middle school, and how do you get in there? Just how early do you have to get in line to enroll a 5-year-old at the overcrowded local school to avoid having her bused 45 minutes away?

Whatever's changed about this system in recent years, one constant remains: Getting a decent education requires a fight. On one side is an implacable, often incomprehensible, illogical, inept and unreachable bureaucracy; on the other, parents. The educated, savvy and well-networked may prevail, though the effort often brings them to the edge of lunacy. The rest go under.

What, specifically, continues to drive parents mad? For starters, although L.A. does have some top-notch schools, getting into one means either living in an expensive neighborhood or learning to play the game of an elaborate and often arbitrary magnet school system. (Knowledgeable parents, for example, apply to popular magnet schools each year hoping to be rejected. Why? Rejection brings "points" that can be used to give a child an advantage getting into the school the family really wants.) Those not in the know get left in the dust.

Then there's the crowded decrepitude of schools themselves. Under the "No Child Left Behind" law, some 220,000 kids in the LAUSD now qualify for transfer out of their failing schools, but there's nowhere for them to go. Though the district is moving forward with its ambitious building program, relief is years away. Even when the current round of construction is done, many high schools will have to retain year-round, multiple-track schedules, which put some kids on vacation at times when there are few camp or summer school programs for them, deprive others of the chance for summer internships or jobs and eliminate access to some AP classes. In East L.A., where Garfield and Roosevelt high schools stagger under student loads of 5,000 students each -- among the biggest in the nation -- plans are still not beyond the hearings stage.

Existing schools are being renovated, but often even the smallest, no-brainer improvements are beyond reach. At my daughter's un-air-conditioned hillside campus, for instance, a request that the district buy screens for classroom windows so the kids wouldn't have to choose between sweltering and swarms of gnats was turned down -- too expensive. Decisions like this are maddening enough, but they're made unendurable by the sense that one reason so much is unaffordable is that the district pays so extravagantly for the work it does have done. Its estimate for one window air conditioner in a classroom bungalow at my daughter's school was $27,000; a parent in the business said he could have done the job for $10,000 and still turned a hefty profit. (The work never got done -- too expensive.) The price of a small patio extension at an inner-city elementary school was put at $85,000. (The work never ... you get the picture.)

Then there are those times when money is simply thrown away. Some make the news: Two years ago, we learned that the district had wasted $326,000 in lease payments for an ultimately unusable building for teenage mothers. One year ago came the revelation that private bathrooms for Supt. Roy Romer and school board members at the new district offices would cost $100,000. In March came word that county prosecutors were investigating whether the LAUSD had overpaid for the headquarters building itself -- which cost $74.5 million and turned out to require tens of millions more in repairs and renovations. And, in June, we heard that the contract of district general counsel Harold J. Kwalwasser wasn't being renewed and that his severance included up to 18 months of salary -- $342,000.

More often, however, the financial disaster is small and local. At one high school, crews arrived to make classrooms "earthquake proof" by attaching furniture in place with plastic adhesive strips; the problem was that this was a campus where teachers regularly rotated classrooms and had to move the furniture. When Community Magnet elementary left its midcity location in the fall of 2002, it left behind a nearly new playground structure worth $25,000. The old campus was being demolished and rebuilt as a sports center. Though the district's project manager for the job was told repeatedly -- and for months -- that Community Magnet wanted the structure and had found someone willing to move and reinstall it, he never told the demolition contractor. Nor did he find out whether any other LAUSD campus wanted the structure. Finally, with demolition scheduled to take place, the contractor donated the structure to a private Christian school in Orange County.

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