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Waiting for 'The Envelope, Please'

Garden Grove schools are again in the running for the Broad Foundation education prize, a national recognition.

September 19, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Words meant little to Curtis Hampton when he entered fifth grade last year. He could pronounce them, but he struggled to comprehend their meaning. Tests confirmed suspicions that his language skills lagged two years behind his peers.

In many school districts, Curtis would have landed -- and perhaps failed -- in a class with students of varying skills. But at Garden Grove Unified School District, the 11-year-old was enrolled in an innovative intervention program that grouped him with similar students for two hours of intense language instruction every morning.

For three years, such efforts have put Garden Grove into contention for the Broad Foundation education prize, one of the nation's largest public education awards, given annually to a high-performing urban school district.

The Los Angeles-based foundation will announce this year's winner Monday.

As is the case with scores of other large school systems eligible for the award, Garden Grove's campuses are filled with poor and immigrant students with limited English skills. Unlike many, the Orange County district is steadily making progress.

Billionaire Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad started the award in 2002 to counter widespread negative impressions of schools in American cities.

"The public is down on public education, especially in urban areas," Broad said. "I said, 'Wait a minute. There are districts out there that are succeeding, and we need to create something that recognizes them.' "

The winning district receives $500,000 to help college-bound graduates pay tuition, while four finalist districts are each awarded $125,000 for scholarships.

Equally important, Broad said, is the opportunity for underperforming districts to emulate the finalists.

Such philanthropic efforts are certainly worthy, but their effect is questionable, said Guilbert Hentschke, a USC professor researching the impact of private philanthropy on public education.

The Broad prize, Hentschke said, "touches on a dilemma: Can what one district does transfer to another district? It is not clear to me that this is going to make a big change."

To be eligible for the Broad prize, districts must serve at least 35,000 urban students in grades kindergarten through 12. At least 40% of the students must be poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-cost meals at school and an equal number must be minorities.

Nationwide, 106 districts qualified, including Los Angeles Unified and 14 other California districts.

After the group was narrowed by state test scores, graduation rates and demographics, a panel of education experts selected Garden Grove, Boston Public Schools and districts in Houston, Texas, Charlotte, N.C., and Norfolk, Va.

As in the previous two years, the data established Garden Grove as a top district, foundation officials said.

Nearly all of its 66 schools met or exceeded performance targets mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind education law.

The number of students reading and performing math at grade level has increased steadily over three years, and the district also has closed the performance gap between white students and the district's large Latino and Vietnamese populations to levels far below state averages.

More than three-quarters of each senior class graduate.

Such numbers, said Tim DeRoche, a consultant to the Broad Foundation, are remarkable in a district with more than half of its 50,000 students designated as English-learners and nearly 60% living in poverty.

"Garden Grove's numbers are incredibly impressive when compared to [similar districts]," DeRoche said.

"We were really curious to go down there to see what they were doing."

Researchers and education experts visited the five districts, interviewing administrators, teachers and students, and pored over internal performance data.

In each district, foundation officials found stable, veteran leadership that created "a rare environment where blame is not assigned ... and where there is the trust to discuss deficiencies when they are found," DeRoche said.

Garden Grove teachers and principals applauded Laura Schwalm who, before becoming superintendent in 1999, taught and held several other positions in the district for more than 25 years.

"She'll always remember what it was like to be in the trenches," said teacher Darilyn DeMaria.

Another common denominator among the finalists, Broad officials said, was the willingness of teachers to change old teaching habits in favor of lesson plans based on data from student testing and state-mandated academic standards.

Garden Grove teachers, DeRoche said, embraced these often-controversial reforms to an unusual degree.

He said he watched as teachers and principals assessed student test data to identify ineffective teaching strategies.

Broad officials also highlighted the district's successful strategy in helping students like Curtis.

Rigorous selection of new teachers, generous salaries and benefits, lean administrative overhead, and an unusually cooperative relationship between district leaders and the teachers union have also contributed to the district's success, DeRoche and teachers said.

After two years of being among the finalists, district teachers and officials say they hope to win the grand prize Monday.

But the ultimate reward, they say, is seeing progress in students like Curtis, who now is reading on par with his sixth-grade peers.

More challenges remain. In primary grades last year, for example, between 20% and 35% of students tested "below basic" or "far below basic" on state English tests.

"Winning or not winning isn't going to make one bit of difference in what we do," said Marilyn Paull, principal at Peters Elementary, which Curtis attends. "We won't be happy until every kid is succeeding."

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