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L.A. District Thinks Small in Reform

Four national groups will help create modest-sized campuses at seven schools. The Gates Foundation will pay most of the cost.

November 03, 2005|Joel Rubin and Jean Merl | Times Staff Writers

In its continuing effort to improve low-performing, overcrowded high schools, Los Angeles school district officials have struck agreements with four national organizations to help create smaller, more manageable campuses. The programs will be largely paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The efforts at seven schools are seen as narrow but crucial test cases in a district plagued by low graduation rates and poor student performance at its massive high schools. If they're successful, Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer said, he hopes to expand the programs into a handful more campuses in coming years and to use ideas from them at many others.

"We have got to improve our high schools," said Romer, who will announce the collaboration at a news conference today. "We can't take on every need, everywhere, immediately. We're going to get there.... This is an important step."

Under terms of the agreements, two of the groups each will train faculty at two of the district's underperforming schools on how to teach within so-called small learning communities. The district has committed to converting all of its high schools into smaller, more personalized programs.

Another organization will open autonomous schools on larger campuses. The fourth group will help architects design new schools and renovate existing campuses around the concept of creating smaller clusters of classes and students.

The four outside groups have received a total of about $8.5 million from the Gates Foundation to pay for much of their work. The district will cover additional costs.

In recent months, Romer has endured criticism from some school board members, education experts and local politicians for not pushing more aggressively to reform high schools. Until he did, many said, the Gates Foundation would not lend its support as it has to several other urban districts.

Gates Foundation officials, however, said Romer has been right to cautiously choose programs with track records and to wait until the district was prepared for the reforms. A massive school construction project aimed at ending severe overcrowding and a plan to impose a rigorous, college-prep curriculum on all students, they said, were necessary precursors.

"Urban districts throughout this country are shot full of holes with silver bullets," said Steve Seleznow, a program director for the Gates Foundation. "Where innovation fails, it is because there is no foundation built where it can have a chance to succeed. [Romer] has asked, 'What are the building blocks I need to get into place before making changes?' "

How smoothly the district will be able to implement the programs remains uncertain. Linda Guthrie, a vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said teachers union leaders were upset over the use of the outside programs and what she said was the district's "top-down" approach to reforms at some campuses.

"When you bring in a packaged program, you basically are saying that programs teach children instead of teachers, and I have a problem with that," Guthrie said.

School board member David Tokofsky also has criticized the reform effort -- for not starting in middle-school grades.

But Romer has turned his focus to high schools and expects most of the programs to begin next fall. Also as part of the broad effort, he recently called for outside charter operators to open their independently run schools near some of the district's lowest-performing campuses.

Only about 15,000 students will attend the schools using the new programs -- a fraction of the district's roughly 155,000 high schoolers.

"It's hard to justify the time it takes to make these changes, especially when you see the current conditions," Seleznow said. "But if you go too far, too fast, with capacity that is limited, it's a recipe for disaster."

Education experts and Los Angeles district officials have said it would take from 5 to 10 years to completely overhaul the district's 52 traditional high schools. The new Gates-funded programs include the Talent Development High School model, designed at Johns Hopkins University in the mid-1990s. Next fall, freshmen at Jordan High in Watts and Carson High in Carson will be separated from students in other grades and placed in self-contained groups of about 150 students each. The strategy is at the center of the Talent Development program.

The following year, older students will choose one of several career-themed clusters.

A recent independent study of Talent Development's schools in Philadelphia showed significant increases in the number of students passing classes and earning enough credits to move on to the next grade.

Similarly, starting next fall, students at Washington Preparatory and Fremont High in South Los Angeles will be separated into small, largely independent groups as part of the First Things First program, developed a decade ago by the New Jersey-based Institute for Research and Reform in Education.

The same group of teachers will stay with the students for four years, and each student will be assigned to a faculty "advocate" who will keep tabs on the student's progress and communicate with family members.

"It's not rocket science; it's basic good practice in education," said Steve Gering, a deputy superintendent in the Kansas City, Kan., school district, which has used First Things First since 1997 in all of its schools and saw increases in graduation rates and test scores.

Also, by 2008, New Tech Foundation, a Napa Valley-based group, plans to open autonomous, 400-student schools on the campus of Jordan and three other schools.

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