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Some Lessons in Frustration

L.A.'s high schools struggle to divide crowded campuses into small learning centers. Critics cite a lack of district support.

September 25, 2005|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

It was meant to be the blueprint of the future in a city pockmarked with failing, old-style high schools.

The gleaming new South Los Angeles campus would be divided into five small schools within the school. Students would choose one based on their interests and would receive personal attention from teachers. Test scores would improve.

Things, however, have not gone according to plan.

Since the campus opened in July on the old Santee Dairy site, its teachers and administrators have received little or no training in how to run the so-called small learning communities. Staffing shortages have caused students and teachers to bounce among the groups, blurring their supposedly separate identities. Fights and other discipline problems have been common.

"Ideally, everyone should already know what it means to be in a small learning community," said Principal Brenda Morton. "But the district wanted us to jump right into this. I just wish we had more time to get ready."

The Los Angeles Unified School District, under pressure to reverse years of low graduation rates and student achievement, has turned to a long-term reform effort aimed at dividing its crowded high schools into smaller, semi-autonomous groups.

But after years of focus on elementary school reform and a massive building program, the district is left scrambling to catch up with other urban districts.

An uneven pace of change in Los Angeles, critics say, is being followed by a poorly defined strategy tightly controlled by a reluctant district leadership. The result, they say, is teachers and principals without the autonomy, resources and support needed to carry out the move toward the smaller learning clusters.

Supt. Roy Romer is unapologetic about the tight grip he has maintained on the reform plan. Caution, he believes, is needed because there are dangers to granting wide-ranging freedom to school leaders in such a large, troubled district.

"I know we've got to make this work. But it's kind of like designing the train as it's going down the track," Romer said. "That concerns me very much, because we're going to make mistakes.... I'm not going to kid anyone that we're on a bumpy ride, but it's the only ride we can take."

In recent decades, major demographic shifts in Los Angeles and other cities have pushed the limits of the traditional high school model. Enrollment at most Los Angeles campuses has swelled to between 2,500 and 5,000 students, many of whom are learning English as a second language.

Teachers, who typically see 175 to 200 faces each day, struggle to remember names, let alone provide personal attention.

"It's the factory model to a T," said Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor who has extensively studied the concept of smaller learning centers. "The students come into class in a large group, teachers stamp them with a lesson, and then they move on."

The strain has taken its toll on learning. At 27 of the district's 49 comprehensive, or traditional, high schools, fewer than a quarter of the students showed proficiency on state English exams.

State and federal laws are increasing the pressure to improve high schools. The district is required to restructure 19 high schools that have consistently failed to meet performance targets under the federal No Child Left Behind law. And, this year, students are required to pass a mandatory high school exit exam to graduate.

The district is banking on its latest reform. Small learning communities are typically theme- or career-based programs aimed at making school more relevant to teenagers. Classes are clustered along hallways or in separate buildings to keep the students together. The cadre of teachers is expected to meet regularly to link lesson plans across departments and intervene with struggling students. Administrators and teachers have more say than they do in traditional schools over how money is spent.

Although learning communities are not very different from charter schools -- which are independently run, publicly funded smaller campuses -- the idea is a departure for the nation's second-largest school district, which serves about 156,000 high school students.

But with little coordination or oversight from the district's central administration, school principals in recent years have been largely left to experiment on their own. The reform program has developed sporadically into a haphazard patchwork in which most of the district's high schools have only partly converted -- some in name only -- and 18 haven't started yet.

"There is no time for us to be pointing fingers at why we're not getting the job done," said Marlene Canter, school board president. "There is no reason for our children to wait, and they have been waiting."

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