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The Nation

In Carson, Teachers Say No Thanks to Grant

April 17, 2006|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

In the cash-strapped world of urban public high schools, million-dollar gifts -- even ones with strings attached -- walk in the door about as often as star athletes with perfect SAT scores.

Even less common is for one to be turned down.

But that is what happened at Carson High School this year, when teachers voted down a highly touted reform program that came with a $1.5-million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Depending on who's asked, it was either a case study of union power run amok or of high-handed, top-down management.

Almost certainly, it was an example of how hard it can be to bring about reform in a school system as large, complex and politically stratified as the Los Angeles Unified School District.

At first blush, it seemed like a perfect fit. Last year, the Gates Foundation, which has become a major philanthropic force in public education, was looking for schools in the Los Angeles district to adopt the Talent Development model of school reform. Talent Development, created by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, had shown strong promise at reducing dropout rates and raising student achievement at schools in Philadelphia, Boston, Louisiana and elsewhere.

The foundation had invested mostly in other school districts, and Los Angeles Unified officials were growing eager for its help. Gates was willing to back the program with $3 million at two schools.

Talent Development officials met with district administrators last year, looked at the landscape, and thought Carson and Jordan High were especially ripe for their program. Jordan, one of the lowest-performing schools in the district, was more in line with the kind of school that Talent Development was looking for. "Gates ... wants a focus on those schools that are in the most trouble," said Tara Madden, the Western regional coordinator for Talent Development.

Carson students weren't doing a lot better, at least judging by standardized test scores. In the Academic Performance Index, which ranks schools from one to 10 (with 10 being the best), Jordan was a one and Carson was a two. Jordan students fared a little better at math. But a higher percentage of Carson's students were graduating, and a significant percentage of those were going to college.

Still, Doug Weybright, then principal of Carson High, believed the school should be doing much, much better, and had been looking for outside help to boost his struggling students.

"We felt like this [Talent Development program] was our next logical step," recalled Weybright, who has since been promoted to a district administrative job. "If it came with additional resources, it would be the right way to go. A million dollars a year -- that's good money."

Each year, he said, the school would begin with about 1,200 ninth-graders and wind up with a graduating class of around 550. Among those were students going to the University of California and to Ivy League schools. But the majority were not making it.

"Now, of those kids who did not get through, most of them were African American or Latino or Pacific Islander," Weybright said. "I think our job as an educational institution is to get kids through our institution, to graduate them.... If we were making laptop computers and we're only selling 50% of them, we're out of business."

By all accounts, Jordan's problems were worse. For years it was on the list of the poorest performing schools in the district, both for its failing test scores and dismal graduation rate. But Madden said the school's younger teaching staff -- who were more open to change -- were eager for reform programs aimed at helping their students.

The concept of Talent Development rests largely on two pillars. One is a special ninth-grade "academy" that focuses extra attention on freshmen, who are at the highest risk of dropping out. Once students make it to 10th grade, the odds are strong that they will graduate.

The other pillar involves a different way of scheduling classes. Known as the "four-by-four block schedule," it breaks the school year into quarters, and the school day into four 90-minute classes. The idea is to make each course more intensive, collapsing a semester's work into 10 weeks. It also gives students the opportunity to take more courses over a school year -- 16, compared with 12 in a typical schedule. If a student flunks a class, there are more opportunities to make it up.

John Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley adopted the four-by-four schedule in 2004, along with other aspects of the Talent Development program. Last June, 92% of its ninth-graders had enough credits to move up to 10th grade, about one-third more than the previous year.

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