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School Takeover Views Mixed

Parents of students in poor areas appear more eager for the L.A. mayor to take charge than those in more affluent neighborhoods.

April 23, 2006|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

One day last week, at 2:39 p.m., a horn signifying the end of another day at Jordan High School echoed across Watts, past the carcasses of trucks in a defunct warehouse, across a vacant lot littered with abandoned sofas, past the tired-looking man selling oranges on the corner.

Nearly 2,000 students tumbled out, virtually all of them poor and dark-skinned. Among them were the faces of a school doing its best with the hand it's been dealt: the boy who tests water quality in a nearby creek as part of an urban ecology project, the girl with college plans and a shy smile carrying a dog-eared literature textbook.

But among them too were reminders that throughout Los Angeles, the hallmarks of public education are often high dropout rates and pitiful test scores. A police officer asked one boy why he had ditched school earlier that week; the boy just shrugged. Another student, no more than 4 1/2 feet tall, exited with a notebook under his arm and a T-shirt that read: "I'm rich, Bitch."

If Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is going to assemble the political will to seize control of public schools, it's likely to start here, in the city's lower-income communities.

In wealthier neighborhoods and at higher-performing schools, interviews with parents, students and educators reveal a response to Villaraigosa's plan that is tempered and skeptical, even, at some schools, hostile. There, the plan is often seen as excessive, a power grab, the replacement of a bloated bureaucracy with an even bigger one.

"I think we're on the right track," said Linda Ross, president of the 31st District Parent Teacher Student Assn. in the San Fernando Valley. "I don't think that we need to make such a radical move."

In the halls of power too -- in the teachers union, where there are fears that Villaraigosa would become too powerful, and in the offices of the Los Angeles Board of Education, where administrators say they have made significant gains in recent years -- the mayor's plan has been assailed as downright undemocratic.

But at some of the area's worst schools -- in South and East L.A., in the Boyle Heights neighborhood where the mayor was born -- the plan has been met, if not with a firm endorsement, with a chorus of: "Why not?"

"We need to try something," said Deborah Anderson, 39, a South Los Angeles resident. "These schools are failing us."

Anderson goes to work each day, dropping off and picking up students at Jordan High, a hulking fortress on East 103rd Street where more than 2,300 students are enrolled. In 2004-05, there were 743 suspensions there, and the state has given Jordan its lowest ranking -- a 1 on a scale of 1 to 10 -- when comparing its academic performance to that of other schools in the state.

Anderson's daughter, 8-year-old Whisper, attends nearby 99th Street Elementary School.

Five decades after the U.S. Supreme Court banned racial segregation in public schools, 99th Street has not had a white student in at least five years, according to district statistics.

Nineteen percent of its students met the "proficient" or "advanced" levels in the California Standards English-language arts test last year -- about half of the state average, though the state gave the school's academic performance a rating of 7 out of 10 in 2004 when compared with other schools with similar demographics.

Even as her grades have remained decent, Whisper has become increasingly recalcitrant. She frequently lashes out in anger, Anderson said, and sometimes just walks out of school when she "doesn't want to listen anymore." For that, Anderson said she lays the blame squarely at the feet of the school district, which she said is widely viewed in her neighborhood as slack and out of touch.

"I was raised old-fashioned, where you go to school to learn, not to play," she said. "They need more of that today. I want some tough love back in these schools."

On Tuesday, in his first State of the City address, Villaraigosa announced that he would ask the state Legislature for the right to take the helm of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which includes more than 850 campuses and 727,000 students.

If the proposal were approved -- by no means a sure thing -- he would become the dominant force on a "council of mayors" that would oversee the school district, hire and fire the superintendent, and help oversee the district's $13-billion total budget.

In poor neighborhoods, many parents say school administrators have taken the easy way out by giving up on their children, by declaring students unable to learn and unsuited for college. As a result, perhaps, many of the details of Villaraigosa's proposal have resonated there.

At Jordan High, students even applauded the mayor's proposal to require uniforms. Several said percolating tension on campus can boil over just because a student arrives with a piece of white gold jewelry or a new pair of Air Jordan sneakers.

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