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Bob Sipchen / SCHOOL ME

Credit Romer for a Job Well Begun

September 04, 2006|Bob Sipchen

Handsome new tennis courts and a worn-out, old baseball field remind me of wannabe schools boss Antonio Villaraigosa and lame-duck schools Supt. Roy Romer -- and not in the order you might expect.

Romer, the 77-year-old former governor of Colorado, comes to mind as I stand in the quad at Manual Arts High, where Principal Hugo Pedroza is proudly pointing out the spiffy new courts the district built for his Central L.A. school.

"The blacktop was all cracked and broken," he says, making a cockeyed face as his hands shoot out at all angles. "You never knew which way the ball would bounce."

Manual Arts' slick new rubberized courts symbolize Romer's diligent efforts to break through the bureaucracy and politics that aligned against him six years ago. Finally, he is beginning to level the academic playing field. And I don't think the mayor should take credit for accomplishments that aren't his.

It's the day after Villaraigosa, with the help of his pals in Sacramento, won a measure of control over the sprawling Los Angeles Unified mega-district. It's also the first day of school for many of the students attending campuses so overcrowded that the district cut 17 days of education and put students on disjointed year-round schedules.

I'm spending it visiting a couple of the high schools among those rumored to be the ones the mayor might take over as part of the three "clusters" of low-performing campuses he'll use to demonstrate how to save the district's students from a lousy education.

If Pedroza is waiting in desperation for Villaraigosa and his edu-commando rescue team to rappel onto the campus from city helicopters, he doesn't let it show. He leads me into a biology lab, and says proudly that the district is about to refurbish it and the other science classrooms.

In another part of the cramped campus, he notes that the school is already broken into theme-oriented "small learning communities" designed to let teachers keep closer track of their charges.

We barge into one devoted to finance.

"How many of you did internships this summer?" Pedroza asks. About half the students shoot up their hands.

"How many of you spent the summer playing video games?" I ask. No hands go up.

If Villaraigosa had been elected mayor the first time he ran, in 2002, his portrayal of the district as a catastrophe would have been apt. In the interim, however, Romer started building 160 schools, and they're already beginning to absorb bodies. Meanwhile, students who have benefited from Romer's emphasis on improved elementary teaching are moving into higher grades. They'll be lifting the high school test scores and graduation rates at schools like Manual Arts by the time the mayor starts running for governor.

Truth is, the district that Villaraigosa just snagged is no longer a catastrophe, and he shouldn't get credit for improvements that were already lumbering along.

Which is not to say that it's not still a wreck, with plenty of legitimate glory there for the taking if the mayor follows his best instincts and wages the hard, probably heroic fight required to keep the momentum going.

Theodore Roosevelt High, across town in Boyle Heights, is a good case in point -- and an even likelier school for the mayor to take over, seeing that, three decades back, he graduated from Roosevelt after getting kicked out of a Catholic school.

Like Manual Arts, the Roosevelt campus is clean and graffiti-free. Hyper-peppy cheerleaders bound through the quad, the centerpiece of which is a cardinal-and-gold gazebo accented with rosebushes and framed by shaded lawns. Students say they like their teachers.

But Roosevelt, like Manual Arts, is crowded to the point of claustrophobia. All but a few of its 5,100 students are Latino. Many struggle with English. When the state released test scores last week, Roosevelt and Manual Arts again took a beating. Neither met federal No Child Left Behind Act standards of improvement, remaining stuck near the bottom of statewide rankings. Neither came within 20 percentage points of the state's 77% average rate for passing the high school exit exam.

Roosevelt's assistant principal, Leo Gonzales Jr., is largely optimistic about the school and its students as he walks me around the well-maintained campus. But he also notes that the school's ancient air conditioners kept blinking out all summer, that some of the roofs leak, that the students' hardworking parents often can't risk taking time to meet with teachers and that though the school is safe, gang influences hover just outside the school gates.

Which brings me to Villaraigosa.

In one corner of the Roosevelt campus, Gonzales points through sagging chain-link to a scabby brown patch of turf. It's supposed to be a baseball field. But it has been allowed to degenerate into an ankle-twisting eyesore and a symbol, to me at least, of the pervasive problems that still await the mayor as he wades into a political and bureaucratic quagmire that has brought down so many reformers.

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