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Mayor has high hopes for schools

Villaraigosa sets goals for academic gains at the 10 campuses under his stewardship.

September 03, 2008|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vowed to double the rate of academic improvement at schools under his stewardship in benchmarks announced Tuesday.

The marching orders apply to the 10 schools that make up the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, Villaraigosa's high-stakes effort to improve some of the city's lowest-achieving campuses. The partnership assumed leadership of the schools July 1.

Villaraigosa unveiled his goals before 300 teachers, administrators, parents and students gathered in the auditorium of Markham Middle School in Watts.

"Judge me by what we do in these schools," the mayor said. "We're giving specific, specific goals for every year."

In the past, Villaraigosa repeatedly slammed the school district for moving too slowly to improve schools.

The targets he set Tuesday would outpace the annual gains made by most California schools, but he did not promise the rapid pace of change he had suggested was possible in the past.

On the state's Academic Performance Index, Villaraigosa called for each partnership school to improve its overall score this year by about 30 points, or about twice the rate of improvement at these campuses in recent years -- although Markham's score actually declined last year.

The state target for Markham this year is a 14-point rise. (State goals apply not only to an entire school but also to each group of students there, including English learners and the disabled.)

The mayor also said the number of students at his schools who score "proficient" or "advanced" on the state tests should increase by five percentage points this year in English and four percentage points in math.

Such gains would typically be hailed in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where scores have inched up more slowly.

"I applaud the mayor for coming out and establishing a very respectful set of goals and standards," said Omar Del Cueto, executive director of the district's iDesign Schools Division, which oversees the partnership's five-year contract.

But even at the mayor's pace, Markham would not hit the state's target academic performance score of 800 for 10 years, well beyond the federal government's current deadlines for sweeping school improvement.

One iDesign school, with different outside partners, is ahead of the mayor: West Adams Preparatory High School has pledged to hit the state's target score in five years.

If the mayor's schools don't meet their goals, the district could dissolve the agreement. The partnership, in turn, working with L.A. Unified, could remove underperforming principals.

And most incumbent principals didn't wait around; new principals have started at seven of the eight schools that open today. (Two year-round schools began July 1.)

The new principals have been on the job only since Aug. 18, making for a particularly challenging start to the school year at Markham, where 26 of 89 teachers also are new, most with one to four years of experience.

Markham, in particular, is coming off an especially difficult year. In spring, Assistant Principal Steve Thomas Rooney was arrested on suspicion of molesting two students. Parents later learned he'd been suspected of having sex with a minor during a previous school assignment.

And just as the mayor's team began its work at Markham, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo shelved a popular school-safety initiative that was widely credited with improving the campus climate, the Rooney episode notwithstanding. The partnership wanted the program to remain, but Delgadillo's office said its limited resources should serve schools not benefiting from the mayor's fundraising prowess.

In his comments Tuesday, Villaraigosa spoke of $3 million secured for his schools from the "district bureaucracy." This re-assignment of funds is part of a larger effort to benefit all 20 iDesign schools that grew out of grants from the Gates Foundation and the Dell Foundation.

For the partnership specifically, Villaraigosa's team has landed much more than $50 million in long-term commitments.

"Some of this is going to take money," Villaraigosa said. "And we've got to find it. And that's going to be my job."

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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