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Villaraigosa gets a symbolic education victory

New parent center at Gompers Middle is a win for the mayor's Partnership for L.A. Schools, but the fledgling program has had its problems.

February 25, 2009|Howard Blume

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Tuesday unveiled a refurbished parent center on a middle school campus in South Los Angeles to spotlight his fledgling improvement efforts at 10 schools.

The updated parent room at Gompers Middle School was joyfully received, but his overall effort has hit snags as his team struggles to boost student achievement while also including teachers and parents in vital decisions on how to move forward.

Tuesday was all about the successes of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, the nonprofit that has managed, on the mayor's behalf, some of the city's lowest-performing campuses over the last seven months.

"We remember the bathrooms that didn't work, the graffiti all over the school," he told the assembled students, parents, dignitaries and others. "This is a new day."

The event coincided with reelection campaign ads for Tuesday's city primary that tout Villaraigosa's education accomplishments. But it was not until late in his first term that the mayor obtained control of a group of schools -- after an abortive effort to gain authority over the entire Los Angeles Unified School District.

Although state test scores won't be available until late summer, the mayor can point to cleaner campuses, tree plantings, community picnics, school uniforms and a policy to have principals evaluate teachers three hours a day. Operationally, his team had to scramble, quickly hiring seven principals and dealing with 35% staff turnover at Markham Middle School in Watts.

Security concerns at Markham prompted the mayor's team to hire four new guards there, leading to a reduction in campus crime, said Partnership Chief Executive Marshall Tuck.

There has been no increased security at other campuses -- although that element is highlighted in campaign materials.

Tuck asserted that the campuses are, in fact, more secure because they are better managed, with classrooms that are more engaging. To date, he said, the Partnership has not had an opportunity to leverage ties with the city to make the streets around schools safer.

Beyond the 10 schools, consultants first brought in by the Partnership played a key role in developing districtwide school report cards and a pilot data system intended to help teachers track student progress.

But Exhibit A this week was the Gompers parent center, for which the mayor's group has provided two computers, a copy machine, furniture and a 46-inch, high-definition LCD TV with free educational programming -- all new and mostly donated by DirecTV.

"This is a remarkable change," said foster parent Nathaniel Perkins-Ali, who likened the center to a "second home."

The $6,000, plus volunteer labor, for the parent room contrasts with nearly $12 million that the district has spent on the school in recent years from bond funds for re-piping, heating, flooring, sprinklers, roofing, security cameras and more.

In relative terms, Villaraigosa has raised little new money. A much-publicized $50-million donation has to be spread out over 10 years -- and must also pay for the mayor's education team. The Partnership, however, has won greater control for schools over dollars once managed by the school district.

The parent center was more about symbolism than dollars spent.

Leadership teams at these schools, for example, have set goals of getting 50% of parents to participate in at least one activity geared toward student achievement between January and June. They're also pushing parents to sign compacts to encourage their involvement.

"Parent participation was never really linked to student achievement," said Ryan Smith, the Partnership's director of family and community engagement. He said that not one of the schools had a functioning PTA.

But some teachers and parents said their role was limited after a promising beginning. The months leading up to the Partnership hand-over were a high note at the Santee Education Complex south of downtown, said English teacher Jordan Henry. "In our short turbulent history, it was the most optimistic we ever felt," he said. But despite good intentions, once the Partnership gained control, "the collaboration disappeared and it became -- and largely still is -- a top-down system."

One problem arose at Ritter Elementary in Watts, where scores of parents wanted to continue a dual-language Spanish-English program. The Partnership recently agreed to form a task force to tackle the issue.

"Since September, we have been struggling for the reinstatement of the program, and it's taken until now to do something about that," said parent Fanny Trujillo. "They seem to be listening right now, but it took three demonstrations in front of the school."

From the start, the Partnership has had to manage sometimes conflicting goals at its schools. Its leaders profess faith in democratic school governance -- which, like democracy, can be slow and messy.

At the same time, the mayor's team wanted to accomplish a rapid, significant rise in student achievement, and hired assertive administrators who believe they know how to get that done.

Teachers union President A.J. Duffy said he remained committed to working with the Partnership, but "I'm not sure leadership of some of these schools understands that if you really want buy-in from stakeholders, you have to give them a piece of the action. This is not the paradise it has been portrayed as in some quarters."

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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