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State, U.S. disagree on progress at some L.A. schools

Federal standards deem dozens of campuses to still be 'failing,' making them eligible for takeover under a new L.A. Unified policy. State evaluations show major improvements at some of those campuses.

September 16, 2009|Howard Blume

Thirty-nine Los Angeles schools -- a group larger than the entire Glendale school system -- identified as "failing" under federal standards became eligible Tuesday for takeover under a recent Board of Education policy.

These schools bring the number of Los Angeles Unified School District campuses eligible for takeover to 252. Bidders from inside or outside the nation's second-largest school system could submit proposals to run such schools. The bidding process also applies to 51 new schools set to open over the next four years.

Under the policy adopted last month, existing schools become eligible for takeover when they reach their third year in "Program Improvement." A school receives this label after persistently failing a federal standard, called Adequate Yearly Progress, that measures whether a school has the required percentage of proficient students. This percentage is rising sharply every year, and, as a result, more schools are annually judged as failing.

The state's evaluation system, by contrast, shows broad, incremental improvement both statewide and locally, with 42% of California schools scoring at or above the target of 800 on the Academic Performance Index, up six percentage points from last year. The API rates schools on a scale of 200 to 1,000; if all students at a school were proficient, its score would be 875.

The state yardstick suggests that even within beleaguered L.A. Unified, there are places where labeling campuses as failures may not tell the whole story:

* Venice High became eligible for takeover under the board policy. It fell short on two of 18 federal targets: Its math scores were too low for Latino students and English learners. And yet the school registered a second consecutive year of overall improvement by more than 10 points on the state's index.

* Belmont High, west of downtown, remained mired with the lowest federal ranking. It missed seven of 18 federal targets -- evidence that the school has far to go. Yet its API rose 16 points last year and a massive 78 points this year.

* 112th Street Elementary in Watts gained 126 points over three years, blowing past state-issued improvement targets totaling 23 points. The school missed only one of 21 goals this year but its federal rating remains at the bottom.

A closer look reveals that, over five years, 112th Street has cut in half the number of fifth-graders who score in the lowest two levels in math and English. And it's doubled the number of fifth-graders who score proficient or advanced in those subjects. Principal Brenda Manuel, entering her sixth year, makes no excuses for not keeping up with the rising federal standard. "Every child needs to be at grade level and doing well," she said. "When the bar goes higher, our job is to try to get ourselves to go higher."

Monday morning, she called in fourth-graders with low standardized test scores and asked if they wanted help. "They said yes, and I said, 'We're going to help you.' " These efforts will include Saturday school and meetings with parents.

"My children can tell you what their scores are," she said. "They'll tell you, 'I'm far below basic, but not for long.' "

L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said in an interview that he has no intention of turning over a rapidly improving school to anyone and will personally see to it that their progress continues.

Six L.A. Unified schools improved so much that they officially shed their "failed" federal status: 122nd Street, Kingsley, Montara, Vernon City and White elementary schools and Metropolitan Continuation, an alternative school for students who transfer from a comprehensive high school. These schools hit all federal achievement targets -- despite the rising bar -- for two consecutive years.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

Times data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this story.

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