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First, hire the best teachers

New schools are gorgeous, but who's in the classroom matters more

July 20, 2010|Sandy Banks

When you're dueling with mogul Donald Trump over real estate, you'd better prepare to empty your wallet. That helps explain the $578-million price tag on Los Angeles Unified's most recent school construction project.

District officials spent 20 years battling Trump, conservationists and neighborhood groups to build a school complex on the site of the famed Ambassador Hotel. A school construction project that began with a $50-million outlay became one of the most ambitious in the country, with three campuses on the site.

But that's nothing new for L.A. Unified. When it comes to building schools at least, the district is tenacious.

A few miles away stands the $400-million Roybal Learning Center, built to relieve overcrowding at nearby Belmont. Roybal was also a 20-year project. Many districts would have given up, but L.A. Unified was undeterred by discoveries of an earthquake fault, methane gas and toxic soil beneath its site.

Remedying those problems made Roybal the most expensive public high school in the nation, and it was six blocks from the nation's second-most expensive school.

Second place goes to L.A. Unified's $232-million arts high school downtown. It doesn't have a formal name or a final enrollment plan, and it's on its second principal in two years. But it does have floor-to-ceiling windows, an outdoor atrium and three dance studios with sprung maple flooring.

Three "world-class" campuses in one struggling school system. If only the district would be so dogged about staffing them with world class teachers.

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Don't get me wrong. I think it's great that inner-city students are finally getting new buildings. I spent years as an education reporter watching aging campuses decay, as children were bused to far-flung neighborhoods or crammed in on year-round schedules.

It's hard to focus on learning when loose ceiling tiles dangle above your head or you can't hear the teacher over a portable fan's din. These new campuses send a message, with their spacious art studios and high-tech labs: Your education matters. You are worth the best.

But a building doesn't drive academic progress. New campuses are sprouting like weeds in parts of Los Angeles where student test scores are still stuck in the mud.

It's no secret that the most important factor in student success is an excellent teacher. And research shows that exceptional teachers are especially important for low-income students since poverty can undermine educational efforts.

Yet inner-city schools are top-heavy with instructional rookies. Union rules that let teachers choose schools by seniority mean the lowest-performing schools face an endless stream of new teachers and perpetual vacancies.

Many teachers begin their careers in schools in poor neighborhoods but transfer closer to home after a few years. Others find the work so hard, they just leave teaching. Some are overwhelmed by the social problems they see — foster care, transiency, gang feuds, parental neglect. And it's hard not to get worn down by the professional neglect of inept administrators and unhappy colleagues.

Urban schools don't need more trendy reforms or flashy buildings. They need strong, well-trained teachers. Los Angeles Unified needs to get serious about finding, courting and keeping them. That will mean paying higher salaries to good teachers willing to work in more challenging communities, just as the district does to attract math and science teachers.

Call it "incentivizing," as the education experts do, or "combat pay," as they do in the trenches. It's more than dangling money to lure teachers in. It's a way to reward the very best teachers, financially and professionally.

The bonuses ought to be offered only to teachers with proven track records of success and continued only as long as their students improve. Experiments in some districts have failed; the money was too small or the criteria too loose.

It's hard to do right — and it would be expensive. But the feds are tracking a project in Houston, offering more money to some of the city's strongest teachers for working in hard-to-staff schools. Los Angeles ought to pay close attention.

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Maybe all these shiny new buildings will attract teachers, what with their underground parking, lesson-preparation centers and lunchrooms with stone ovens for making pizza. After all, studies of new teachers who leave the profession suggest that they do so almost as much because of inadequate facilities as because of large class sizes.

Teachers rarely cite problems with students when they leave the classroom. It's unsupportive bureaucrats, stifling rules — the things that get between them and the kids.

And talk to the students who beat the odds, who rise from tough circumstances and head to college. They won't thank the skylights or the curving stairwells or the pricey garage. They'll tell you about the teachers who turned them on to poetry, demystified geometry, made history come alive.

Shouldn't every young person get a turn with a teacher who can light a spark like that?

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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