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Bureaucrats buckle, and two L.A. schools will get makeovers

L.A. Unified at first rejected the offer of the new TV show "School Pride," which is to premiere in the fall.

June 06, 2010|Steve Lopez
  • One of the schools that leapt at a chance for a makeover was the Mid-City magnet known as LACES — Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies.
One of the schools that leapt at a chance for a makeover was the Mid-City magnet… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

The offer was to refurbish a couple of schools in L.A. Unified. Whatever they needed: new paint, landscaping, repairs, playgrounds.

For free.

Can you guess where this is headed?

Exactly. The offer hit a bureaucratic thicket.

Against all odds, this story ends well. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The offer came from the producers of a new TV show, slated to premiere this September on NBC, called "School Pride." One of the show's creators also produced " Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," in which a team of pros shows up to turn a dreary home into a showcase.

When the show's producers put out feelers, schools and school districts around the country begged to be chosen for the program. This weekend, the show's crew is in Baton Rouge, La., where an elementary school is getting the spit-and-polish treatment.

In L.A., one of the schools that leapt at a chance for a makeover was the Mid-City magnet known as LACES — Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. Based on the enthusiasm of parents and faculty, the campus was visited by the "School Pride" crew.

"It's such an amazing school, and the whole place is falling down around them," said Jennifer Gross, the mother of two LACES students. "It looks like you're going to prison when you go in there."

I took a tour on Friday and have to say I've been on campuses that looked worse. But as Principal Margaret Kim pointed out, the outdoor quad is scrubby, the auditorium and arts rooms are dreary, and tiles have fallen from the ceiling in the nutrition and cooking classroom, where teacher Truett Griffin was ecstatic about the possibility of an upgrade.

"They came in and I said, 'Oh, my God, I'm so happy you're here,' " said Griffin.

LACES is slated for a $15-million renovation thanks to a 2008 bond measure approved by voters, but not until 2015, long after many current students will have graduated. Across town in Boyle Heights, Hollenbeck Middle School was also a serious contender for a makeover.

"School Pride's" executive producer, Denise Cramsey, and Jacob Soboroff, one of the on-air personalities, met with L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines and his staff and made their best pitch, then got an e-mail Wednesday from Cortines. It began:

"I'm writing to thank you for reaching out to Los Angeles Unified School District and inviting our participation in 'School Pride,' but I must decline your invitation."

But of course. Fix up a couple of schools at no cost, unite volunteers and perhaps build lasting relationships with corporate sponsors?

No thanks. We're LAUSD.

"We are concerned that the work and products donated may be costly to repair and maintain since we will have little control over the quality and they are not being guaranteed," Cortines went on. "Furthermore we would be unable to provide the staffing and resources required to provide the requested 24-hour access to the schools to perform this work."

What's that mean? They can't get a security guard over to the campus with a flashlight and set of keys?

Cortines offered one last deal-breaker: There wasn't time to work out all the legal agreements because the district is busy finalizing a budget.

Sources told me the district was also concerned about the negative primetime publicity for its run-down schools.

Excuse me? I think the word is out on run-down schools. Should the kids have to suffer so the adults can avoid more embarrassment?

There were no such concerns in Compton Unified when "School Pride" offered to do a makeover of Enterprise Middle School. Over a 10-day stretch during spring break, hundreds of students, teachers, parents and community volunteers painted, scrubbed, cleaned, removed graffiti, fixed cracks and rebuilt the athletic field.

"We were very happy with the results," said Assistant Principal Kim Gaston. He said there's been a noticeable change in the attitude of students, who are taking more pride in their campus. "I have not had to make one phone call to have graffiti removed, and it was almost a daily thing before."

It's a little preposterous, I must say, to have to rely on a TV show to get the walls painted, the floors scrubbed and the toilets fixed at our public schools.

But finances being what they are, it's understandable that schools are hungry for help no matter where they can get it.

I'm not saying Cortines didn't raise some legitimate issues. But come on. Put the kids first and find ways to make it work instead of reasons to say no.

On Friday, I called the superintendent to try to give him a chance to explain what he was thinking. Meanwhile, "School Pride's" creators continued to make their case despite the rejection. By the time Cortines returned my call late in the day, he had a news bulletin:

He and his staff had changed their minds. The show will go on at LACES and at Hollenbeck.

Cortines told me his biggest concern had been a trailer for "School Pride" based on the renovation of the Compton school. In the video, rats scamper across a dirty floor, and the school looks abominable. Cortines didn't want his schools to get pummeled.

"You get beat up on enough," he said.

True. Sometimes deservedly, and sometimes not.

But who would have expected this? A story about LAUSD bureaucracy, with a happy ending.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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