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L.A. Unified considers changes at Widney High School in wake of problems

Teachers at the school, which serves developmentally disabled students, are doing a poor job, officials say. During a recent visit to the Jefferson Park campus, Supt. Ramon C. Cortines observed teachers watching a soap opera during class.

February 07, 2011|By Jason Song, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Unified School District officials are reviewing personnel and curriculum at Widney High School, which serves developmentally disabled children, because staff members are doing a poor job of teaching the students and automatically giving overtime to workers who leave early and arrive late, according to documents and interviews.

During a recent visit to the Jefferson Park campus, Supt. Ramon C. Cortines observed instructors watching a soap opera during class time. "They didn't even make an effort to turn it off when I was there," he said.

Cortines said the move was unrelated to other recent restructuring of struggling campuses, including Fremont and Jordan high schools, which ranked among the lowest-performing schools in the district based on standardized test scores. Widney serves about 200 students with developmental disabilities who range in age from 13 to 22. The school focuses on preparing them for work.

"I'm taking action based on vulnerable students not being taken care of," Cortines said. "The whole place had a lack of accountability."

Cortines formed a task force to study the school in November, and the group delivered a final report to the superintendent last month.

The report found a series of problems at the campus, including a lack of safe places for students to sleep or rest, the failure to regularly account for staff attendance and work hours, the absence of evidence of student learning and the routine payment of overtime to some aides.

The task force made a series of recommendations to Cortines last month, including replacing the principal and assistant principal, assigning more academic coaches to the campus and providing more training to staff on how to feed students.

Widney Principal Jessie Lucas Thompson, who has held the post since 2001, and Chris Manners, who has been the assistant principal since 2005, did not return calls or an e-mail seeking comment.

Judith Perez, the president of the administrators union, said she was unaware of the alleged problems at Widney and had not been contacted by any of her members for help.

In a letter to Widney parents in early January, Cortines said he would not recommend that the campus be closed.

Sharyn Howell, the executive director of the district's division of special education, denied that there was widespread disorganization at Widney.

"I think there are some dedicated people at Widney," she said. "But whenever you get a school with up to 200 [disabled] students, there are so many challenges during the day."

Howell said the school needed to shift its focus by giving students more rigorous courses and phasing out students who are under the age of 16. She also pointed out that many of the students need full-time aides because of their conditions and are bused in from outside the area.

"The school obviously has employees who are working beyond their regular day, but we want to be sure that [overtime] is being used judiciously," Howell said.

Howell said any changes at Widney would focus mainly on ensuring that students receive the proper instruction, not solely on individual teachers or administrators.

But "there may be some movement of personnel," she said.

jason.song@latimes.com

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