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L.A. school board to close six charter schools caught cheating

Board members act to revoke the charter of the Crescendo organization despite an earlier recommendation to reauthorize its schools for another five years.

March 02, 2011|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • School board member Richard Vladovic said the Crescendo charter school organization had betrayed parents' trust.
School board member Richard Vladovic said the Crescendo charter school… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles Board of Education voted Tuesday to shut down six charter schools that were accused of widespread cheating on last year's standardized tests, citing the malfeasance and an insufficient response to it.

The board took the initiative to revoke the charter of the Crescendo organization despite an earlier recommendation by the district to reauthorize its schools for another five years. District staff had said they believed that the charter board had taken adequate steps to deal with the scandal.

But on Tuesday, a day after The Times detailed Crescendo's problems, incoming Supt. John Deasy recommended an investigation by the Inspector General of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Pending those results, a one-year renewal could be considered, Deasy said.

Crescendo founder/executive director John Allen allegedly ordered principals and teachers to prepare students for last year's exams with the actual test questions. Several teachers at the schools alerted the district about the cheating.

Allen, who initially denied wrongdoing when confronted, was demoted, according to district documents and interviews. Principals received 10-day suspensions.

A contingent from Crescendo declined to comment after the board vote.

"This charter school is thumbing their nose at the district and thumbing their nose at the rules," said board member Tamar Galatzan, who called on her colleagues to revoke the charter. Crescendo should not have "another year to do what they were supposed to do in the first place."

Before the vote, two Crescendo principals defended the organization's overall record and its approach to instruction. Two parents also praised Crescendo.

"Whatever was in the past or whatever is going on, we should give them a second chance," said Alfredo Guillen, who has two sons there.

But board member Richard Vladovic said the parents' trust had been betrayed with a hurtful message: "We don't have faith in our children. We have to cheat for them."

At Tuesday's meeting, only two Crescendo schools were up for the standard charter renewal process. The board's action applies to all six campuses, which are in South Los Angeles, Gardena and Hawthorne.

Crescendo schools will be allowed to remain open during the months-long shut-down process required by state law.

The board move was unusual — it has rarely revoked a charter for wrongdoing or academic performance.

The vote was 6 to 1, with Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte dissenting. She said she was concerned about the welfare of the school's students and cited the charters' apparent academic success.

But school board President Monica Garcia said the cheating made it hard to tell whether the schools were as successful as believed. The state invalidated the 2010 test results, which were nonetheless cited by district staff as evidence of the schools' academic success.

The Crescendo charter had a pair of unlikely defenders, the head of the teachers union and the California Charter Schools Assn., which has called for strict accountability for charter schools. Charters are publicly funded and independently run.

Union President A.J. Duffy wanted the schools to stay open in the interests of students and teachers, who recently voted to join United Teachers Los Angeles. He said teachers had courageously risked their jobs to report cheating. He also said anyone involved in cheating should be disciplined and perhaps even fired.

The charter association supported a short-term charter renewal to give the school time to prove itself. Crescendo joined the charter association as the cheating allegations were emerging.

Association director Jed Wallace said he lacked enough information to pass judgment. Nor would he say that cheating per se should be a cause for dismissal or a charter revocation.

In other related actions, the school board approved, without discussion, allowing El Camino Real High School to become a charter. The Woodland Hills campus has long been considered an academic powerhouse.

The board also voted unanimously to shut down Cornerstone Prep School in Florence, because of poor academic performance.

And, board members also agreed not to renew the charter of Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists, also in Florence, over management issues and a financial conflict of interest among its operators. LaMotte abstained, citing the school's high test scores.

The school's operators said they would appeal the non-renewal to the L.A. County Office of Education, which also can authorize charter schools.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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