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Op-Ed

Jim Newton: The mayor's hard-case schools

99th Street Elementary and Edwin Markham Middle School show the promise and the challenges of Villaraigosa's reform effort.

March 15, 2011|Jim Newton

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has taken his lumps lately: The budget's a disaster, layoffs loom, the City Council defied him when he tried to sell off city parking lots and the Fire and Police Pensions board shrugged off his plea that it not increase city pension contributions. But the mayor remains in the fight, and nowhere is that more evident than in his commitment to the 21 schools he and his office help oversee.

Early in his first term, the mayor tried to take control of Los Angeles schools; the Legislature gave him part of what he asked for, but the courts balked at even that. Villaraigosa ended up striking a deal with the Los Angeles Unified School District to share control of 21 of the city's most challenged schools, which are now operated under the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. Nearly 9 out of 10 of the 18,000 students in those schools are so poor they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Roughly 4 out of 10 students in those schools drop out before completing high school.

These schools are hard cases, and it is to the mayor's credit that he took them on. Moreover, about four years later, he continues to press for fundamental change — innovation that can turn around individual schools and, where possible, act as a model for the rest of the district. Progress has been slower than some would like, but there has been growth: API scores, a standard measure of achievement, have increased an average of 21 points at partnership schools, more than that of L.A. Unified generally; new programs and testing hatched at partnership schools are beginning to enrich other parts of the district.

Villaraigosa's deputy mayor for education, Joan Sullivan, manages this enterprise with intensity and a deep sense of mission. She is a welcome departure from the many education experts in Los Angeles who seem far too tolerant of incremental change. Sullivan is tough and forceful, and bracingly candid. And she's not naive: "This is a behemoth of a bureaucracy," she remarked as we discussed the enormity of the challenge. "Change is hard."

Last week, Sullivan and I toured two of the partnership schools where dramatically different stories are unfolding.

First stop was 99th Street Elementary School, a tidy campus east of Inglewood that houses more than 600 students, from kindergarten through sixth grade. A volunteer greets visitors, as does a sign outside that boasts of the school's recent accomplishments: "API score up 52 points since 2009-10! API score up 106 points in the last two years!" There's no graffiti — unless you count the "E = mc2" someone has stenciled on a sign.

Inside, Sullivan points to open doors and clear hallways. Students wear uniforms and cheerfully greet the school's principal, Sherri Williams. Under Williams' leadership, 99th Street has made it a mission to engage parents. The school hosts "muffins with moms" and "doughnuts with dads" to draw parents onto campus, and Williams has created a wall to honor those students and parents who participate. The goal last year was to involve 60% of parents; 96% came to some events.

Before the partnership entered the life of 99th Street Elementary, no children were tested to see if they qualified as gifted. Now, all second-graders are given the test, and about 13% qualify, making them eligible for future programs and placement. Just a few years ago, parents fled 99th Street, many opting for parochial or charter schools. Today, 99th Street's biggest challenge is figuring out how to find places for all those who want back in. And once enrolled, they are learning with enthusiasm: Out of its 630 students, just 10 to 11 are absent on any given day.

A few blocks away, the struggle has been more difficult. Like 99th Street, Edwin Markham Middle School draws its student body from tough parts of town — many live in the local housing projects, Imperial Courts, Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens. Crime on campus is a perennial challenge. During one recent year, more than 100 students were arrested while at school.

Officials say the campus in those days was teeming with kids, wandering its open breezeways and avoiding the insides of classrooms. Even today, just 16% of Markham's students are English language or math proficient. API scores increased 45 points last year, but the number of eighth-graders who are proficient in key subjects remains well below district averages.

Principal Paul Hernandez, who took over last summer, concedes there's much to do, though he points to some glimmers of progress. The campus is quieter, and during our tour students were attentive in class. Each classroom features a "data wall" where student performance, by name, is publicly displayed (some teachers objected at first, but now they're on board). The school day has been lengthened. Every Tuesday, the faculty stays after school to compare notes about what's working in various classrooms. "Everybody," Hernandez insists, "must show growth."

From the classrooms of Markham to the mayor's office, it's a Herculean undertaking, with many possibilities for disappointment. But as Sullivan emphasizes, everything depends on it: Without sound education, there is no public safety, no economic development, not even democracy itself.

"It's a risky proposition to get involved in education," she said as we finished our afternoon. "But it's a risky proposition not to get involved too."

jim.newton@latimes.com

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