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L.A. formula: New schools = better student performance. But why?

August 14, 2012|By Karin Klein
  • A student reads in the library of Helen Bernstein High School in Hollywood, which opened in 2008.
A student reads in the library of Helen Bernstein High School in Hollywood,… (Los Angeles Times )

The Los Angeles Unified School District has been carrying out one of the biggest construction projects in U.S. history -- second only, as a public works project, to the creation of the nation's interstate highway system -- using billions of dollars in bond funds to build well over 100 new schools and relieve cramped, aging campuses. Twenty new schools are opening this week with the start of the school year. Now a study out of UC Berkeley finds that this massive effort is yielding (pardon the pun) concrete results, at least for children in elementary school.

Students in the new schools showed achievement gains equivalent to 35 extra days of schooling each year. But such gains eluded students at the new high schools, just as over the years, scores on the state's annual standards tests have risen markedly for elementary students and much less for teenagers. Students in new high schools saw modest gains in English language and none in math. The study didn't examine middle schools.

But clear answers about the magic at new elementary schools are hard to come by. What about a new school makes the difference? Not just the lack of crowding; the students at the new schools fared better than students who remained at the older campuses, even though both were uncrowded after the switch. To some extent, the size of the student population overall made a difference. Smaller new schools did better than bigger ones, but new and old schools of the same size still showed higher achievement for the former.

Is it the creation of a new entity with no negative past (because it has no past at all)? Charter school operators prefer starting new schools to turning around old ones, saying that the fresh start enables them to create a certain kind of school culture from the start.

Is it that some new schools were, in fact, handed to charter organizations to operate, through the district's Public School Choice program, and others became pilot schools, which operate similarly to charters? The researchers say L.A. Unified didn't give them enough information to suss that out.

Other possibilities: A new corps of teachers at the new schools, with fresh enthusiasm (and perhaps better training; in many of the schools, the new teachers had higher levels of education than the veterans), and higher morale among both students and teachers in the more pleasant surroundings.

If the latter is a factor, though, it works only to a certain extent. The study found that schools that were more expensive to construct because of features such as added space didn't show higher achievement levels than schools that were less expensive to build.

Any words of insight that you can offer to the researchers on why new schools matter for young students, and why we don't see the same boost for those in high school?

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