By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The Space Race
It makes for grim reading, the stories of how the children of Los Angeles suffer from a shortage of classroom space.
Kindergartner Andres Daza goes to school in a ramshackle collection of temporary buildings set down on a South Gate city park. There’s no cafeteria, auditorium or computer lab. On rainy days, he gets drenched crossing an open field to get to the portable bathrooms.
At Monte Vista Elementary, near downtown, fourth-grader Frances Rosenberg Jaramillo is in school for a month, then out for a month, back for two months, then off for a month, and so on -- all part of her school‘s crazy-quilt, multitrack year-round schedule. Her teacher has to pack up and unpack her classroom as often as five times a year, costing valuable instruction time.
Space is so short at Washington Prep High School in South-Central that Shannon Egans can’t get the classes she needs to graduate. So she takes courses out of sequence, or during her vacations. Other students are forced to take adult-school classes in the evening.
They all are victims of the school district‘s coping strategies: About 77,000 students are yoked to a year-round schedule that shortens the academic year for individual students by a month. Some 15,000 students ride the bus against their will, even though district research indicates that these students fare the worst on academic-achievement measures.
In a sworn declaration, Assistant Superintendent Gordon Wohlers conceded that for years L.A. school officials have, in effect, perpetrated a fraud on the children of Los Angeles. Year-round education is not, in fact, a swell way to keep kids learning all year, as district officials originally claimed. Instead, the schedule, as practiced here, has hurt students badly, declared Wohlers.
Besides cheating children of a month of instruction, the schedule robs the school of downtime for maintenance, and of space in which to offer extra help to struggling students. ”When we started the program many years ago, we hoped that we could make up with longer class periods for the 17 instructional days a year that children on these calendars lose,“ Wohlers stated. ”It has not worked out that way. The intense calendars make for tired students and tired teachers.“
Not only that, he added, but district officials have made only halfhearted attempts to prevent students from dropping out -- because there’s no room for these students anyway. The district has elected to ”dispense with or weaken retrieval efforts for students [who] drop out of schools or are at high risk of dropping out.“
Wohlers‘ declaration appears in a lawsuit against the state that was filed in March -- by civil rights attorneys, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. The attorneys are nominally representing a group of specific students, families and teachers, but the litigation was prepared in close coordination with the school district itself. Documentation in the suit demonstrates how, for years, L.A. Unified has not received anything close to its fair share of school-construction money. The heart of the problem is that the State Allocation Board, which distributes the funding, operates on a first-come, first-served basis. Eligible projects that clear regulatory hurdles get funded in order of arrival until the money runs out. Consideration for who needs the money the most has not been a fundamental factor.
Therefore, the state’s traditional retort to L.A. Unified is: The rules are the same for you as for everyone else. And in fact, right now, LAUSD has only one completed application for funds on file with the state. Without question, the district would have received many millions of dollars if it had only managed to ask for the money in the standard, pro forma way. For this, the school district deserves some of the derision regularly expressed by state officials. But the case is not as simple as that.
It has always taken longer to acquire land in a dense urban area than in a suburban enclave, and now potential locations have to go through an environmental review by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). This process is a direct outgrowth of environmental missteps on L.A. school projects, including the Belmont Learning Complex.
In February, the DTSC kicked back 58 of 60 sites, the vast majority for small primary centers, on the grounds that further environmental analysis was needed.
”We believe these are green, clean sites, and all but two were rejected,“ said one district staffer, who requested anonymity. ”And we‘re not talking industrial sites, but residential properties or those without a history of industrial use. The DTSC was concerned that there was a chance that someone might have sprayed a garden with insecticide at one point, or dumped oil from a car in the grass, or used lead-based paint on a wall, even though we would take care of that problem anyway during demolition. That’s literally the standard that was applied. We are now working under the presumption that all sites, even the smallest, cleanest ones, will need six to nine months to go through this process.“
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