By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
My name is Joe Lucente. My first committee meeting was at 7 a.m. -- pretty typical. I better dust off the brown tweed because later I‘ll have my regular lunch with the boys at the Valley Industry and Commerce Association. The afternoon often brings partner and investor meetings. Let’s see, is it Mattel today, State Farm, GTE -- or just some tomfoolery with the mayor or Senator Feinstein? By the way, the White House was great. That Hillary‘s a sharp one.
I still need to nail down that multimillion-dollar construction project, but just look at those fancy new sewer lines at my plant. I cut the cost in half with some slick dealing.
On a more personal note, let me just say that I’ve been with my partner, Irene Sumida, for years. She‘s really the heart and soul of what I’m about. Funny thing is, at a party the other night, I jokingly asked her what she got out of the relationship. Her answer: ”Money.“
Make your selection now. Joe Lucente is:
a) Next in line to take down W. in 2004
b) The CEO of BridgestoneFirestone
c) A Metro Rail contractor
d) Madonna‘s new beau
e) An elementary school principal
If you answered ”e,“ go to the head of the class.
Joe Lucente doesn’t act like a typical principal. Since when does a principal hobnob like a CEO with Valley business leaders, Mayor Richard Riordan and, on one occasion, First Lady Hillary Clinton? And what does being a principal have to do with pouring over contractor bids for sewer lines and gardening services, and negotiating finances for a new classroom building?
But Fenton Avenue Elementary, a 1,400-student campus in working-class Lake View Terrace, is not a typical school. It‘s an independent charter school. At Fenton, Lucente has both the freedom and the responsibility of allocating every penny of his state funding, about $4,300 per student, plus whatever else he can beg, borrow or qualify for. All of which takes time that other principals could devote to supervising instruction.
That’s where Lucente‘s partner, Irene Sumida, fits in. Sumida is Lucente’s professional collaborator and longtime co-director. She‘s the ”heart and soul“ of the operation because it is she, not Lucente, who handles academic matters.
When Sumida made her lighthearted remark at this month’s national charter-school convention about Lucente‘s contribution being money, she was not entirely joking. In fact, Lucente has cast aside the term ”principal“ in favor of ”chief financial officer.“ His work has included arranging gifts, grants and other assistance with all the corporate entities named above. State Farm, for example, donated computers.
Besides serving as educational models, charter schools are supposed to scare the system straight, by offering intense competition with traditional schools. Charters are an especially favored commodity these days, in California and the nation at large, winning ever-increasing funding and plaudits from across the political spectrum.
L.A. Unified has 37 charter schools, easily more than any school district in the state, but that total is misleading. The school system classifies the majority of these schools as ”dependent“ charters, meaning that they have little control over their state funding. Most of these schools embody little of what a charter is presumed to be about, namely, taking full charge of academic programs, spending decisions and hiring in exchange for being held accountable for the results.
Charter schools such as Fenton Avenue, by contrast, and the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima -- where the flamboyant Yvonne Chan is principal -- have taken their independence to an extreme, with some astonishing accomplishments to show for it. But test scores, the bottom-line standard according to many charter-school advocates, remain below national norms at both schools. Sometimes it seems as though raising student achievement is what urban charter schools are least able to do. It’s also a daunting task to get the school district to pay attention to what has worked.
Researchers in California and across the country are struggling with the question of how to evaluate charter schools, which, ironically, were supposed to be models of accountability from the get-go. And once you find a successful charter school, how do you recreate it? And what role should charter schools play in school reform? Charter enthusiasts are certain they know the answers already: They‘ve declared charter schools an unqualified success.
But that was not the view of dispassionate researchers at this month’s national charter-school convention in Washington, D.C. They braved a hostile reception to report that the verdict is still out. And indeed, it‘s hard to draw any reliable conclusions when rules pertaining to charter schools vary so much from state to state, when state supervision is so often lax, and when individual charter schools are so different from each other. But there’s no better place to consider such questions ---- and how their answers apply to Los Angeles -- than in the northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley, home to both Fenton Avenue and Vaughn, two of the state‘s oldest and most acclaimed charters.