By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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WHEN IT OPENED IN 2005, South Los Angeles’ long-anticipated Santee Education Complex was billed as a new model for providing a great education to high school students from lower-income communities. The gleaming complex, built on the site of the old Santee Bakery, was the special baby of former Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Roy Romer.
But during the first weeks after Santee opened its doors, regular fights and a couple of riots broke out. Then, after the campus violence was quelled, extensive academic problems came to the fore: When state testing time rolled around, Santee students scored the second lowest of any of the district’s high schools. In the next testing period, they scored the lowest.
Now, Santee’s principal, Vince Carbino, has a new kind of mutiny on his hands. But this time, the rebellion is among the school’s smartest students. They, their parents and several Santee teachers allege that Carbino so botched the orders for textbooks this year that he decided to rename courses arbitrarily to match the books he had, or abruptly transferred kids to unrelated courses. In one case, students expecting computer class were suddenly sent to cooking. In another bizarre move, some teachers allege, Carbino, without notification, wiped out a dozen college-prep classes, turning courses like Advanced Placement (AP) history into “cinema.”
Eleventh-grader Mercedes Carreto, 16, says she learned about the changes in her two AP classes only when she got her midsemester report card. “Like, instead of ‘AP history,’ it said ‘cinema,’ ” says Carreto. “I want to get into a good college and study to be a dentist, which means I need a lot of AP classes, and good scores on the AP exam,” she says. “How am I supposed to do that when he takes our AP classes away for no reason?”
Teachers say they were similarly blind-sided. “I only knew what he’d done when I saw it on the computer one morning as I took attendance,” says AP English teacher Alexandra Avilla.
According to these students, parents and teachers, the problems cropped up about midway through the eight-week summer semester at the school, which students attend during staggered “tracks” because of overcrowding. Carbino didn’t have the right books for several dozen academic classes attended by students whose school year began on July 2. As a solution, says social sciences instructor Jose Lara, Carbino looked through Santee’s stash of supplies and yanked out surplus textbooks — then changed approximately 40 classes to match textbooks on hand.
Worse, in many students’ minds, was Carbino’s decision to convert 12 Advanced Placement classes — university-level courses that help students get into college — after the students had already done nearly four weeks of college-prep work. Advanced Placement English became “writing seminar,” according to students, and AP government became “civil law,” not a college-prep course.
In addition, say students Mercedes Carreto and Marisol Valencia, most of the make-do classes did not fulfill any kind of UC or California State University college requirement, but simply fell in the category of “elective” — wasted credits that do not help the students qualify for college and could jeopardize some of the kids’ chances. “Or with some of us, they gave us classes we already took and passed,” says 17-year-old Valencia. “So they’re really worthless.”
Angry students and faculty say Carbino neither consulted nor gave advance notice to students or faculty. When contacted, Carbino “barricaded himself in his office,” says one Santee administrator who asked not to be named. Carbino did not return the Weekly’s phone calls.
Although Carbino isn’t talking, Santee teachers and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) leadership believe the principal canceled and changed classes in reaction to a landmark court settlement known as Williams v. The State of California. The 2000 class-action suit charged that kids in the poorest areas of California were being denied the right to an equal education because they didn’t have the same access to books, adequately trained teachers, and safe and clean school facilities as students in affluent areas. After Governor Gray Davis was recalled, Arnold Schwarzenegger inherited the suit and moved to settle it in August 2004, agreeing to pour $1 billion into the state’s worst-performing schools, located primarily in poor communities — like Santee.
The settlement created a system of annual inspections in which education officials show up each fall to make sure every student has the right books (plus such educational niceties as enough chairs for all students and working bathrooms). According to a study released earlier this month by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and Public Advocates, the settlement money and oversight have led to tangible improvements in most low-performing schools.
But not, some teachers say, at Santee. And right before the mysterious class changes undertaken by Carbino, say teachers, Santee was due for its required annual inspection by the L.A. County Office of Education.
“There’s no reason he shouldn’t have been able to get the textbooks,” says Tori Miles, the local district representative for UTLA who has spent several recent days meeting with angry Santee teachers. “As a Title 1 [federal poverty funds] school, he got extra money for texts. But even if there was a problem,” says Miles, “if he had just talked to the teachers and the parents about the issue, some kind of creative accommodation could have been made. That’s what good administrators do.”