A School System is a Terrible Thing to Waste
Photo by Ted Soqui
LOW TEST SCORES. DECAYING FACILITIES. Unqualified teachers. Toxic building sites. Infighting between the school board and the superintendent. It's no wonder that the people of Los Angeles have developed a profound cynicism about the city's schools and their ability to educate our youth. But if everyone agrees on the need for reform, concrete strategies to achieve it are elusive. LEARN, the district's high-profile attempt to remake schools through transferring decision-making authority to staff and parents at local schools, is seen by many to be in crisis. And, while a few individual schools are flourishing, most are struggling to find the right course. Last week, we brought together some of the city's most thoughtful educators and policymakers to discuss what needs to happen to achieve true education reform. What follows is an edited transcript of their remarks.
JUDIE IVIE BURTON Assistant Superintendent for School Reform, LAUSD
Premium Seating: Los Angeles Angels v Cincinnati Reds
TicketsMon., Aug. 29, 7:05pm
Los Angeles Angels vs. Cincinnati Reds
TicketsMon., Aug. 29, 7:05pm
UCLA Bruins Double Header: M Soccer vs Duke & W Soccer vs Penn St.
TicketsFri., Sep. 2, 5:00pm
UCLA Bruins Men's Soccer vs. University of Akron Zips Men's Soccer
TicketsMon., Sep. 5, 5:00pm
MARIA CASILLAS President, Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project
HOWARD M. LAPPIN Principal, James A. Foshay Learning Center
THEODORE R. MITCHELL President, Occidental College
JEANNIE OAKES Associate Dean, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
DICK ROBERTS Program Director for After School Learning, LAUSD San Fernando Cluster and Community Liaison, Project GRAD
MIKE ROOS President Mike Roos & Company, Former President of LEARN
DAVID TOKOFSKY Member, Los Angeles City Board of Education
L.A. WEEKLY: We've asked you all here today to talk about school reform, a term on the lips of anyone talking about the LAUSD these days. So let's start with a discussion of what that means. What is school reform?
DAVID TOKOFSKY: Without making too much of a play on words, the idea of reform, to form again, is a troublesome direction. We've seen what hasn't worked in the past, and to form it again will probably lead us back to the same place. There are a couple of fundamental things we simply have to change. One issue I think we really have to look at in this district is the issue of size and scale. You can take a nice, small elementary school like Ivanhoe, that has 360 or so kids, and it has a chance of taking an idea, a vision of building a community, and it can permeate through that entire community and become a model for others to look at. It's much more difficult for that to happen at a huge school. So, to me, changing the size of all operations is fundamental.
The second dramatic change that has to happen is the issue of teacher quality. If you look around today, the vast majority of the most talented women who came into teaching are exiting, or have exited from the profession. It used to be that women who were the best in their class went into teaching. Now those women are not going into teaching.
The third challenge I see is that we have to imbue everyone -- from the parent, to the kid, to the teachers and administrators -- with a sense of responsibility for the educational outcomes.
MARIA CASILLAS: I'd like to raise a couple of other crucial elements of school reform. Middle-class families have criteria that they judge schools by. And if they don't think the neighborhood school is good enough, they take their kids and enroll them someplace else -- in magnet schools, or private schools, or other public schools on permits. They even select neighborhoods to buy homes based on what kind of schooling opportunities are available.
Now, for the vast majority of the students who attend Los Angeles Unified, this is not the case. And so it's important to reinvent that sense of middle-class values about schools, and knowledge about schools in all families, and also to create a situation where educators act as advocates on behalf of the communities in which they teach, on behalf of the students and families. For this to be able to happen, we have to address some critical issues.
The first is time. Most of these educators live far away from where they work, and they want to get on the road before traffic starts at 4 o'clock. Teachers need more time if they are to reinvent themselves in roles as community members. They don't currently have that time. They don't have time to spend time with each other, and they certainly don't have time to spend time with the communities.
A second issue, as David pointed out, is size. Our kids are exposed to these huge places. We tell them that school is important, but we really don't look to find a personalized environment for them. So schools are often these huge places that are very depersonalized and don't allow for sufficient teacher-to-student interaction, and kids get lost.
THEODORE MITCHELL: I was trained as a historian, and when we talk about education reform, I think it's important to understand that what we're really talking about is creating a system that serves students and families who have never before been served by the education system. And so the process we are engaged in is one of revolutionary change for a school system that was originally designed with the notion that the majority of students in it would fail. It's very crucial to reverse that, to design a school system that creates an environment for success for the majority of the students.
I think we have a tendency to minimize the task, to minimize the need for the kinds of massive cultural shifts that make people very uncomfortable. What we're after here ultimately is a very different kind of school system, one that stems from a real social movement. And like any good social movement, it will need ultimately to transfer the knowledge and power from a bureaucracy to those who are outside it.
DICK ROBERTS: To me, you have to look at what's working, and what's working across the country is concentrating on instruction. In the San Fernando cluster of schools I'm associated with, we're taking instructional â models, ones that have already been developed and that we know work. Ours is not the only program like this, but there are some known models out there that concentrate on instruction.
MIKE ROOS: During the 14 years I was in the state Legislature, I felt that every time I was able to get more money for Los Angeles schools, I had succeeded in helping kids. But then when I got down here, I saw an unbelievable number of schools failing. They lacked textbooks. They lacked competent personnel. People, like Howard Lappin, who I felt were massively talented were treated like automatons, told, "Here are the rules, now follow them."
I think the real question we have to ask when we talk about reform is "Are kids learning or not?" We're still stuck at that basic question.
JEANNIE OAKES: I'm most interested in our perceptions of academic ability and merit in the school system, and how those things, linked with race and social class, trigger practices and policies that institutionalize the low level of confidence we have in the ability of low-income children of color in this society to really achieve well and be more successful. We do that through the allocation of very tangible things, like textbooks and qualified teachers, and through less tangible things like informal and formal assessments of academic achievement.
And so my goal is to try to figure out how to create schools where having low-income kids of color achieve at extraordinarily high levels makes sense to people. Because once it makes sense to us as a concept -- I mean, really makes sense -- then we human beings are extraordinarily creative at creating practices that operationalize our assumptions.
HOWARD LAPPIN: My school, Foshay Learning Center, is an inner-city school. We have 200 elementary school students, 2,700 middle school students and 700 high school students. We're 70 percent Hispanic and 30 percent African-American, and 98 percent of our kids receive free or reduced-price lunches. My job in school reform, my ultimate job in school reform, is to see to it that Foshay Learning Center graduates are able to go on to college. Those who graduate from the middle school are prepared to go to the high school where they can get what they need. That means that if they have to have algebra in the eighth grade, they'll all have algebra in the eighth grade. If they have to learn how to get to grade level in reading, then we get them to grade level in reading.
The high school is immensely successful. These are all kids of color, and all kids who are poor, yet they go on to college. And this last year was the best class we've ever had, where 98 percent qualified for college and 70 percent were accepted into four-year colleges. So these kids can succeed, and they can learn.
I'm hopeful that if we are successful at Foshay, others will see that it can be done. I'm hopeful that if we set models, particularly for inner-city kids, kids of color and kids who are poor, then these models of success can be copied, and others will say, "It's worth the effort. It's worth the hard work. It's worth all the hassles." Because it's much easier to not do this. It's much easier to sit back and do whatever somebody tells us to do from up above.
The other thing people have to understand is that school reform takes tremendous time. To say that we've had two or three years of something and it doesn't work and we have to try something else is nonsense. It takes time, and it takes effort.
ROBERTS: And you also need curriculum. In my cluster, we're using the "Success for All" program, which breaks the classes down into small, ability-level groupings in its first year. And if you look at our Stanford 9 scores, they're up by 30 and 40 percent. Now, that doesn't mean instruction is the only thing. I think everything we've â talked about is important. But you can't hold the kids hostage until everything else falls into place.
LAPPIN: I'm not going to disagree with you, because obviously the program is working. We've seen it work in Houston, and I believe very strongly that it will work in the San Fernando Cluster. But one of the reasons it works is that "Success for All" says that three-quarters of the teachers have to agree to follow the program in order for it to go into a school. And I think that buy-in on the part of the teachers -- buy-in, mind you, to a program we know works -- is a very important piece.
MITCHELL: That was, I think, one of the key decisions that LEARN made early on under Mike's leadership, that faculty support -- not just from the teachers, but from other school staff as well -- and parent support were necessary to launch a school in the direction of real reformation.
ROOS: I think that at the root of trying to reform schools, you find a tug of war between those who believe that decentralization will lead to higher achievement, versus those who believe that you have to centralize and have an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all solution dictated from on high. And until that is reconciled with some finality, I think, you're going to continue to see mixed results.
And so what does it take? It first of all takes a leadership structure that says, "We're going to hire good people, we're going to set standards, and then we're going to trust the people we've hired to meet those goals. I give Ruben Zacarias some amount of credit for being the first guy who came in and said, "There are under-performing schools, and those schools have to improve." That was, for the first time, a kind of a goal statement. What he's failed to do is empower the schools themselves, and the local and regional administrators to solve the problem. A lot of the people downtown really believe "We know a lot better than these idiots we have down in the schools. We know a lot better than they do, and so we are going to call the shots."
Another impediment to true reform is that there is no respect for entrepreneurial leadership. You have a system that basically ensures that the only people who can advance all the way to the top are people who have teaching certificates. This makes no sense.
Arguably, the reason you run into Belmont-type catastrophes is that you had someone who started off with a teaching certificate, who got promoted into the real estate division and was one day told, "By the way, you really look like you know what you're doing in real estate. We're going to give you $200 million to put up a high school."
WEEKLY: I'd like to hear an assessment of the LEARN program, the most widespread attempt at school reform that the LAUSD has tried over the last decade.
ROOS: LEARN accomplished some extraordinary things. We brought together real leaders who made the investment of time and energy and intelligence to change schools. We organized the countryside and generated real enthusiasm at numerous schools. Where we failed, miserably, was in thinking that intelligent, tough-minded, committed people could sit across from Sid Thompson, Bill Anton and Ruben Zacarias, and basically negotiate them out of a hundred years of culture. That's what we tried to do. We tried to say, "Look, it's clear the community wants change. This is your moment. Here's our agenda."
And countless times they said to us, "No problem, absolutely, you've got it." Then nothing happened, and we'd ask them, "Well, what's happening?" And they'd respond, "Well, we had a meeting, and you can't do this because of state law. And you can't do that because . . . " It was always "You can't."
MITCHELL: Starting with "We can't give the budgets to the schools."
OAKES: I think the public wonders if this was all â so terrific, why are we in such bad shape right now?
ROOS: I would argue that we are in eminently better shape than we were nine years ago. First of all, you've just changed, in eight years, the whole vocabulary. When we got on the scene, everybody was talking about more teachers, more pencils, more money, more this, more that. Now, at least, everybody starts off with student performance. That's a sea change. Everybody is talking about accountability, whether it happens or not.
OAKES: But they still don't have the teachers or the curriculum or the pencils. I go back to what Ted said about this being a social movement, and I keep wondering if perhaps our reliance on organizational metaphors -- and especially organizational metaphors from profit-sector companies -- is maybe what's gotten us into so much trouble. When I think about a social movement, it looks very different to me than a restructuring of a corporation. It's more about grassroots political organizing, a bottom-up kind of movement where people demand a transfer of power. If you look at the civil rights movement, it took place not through powerful leaders mobilizing people, but through small groups of people working at the local level.
JUDY BURTON: I think that did occur. The first groups of LEARN schools that we worked with met ad nauseam, and they demanded changes that they felt were crucial to implementing what LEARN was supposed to be about. Every change that got put into place was the result of parents and teachers and principals and classified folks getting together, convening meetings, with or without leadership, to move things forward. It felt very much to me like a ground-up movement.
OAKES: So what happened? What's your assessment of why this stopped short? I think Mike put it beautifully when he said that the movement couldn't overcome a hundred years of culture. What does it take?
ROBERTS: I'd like to tell you about some genuine bottom-up reform in this district. Pacoima had been in a program called Healthy Start for 10 years. This reform began at one elementary school, 10 years ago. It spread to five public schools in Pacoima, and it was the parents and the principals who spread it. Ultimately, a group of involved people got on an airplane and went to Houston and looked at Project GRAD, a program that was having real success there, and they said, "That's what we want." Reform takes time.
OAKES: Let's take another example. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of four students at Inglewood High School, because these students are very capable students who would like very much to be taking advanced-placement courses in mathematics and science. But they're not available for them in the way they are at many schools in more affluent neighborhoods. So now there's a lot of talk about "Well, let's construct a sound policy solution to this problem so it won't go to court." Now, here's another opportunity for a social movement that affects some real change. And I am very interested in watching how the system will try to solve the problem, cover it over, quiet things down and really not end up with much that's very different.
LAPPIN: I'll tell you what they're going to do. They'll mandate to the schools that "You are going to offer X number of AP classes per students." They're not going to say, "Come up with some solutions." They're not going to say, "Is this a good thing?" They're not going to say to the community, "This is your community school. How shall we solve the problem?" They're going to mandate a solution from above.
MITCHELL: And as sure as they mandate the number of AP classes per student, they will not address whether or not the people teaching the new courses are qualified.
BURTON: Reform needs to be both bottom-up and top-down. There has to be an appropriate balance so that the district's role becomes setting standards and then freeing people up to accomplish those standards. But I think that what happened with LEARN is that a lot of Central Office folks tended to view it as "In order for LEARN to be right, then what we have been doing was wrong. In order for LEARN to be right, then we have to buy into all of the stuff that we're hearing about what an incompetent bunch of boobs we are." You'd often hear the phrase downtown "Those LEARN schools think they can do anything." I think that we didn't really do enough to build the critically needed support at the Central Office. Schools couldn't do it alone. They had to have support downtown.
ROOS: I accept the overall thought, but you have to remember we thought we had that support. We got a 7-0 vote from the school board to implement LEARN, a unanimous vote from the constitutionally authorized governing body. When you think you have cut a deal with the leadership, which is the board and the superintendent, you have to wonder why you'd need anything else. Now I believe that we misgauged the support from the leadership.
TOKOFSKY: We've been talking about Martin Luther -- I mean, Mike Roos -- and his nailing of the reform theses on the wall. That opened up much in L.A. Unified. But we're not just talking about L.A. Unified, and we're not just talking about LEARN. We're talking about school reform across the nation.
I'd like to think back to the year 1983, when the "A Nation at Risk" report came out. That was 17 years ago. We're now one kid's education later. And I would say -- having taught just today at Marshall High, where I taught for 12 years before becoming a school-board member -- that we're worse off. The quality of instruction, the physical atmosphere of the campuses, by and large, are worse than they were 17 years ago.
I hope that the current intense focus on education portends something dramatically different. But I'm very worried that there are not enough good people going into education. When you walk onto campuses today, there is a deep depression in students that is clinical. I think it's a national tragedy that a place that is supposed to unleash creativity, identity and spirit is instead so depressing.
ROOS: I think Howard would say that in the last 17 years Foshay has transformed itself from a place of failure and discouragement into a place of success and optimism.
TOKOFSKY: Right, and that would be the pattern, that would be the example that other schools could look to.
OAKES: At UCLA we lay out teaching as a career that is intellectually rigorous and demands an enormous commitment of principles. We tell people, "This is a social-justice teacher-education program. Don't come to UCLA unless you want to teach in schools that are majority kids in poverty, majority kids of color. In fact, if you come here you've got to sign your first-year contract in one of those schools, and we'll help you negotiate it, and we're going to stick with you for that first year."
And we have had an enormous demand for slots, and by extraordinarily bright people. Now, of course, our biggest challenge is sticking with these people so they don't get so socialized once they get out in the schools that all of that fire goes out of them. But I think attracting talent into teaching is a matter of re-crafting what we mean by teaching. I mean, more money would be extremely helpful, there's no question about that. But, I think the problem is not a lack of talent. I think it's a lack of ideas and vision.
BURTON: I agree with all that you said, but I also want to say that all the reform in the world isn't going to change the problems of a school where 50 percent of its staff are first- or second-year teachers without training.
LAPPIN: Our programs work, in part, because of a shared belief within a cluster or school that a) kids can learn, b) we know how to teach them, and c) we're never going to take our eye off doing what we know works.
ROBERTS: You need both a program that works and the collaboration of everyone involved.
MITCHELL: I think the truism about all of this is that Americans love to reform, but they hate to change. Reform is what I tell you to do, and change is what I must do myself.
WEEKLY: A lot of what we're talking about requires taking exemplary programs and making them mass programs, which is to say dollars and cents. How do you convince Sacramento to adequately fund education?
MITCHELL: I think that there is an opportunity to engage the state in conversation about increased funding. But I think funding increases will not be for the system as it exists today, whether it's more funding that's contingent on results, or more funding targeted to help schools achieve results. One way or another, increased funding is going to be more of a contract with schools than it ever has been.
ROOS: I have a contrarian view. This district has more than $10,000 per child to spend, which is a lot of money. But something is wrong. I believe that we are spending so much money per kid on the Chandra Smith decision and other court-ordered stuff that it's draining resources. No one has had the guts to say to the general public, "Do you realize that while we're spending four grand a year on your kid, we're spending $50,000, even $70,000, on some kids?" We have to have the policy discussion that poses the question "Is this fair?"
I think that what the decentralization movement was about was to say, "Look, take your 15 or 20 percent right off the top, but let us have $5,000 a kid and we'll show you how to maximize benefits to kids."
WEEKLY: You know what I've been very struck by? Every time that we talk about LEARN and the decentralization movement, it's in the past tense.
LAPPIN: That's because it is in the past tense. Decentralization and LEARN as reform movements in this district are dead.
ROOS: That is not true.
LAPPIN: I'm sorry, Mike, it is dead at this point. As a LEARN principal who's been at this a long time, I can say that everything is returning to the way it was.
WEEKLY: Can you get specific?
LAPPIN: Here's one example. We have been told we must have a program for kids facing the prospect of not being promoted because they haven't met district standards. And every part of that program has been dictated by the district. They've told us exactly what to do, how to do it, how much to pay for it, how many hours to provide. And the money for that program came directly out of our budget without â anyone asking. Now that's their right -- the board and the superintendent have the right to do anything they want to do.
But if the district is mandating everything that we have to do -- every piece of this program, even to curriculum -- then LEARN, as we know it and as I grew to love it, is gone.
BURTON: But I'm still here.
LAPPIN: That's the only hope. I can remember once, in the early days, a meeting where some principals sat down with a group of middle managers at the district, and we told them what we were about and what LEARN was about. One of my good friends, who worked downtown, came to me and said, "Howard, you know that this will never happen." And I said, "I think it will." And you know what? My friend was right. I find that the entire support for any kind of decentralization has totally eroded.
CASILLAS: I think the statements that you are making are true for your school. But the way the central authority looks at it is that they're setting the standards, so they also need a mechanism to hold schools accountable. They can't customize things for all the schools, so they say, "Everybody shall," instead of having different rules for places where things are working, where schools seem to be doing well with their budgets, where they've allocated resources appropriately. Some schools are not working, and they should have intervention because they've messed kids up for a very long time. But in schools like yours and a lot of others, the sudden tightening of reins is not a very productive message, because it suggests that all the hard work and success are not valued.
BURTON: I definitely don't agree that LEARN is dead. Have there been some changes that have re-centralized some key things? Yes. But I think we have to look at what some of the causes for those things are. One missing piece is that when we started LEARN, the district didn't have any standards. Now it's up to the district to hold schools accountable.
MITCHELL: We keep talking about decentralization versus centralization, as if it's one or the other, but the answer has to be a combination. In places where decision making is responsible, those school communities should be given the reins to choose to invest in Project GRAD, as Dick's schools have done, or in another program that is suited to the community. But there is a role for a central authority, and it is policing, to use a harsh term. They need to be policing the equity issue and policing the performance issue.
WEEKLY: Say the parent of a child in a failing school says, "I've waited years for our schools to get better, and it hasn't happened. My child's youth is finite. I can't wait any longer. Tell my why I can't have a voucher to send my child to a private school?" How do you answer that question?
TOKOFSKY: If you look at the research that has looked at all market solutions, from magnet schools to charter schools to vouchers, the conclusion comes up that, in terms of educational outcome, there was no noticeable difference.
BURTON: Two things. First, we have to recognize that private schools have a selective body of students that they serve. They can dismiss students on a whim. You can't really compare that with a public school that is required to serve every child. The other thing is that a voucher is not going to pay for every kid's education, unless the parents have additional personal money to go along with it. So what does that do for the South-Central kid whose parents don't have the balance of the money to pay for this high-quality education?
OAKES: For a given individual kid and an individual family, it might well be better for them to get a voucher and go to a better school. But we don't make public policy about one kid and one family. And looking at the whole, we're in no position to promise anybody anything better with a voucher system than what we have now.
WEEKLY: Let's talk about the current turmoil downtown, with the board voting to install Howard Miller as CEO. Is this good or bad for school reform?
TOKOFSKY: This governance and management struggle is going to detract from a focus on instruction. And right now is a very crucial time. Annenberg is phasing out. Reform organizations are trying to cohere. It's hard to believe that people are going to be able to spare much thought for instruction.
MITCHELL: We've talked today a lot about centralization and decentralization. I hope David is wrong about what he just said, because if disturbance at the level of the board can create disarray in classrooms serving 750,000 students, then we have a system that is way beyond centralization. I do worry that there are several substantive things that are likely to be compromised by the disarray, and the biggest one for me is $900 million of bond money that is sitting there waiting for us to bid and spend, to not just rebuild schools, but build schools that can be community centers.
WEEKLY: So is this causing disturbances and interruptions at the school level?
LAPPIN: At my school, it really hasn't at this point. I think it may, though, and we worry about it. We had a Parent Advisory Council meeting where we talked a little bit about it, and talked about trying to maintain the focus on the instructional program, and let the people downtown do whatever the people downtown do.
BURTON: The one alarming thing I do hear coming from the schools -- now that we have a lot of instructional policies and programs that we're implementing -- is that people are starting to sit back and ask, "I wonder if we really have to do this?"
OAKES: I think part of what's happening right now is so clearly about race. We â have a Latino community that has fought and struggled, fairly unsuccessfully, for their children to gain the teaching and resources and the opportunities they deserve. We have an African-American community that, over a number of years, struggled very hard to win positions of power in the school district and city government, largely because there were not other avenues open to them. We have a white minority that's retained the majority of the economic power in the city. And then we have a lot of Asian immigrants who are really throwing monkey wrenches into our old stereotypes about immigrants and people of color. And we're not talking about this.
CASILLAS: You have a Latino community that feels disenfranchised. Out in the streets, they're second-class citizens. In the schools, we tell them that they're first-class citizens, that we want them to become involved, that we want their voices. They have believed us. And if they haven't understood everything about the schools, the one thing they do understand is that they've had a Latino superintendent who has been very popular over 30 or 40 years. Then all of a sudden, the president of the Board of Education appears to disrespect him and to disrespect the only Latina member of the board. Now, I'm an outsider as well, but I am looking at this and I'm saying, "Do not underestimate that this thing could become a very big deal."
WEEKLY: There are some model schools in this city for poor kids and kids of color. On the other hand, it's the exception rather than the rule. I can walk into schools all over South Los Angeles, all over parts of the Valley, all over the Central City and East Los Angeles, and find substandard educational experiences in classroom after classroom. What do we do about that?
LAPPIN: You have to say to schools, "Okay, something is going to happen because you are not meeting the needs of your students. There are consequences that are going to happen to the staff -- from the principal, to the teachers, to the classified employees -- if this continues. But it takes an effort, and it takes a commitment. That's the ultimate role for the Central Office, to say to under-performing schools, "You are going to do well. We will give you A, B and C to help you accomplish that. And if you don't, then D, E and F are going to happen."
WEEKLY: And that can happen in some schools, certainly. But I go into other schools where I think you might as well tell them that by the end of the year every child has to fly. The staff is not capable of making it happen.
CASILLAS: There's a lot of thinking now that if you just mandate accountability, then immediately you're going to increase quality. But I have to tell you that all you've really got is a bureaucracy mandating that the rest of the bureaucracy comply. You've just got one group of bureaucrats talking to another group of bureaucrats. And guess what they're talking about? The bureaucracy. You don't have authentic conversations between the superintendent, the principal and the teachers based on what the data really say. You don't have them really examining the achievement gap that exists between some kids, or really looking at classroom teacher quality. You know, there is a science here, and people can learn it. You have to look at one teacher in one school and ask, "Why does this teacher have such high-performing students?" And next door, the same grade, the same type of kids, that another teacher, in terms of value added for the school year, didn't produce. You have to ask, "What is the difference?"
LAPPIN: At my school, we're part of a national model of school reform that says, basically, if we work together at a school, and have people involved in making decisions, and have people buying into the decisions that are made, then we can come up with a way of helping kids learn and succeed. When I got to the school 11 years ago, they were going to take it over as one of the 31 worst schools in L.A. That meant I didn't to have to hit people over the head to get their attention, because we had their attention. So we looked at the research, at what helps kids learn, at what we could do to raise test scores, and we looked at how to create a learning-support system. Today, we have a school-based health clinic, we have a parent center, we have very active involvement with the school's families.
BURTON: We have to take note that Howard has been there 11 years. That's 11 years of consistency in leadership. And the other thing that Howard won't say about himself, but I will, is that he stayed actively involved. He didn't do a few things and then sit back on his laurels about those one or two things. He's constantly performing as an entrepreneur in terms of bringing new programs and ideas into the school. But what the test will really be is, What happens when Howard goes?
WEEKLY: I've never been an advocate of breaking up LAUSD. But listening to this discussion, I get a sobering sense that the sheer scale of the district creates a very daunting obstacle to real change. Do the people who say that the district is simply too large to be effectual in implementing any of these reforms system-wide have a point?
CASILLAS: I think that more important than the size of the district is the issue of quality control. We work with 15 districts scattered across Los Angeles County. We have small districts with one high school, two middle schools and maybe six elementary schools. And you know, the level of student achievement in some is about the same as in some of our schools in Los Angeles. You don't see a significant difference.
MITCHELL: I think where size matters most in education is in school size. I would even trade off school size against class size. If you were to take the cut of the modest-size schools in a larger district -- I don't care whether they're in L.A., Chicago or New York -- I believe that you would see them performing at the same level as like-size schools in much smaller districts. You need small schools for a sense of community. You need to have adults who know kids and kids who know adults.
LAPPIN: You can make big schools small. You can work it.
CASILLAS: We're doing something at North Hollywood High School. They have 1,100 incoming ninth-graders. This year, they're trying to break up that bigness into smallness, by creating what they're calling "dens" of 30 students. They have student tutors from the gifted magnet schools assigned to teach them, and two or three parents who are going to somewhat shepherd these kids. The faculty were in a retreat for four days, debating whether they should go this way or that way. And it took them three years to get to that point, to take that risk and say, "We're going to try something different."
Now, if we'd gone in there and said, "This is what you should do," it probably wouldn't have worked. But instead we facilitated a process where we brought information to them, we sent them out to visit and learn about small schools in New York. You have to expose people to possibilities so that they can envision that something different can happen.
LAPPIN: Making that big school small is something that you have to do. It makes a tremendous difference in how kids react to their schools if they feel a part of some smaller unit, even within the big, huge schools.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.