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.”
Instead, Carbino made the course changes unilaterally, say faculty members, then left teachers and students to deal with the results. “I know one girl who got switched out of the one class she needed to graduate,” says a student who would identify himself only as Brad.
It also meant that teachers who spent weeks preparing course outlines, lesson plans and instructional goals were suddenly expected to teach a course for which they had not prepared. Advanced Placement instructors, who, for each course, must get a detailed syllabus approved by the California state college board in order to qualify for Advanced Placement status, were particularly infuriated.
One group of students, most of them Advanced Placement kids, decided to talk directly to principal Carbino — and that’s when things really started to go downhill, according to teachers Anthony Marenco and Lara. According to students, after they arrived at his office recently and requested a conference, Carbino would not meet with them and informed them that if they didn’t leave, he’d suspend them or have them arrested.
Other students say that when confronted by parents, Carbino announced that he made the changes because Santee’s AP students simply weren’t up to doing the college-prep work. “He says he went through our files and that our writing wasn’t skillful enough for AP English,” says 12th-grader Beatriz Rafael.
A cluster of very upset 11th- and 12th-graders approached Marenco, one of the school’s most popular AP teachers, and told him about their encounter with Carbino. Marenco says he assumed the students somehow mishandled the meeting with Carbino, and suggested they view the incident as a learning exercise. On Friday, August 3, Marenco agreed to help the group approach the principal again — using techniques of “persuasive speech” and creative “conflict resolution.”
It didn’t work. According to Marenco and some of the flabbergasted students, Carbino ordered the AP teacher escorted off school grounds by a campus police officer. “I honestly couldn’t believe it,” says the seemingly mild-mannered Marenco. “The officer was really apologetic. He made a point of shaking my hand.”
The Marenco incident became a flash point. “It was the spark for us to organize,” says 16-year-old Carina Palacios, who hopes to get into UC Irvine like her two sisters. “We felt like, this man doesn’t have respect for anybody.”
This isn’t the first time Carbino has had problems at a school. He also worked at Belvedere Middle School, where he alienated some faculty. “He’d go after people and criticize them publicly,” says former Belvedere teacher Craig Knapp. “His way of handling differences in opinion was that everyone else is wrong and he’s correct.” He claims that Carbino was transferred out after six months, in a deal brokered between former schools Superintendent Romer and UTLA.
That’s when he arrived at Santee. A former cop, Carbino was purportedly brought in to stop the on-campus violence that had wreaked havoc at the new school. He did so, allege some teachers, primarily by transferring several hundred problem students to other schools. Carbino was publicly lauded for reducing the violence by Los Angeles City Council Member Jan Perry and civil rights lawyer Connie Rice. But now, Rice says, “You can have someone who is good at turnaround and not good at leadership.”
Teachers at Santee allege that while Carbino’s tough-guy approach may have been useful initially in getting the troublemaking students out of the school, it has backfired.
“But see, the district looks the other ?way, because all it wants from Carbino is to keep the school out of the headlines,” says Steve Bachrach, once a teacher at Jefferson High School, now principal of Green Dot’s high-scoring Animo Film and Theatre Arts Charter High School. “Every week, I get calls from Santee teachers looking for a job,” says Bachrach. “All of them tell me they want to leave because of this strange stuff Carbino ?is doing.”
UTLA second-in-command Linda Guthrie puts it in harsher terms. With Carbino, says Guthrie, the district simply transferred a problematic principal to a different school — a common practice. As for the switched classes and wrong books, she says flatly, “It’s incompetence. But what makes me the most crazy is how he’s treated students. When kids come to talk to him about their concerns for their classes, instead of rewarding them for acting responsibly, he threatens to punish them? He’s just being a bully.”
Matters further escalated on August 7, when about 50 parents, teachers and students showed up at an unrelated meeting Carbino was holding with a small group of parents in the auditorium. When the group of parents, teachers and students began demanding answers, he radioed for campus police officers and walked out of the building.
Furious, two dozen AP students on August 13 drafted a formal letter requesting Carbino’s resignation, reading it aloud at a school planning meeting that Carbino was expected to attend. Carbino abruptly left the meeting, saying he had a conflicting appointment, when 18 students and some of their parents filed into the room.
Now the school’s teachers say they are also gearing up for action. On August 13, after the student presentation, faculty members stayed to speak privately about the principal, telling stories of a man who, they said, gets his way through threats or withering public criticism. “For instance, if he doesn’t like you, he’ll order regular police searches of your classroom,” alleges teacher Jose Lara.
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“Santee is hemorrhaging good teachers,” says Brent Boultinghouse, a bearded and genial-faced culinary-arts teacher, who is also the school’s union rep. “All because of Carbino.” Lara says that the district went so far as to send two full-time “coaches” to help train the principal. “But he won’t listen to them,” he says. “He won’t listen to anybody.”
The school’s English Department chair, Gina Perry, agrees — and then confides in a low voice that she’s reinstating some of the AP classes. “Sometimes you just do what you got to do,” she says. “It’s what the kids need.”
The students too aren’t letting this go. “My parents said maybe they should just get me out of Santee and to another school,” says Carina Palacios. “But I tell them no. Sure, I can leave. But then what happens to the students behind me? We need to take a stand,” she says. “It’s the right thing to do.”
The teachers go even further. “If the district doesn’t do something about Carbino, we’re looking at the idea of turning this school into a charter,” says Boultinghouse.