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Charting Their Own Course

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.

Many charter schools cater to the middle or upper class; others avoid serving disabled students. Some focus on turning a profit. Fenton and Vaughn, however, have attempted the highest mission for a charter: turning around an urban campus whose clientele includes the poor and the difficult to teach.

The dapper Lucente, who looks as though he were born to wear Italian suits, became a charter-school entrepreneur in 1993 at age 50, with five years under his belt as Fenton’s principal and 26 years in the school district. ”We took it as far as we could,“ said Lucente. ”We had a safe, secure campus. We allowed teachers to leave and hired people willing to accept the challenge. We created a pretty darn good school, but five years down the road, we were not impacting student achievement.

“The thought of lasting five more years as a district principal so I could get to early retirement was overwhelming,” he added. “It was like bumping your head against a wall. Principals‘ meetings were just bitch sessions where everyone griped.”

In 1992, when California became the second state to authorize charter schools, Lucente began to daydream: “I thought, ’What if the district was not skimming 18 to 22 percent off the top?‘ We could create quite a school here.”

In the view of Lucente, becoming a charter school “has made all the difference in the world. It’s changed the lives of employees and students and parents and community members. There is an entirely different atmosphere when the school community takes control of a school, when it has ownership. We have created an atmosphere of advantage for our students. We have created a school where we would want our own children to go.”

This year‘s gift from State Farm Insurance of 300 recent-vintage computers is the kind of corporate largess about which most principals can only fantasize. Swinging such deals is almost routine for Lucente. Of course, the Fenton Avenue campus doesn’t actually need used computers. Lucente has sparkling iMacs in his classrooms, one per student in grades 4 and 5, at least 10 per class from second grade upward -- not to mention electronic drop-down screens, an amplification system for each teacher, and, soon, ceiling-mounted, computer-linked projectors. So State Farm‘s terminals went to students to use in their homes. That’s a neat arrangement at a campus where 90 percent of students qualify for a subsidized school lunch.

Fenton‘s so overrun with computers, it’s started to sell them to other schools for $250 apiece. Fenton donated some of its stockpile to another L.A. charter school.

Besides the technology, Fenton stands out because it‘s all fixed up, another area in which Lucente’s ingenuity and business background come into play -- he and his wife Marge had been real estate brokers on the side for years, and he managed a liquor store to pay his way through college.

Cases in point: The school district told him new sewer lines would cost $11,000. Lucente got the work done privately for $5,600. The district fixed two classroom floors for $11,000. Next time around, Lucente hired a contractor to do 11 classrooms for the same price. The school system told him he‘d probably have to wait 14 years for a new asphalt playground. Instead, Lucente found a grant to pay for half the cost; the other half was covered by the school’s insurance company -- after Lucente pointed out that the cracked, buckling surface was a liability risk.

The current “big project” is a proposed two-story building with 14 classrooms. This one came about when Lucente learned that the school district hoped to spend $6.1 million for a 252-seat primary center nearby. Lucente offered an alternative: 212 seats for only $1.8 million, to be located at Fenton. Besides the seats, the plans also call for Fenton to get a science lab and a performing artsbroadcast studio, as well as an enlarged library and staff lounge.

All of which begs the question of whether going charter is the surest answer for improving a school if you then have to find someone to run it like Joe Lucente -- who combines more than 30 years of public-school experience with private-enterprise smarts?

Not even Lucente is sure about that one: “Should all schools be charter schools? That‘s an impossibility. There’s not enough effective leadership to go around. There‘s not the staff willing to commit the time and energy it would take to pull this off. The standard here is exceedingly high for staff and students. Quite frankly and candidly, an average LAUSD teacher would stand out here like a sore thumb.”

On the other hand, a new industry is emerging, of private companies that help entrepreneurs manage charter schools. And there’s a newly expanded program to train charter operators at Cal State Sacramento, as well as a few training programs in other states. But is teaching principals how to hold out for cheap sewer lines the most direct path to improved learning?

“I don‘t think there’s been the replication of model charter schools that people thought would happen,” said Joe Rao, who was the first district liaison to the charter schools and now serves as chief of staff for Superintendent Roy Romer. “It‘s the people who make the program work, not the other way around. Yvonne Chan was a good principal, and she became better with more freedom. Joe Lucente was a good principal and became better. These schools are so individual. It’s almost impossible to recreate them somewhere else.”

In a recent interview, new LAUSD Superintendent Romer commented that principals are already too distracted and burdened by corollary issues. “I think a principal ought to have a sign on his desk that says, ‘What has this got to do with improving instruction?’” said Romer, while outlining his goals as superintendent. “The two most important objectives that I have in my mind are to increase the ability of teachers to teach and to increase the ability of principals to manage instruction effectively. A principal ought to be the principal teacher. I think the principal ought to spend 50 percent of his time in the classroom doing three things. One: recognizing when good instruction occurs. Two: helping teachers acquire the skill of good instruction. And three: doing a proper evaluation of it.”

Past district reforms swung the pendulum too much toward local control at the school site, added Romer. Lucente asserts the opposite -- that the pendulum never swung far enough, except at the handful of independent charters.

Lucente has some student-achievement results to support his view, but not as much as he‘d like. His school’s scores rank near the top of California campuses serving similar students. Fenton also exceeded its state-specified improvement targets this year. (So did two-thirds of L.A. Unified schools, charter or otherwise.) His school still tests, however, in the bottom 20 percent of all state campuses. It‘s fair to ask, after 13 years as principal, the last eight under a charter, whether Lucente’s results are good enough.

The question is even more nagging down the road, at Yvonne Chan‘s Vaughn Next Century Learning Center. On the plus side, Vaughn, like Fenton, exceeded its improvement target this year. Its test scores also surpass those of two nearby non-charter schools. But in 1999, the most recent year for which comparison data is available, Vaughn’s performance ranked in the bottom 10 percent in the state. It also ranked below average when compared with schools the state categorized as similar. And this after eight years as a charter school.

None of which has prevented Yvonne Chan from being feted on television and at awards ceremonies, or sought after for commencement speeches. She‘s an idol to other charter operators and won a state grant to show other schools how to be like hers. Chan wows crowds at education conferences with her Chinese-accented patter, which is sometimes too hurried to resolve itself into standard English.

Yet, seemingly, for most of the school’s history, Yvonne Chan has failed where it supposedly counts most, in significantly raising student achievement on standardized tests.

But what Chan has accomplished could still fill a book. Like Lucente, she‘s skilled at bringing funds and programs to her campus. She’s also turned Vaughn into a gathering place for the entire community, a source of local pride. Half the students stay on campus till 6 p.m. for a wealth of enrichment programs, including sports, music lessons and tutoring.

A clever money manager, Chan has overseen an incredible building, property acquisition and expansion program. She purchased two crack houses adjacent to the back portion of the school, then replaced them with a $1.2 million, 14-classroom building that she completed for $95 per square foot. Construction took only 10 months from the close of escrow, she told the Weekly.

Then she bought the property next door to erect a larger $3.2 million structure that includes more classrooms, an airy library (which she plans to open to the public), computer labs, a health clinic and even a room that a retired teacher has converted into a pint-sized museum, with rotating exhibits on flora and fauna, fossils and Western culture.

“This is called the Panda Village because Hillary was here,” said Chan as she scurried around campus, jingling as she walked because, during this visit, she wore a bell ornament around her neck to go along with a bright red dress and a Santa‘s hat. The 56-year-old, 5-foot-2-inch dynamo is ever the entertainer.

Chan’s self-financed building boom has emancipated 1,300 students from a multi-track year-round schedule which allowed her to lengthen their school year by a month. The extra space also helped Chan lower class sizes to about 20 students at all grade levels.

The charter school has bought land for the future construction of a primary center and a small high school. The new buildings have no barred windows, she said, because it doesn‘t need them: “We’re using a lot of homeboys for construction. That‘s why they don’t rip us off.”

The health clinic comes at virtually no cost. She arranged for the county to staff it. She hires extra help through grants. Her parents and homeboys took care of subdividing the space into examination rooms: “It took just two freaky weekends!”

Then there‘s “Vaughn’s Boutique,” which began as a pile of clean garments for children who soiled clothes at school. Now it‘s a storage shed with a grab bag of apparel for children and adults alike, who are charged 25 cents for each article of clothing. Families who need car seats pay 25 cents as well. The parents who manage the venture also rent out tables and chairs.

“I didn’t know that this transformed into furniture rental -- good grief!” Chan deadpanned. “All I know is that auditors check the books. If the parents mess up, my behind‘s in jail.”

Chan is especially popular at charter-school gatherings for her tales of how she’s battled and outwitted the system -- like when neither the city nor school district would move on parents‘ desire for a crosswalk: “I bought paint and rented a line-painting machine, left it outside where parents could see it and left for home for the weekend. When I come back on Monday, we have beautiful crosswalk. The city is mad. The school district is mad. I say: ’If you don‘t like it you can undo it, honey.’”

She also recalls when a parent tried to get out of the school‘s family-participation requirement by saying that he was only free on Saturday at midnight: “I was waiting for him with a mop.” She added: “He lives across the street. Right there. He still has two kids in this school.”

Chan jumped ahead of the district with her own plan for peer review among teachers. And whereas the district will focus solely on new teachers and struggling veterans, Chan includes all teachers. Evaluations are the average of three scores: a self-evaluation, one from fellow teachers and one from Chan.

About three years ago, Chan began investing school funds in stocks, to fund performance bonuses and offer stock options to teachers.

“I used to tell Yvonne that after we shake hands, I have to check to see if I still have a ring on my fingers,” said the district’s Rao.

For years, some district officials reviled Chan for openly criticizing them or for gaining the upper hand by calling in the press corps or politicians, recalls Brad Sales, a longtime aide to former school superintendent Ruben Zacarias. Some officials favored revoking Chan‘s charter. “I wouldn’t say that she hasn‘t done some creative things,” Sales added. “The bottom line, however, was whether she was increasing test scores or not. This was a real muddle to deal with politically. No one wanted to take this woman on.”

A basic rightwing assumption is that our education system has been doomed by selfish teacher unions and the inherently bumbling, wasteful nature of government. The disastrous, half-finished $200 million Belmont Learning Complex in downtown L.A. makes a good talking point. Fixing schools is relatively easy, these critics say, if you unfetter private enterprise and allow market competition to work its unregulated alchemy. That’s why conservatives support charter schools and even vouchers, which would allow parents to use public-education funds to attend tuition-charging private schools.

What they don‘t talk up is the perpetual correlation that researchers record linking student achievement to family income. Want to raise the test scores of the poor without fail? Make them the former poor.

The Accelerated School in South L.A. hopes it’s found the next best formula: investing money in a school. Indeed, its operators -- teachers Johnathan Williams and Kevin Sved, who started their charter at age 26 -- have shown that you can change school climate in a hurry by providing an attractive, state-of-the-art campus. And by hiring experienced teachers and then treating them like professionals, offering them good working conditions, including voice mail and a personal laptop computer. And by adding to that an onsite board of directors that includes helpful college professors and astute business people.

At Accelerated, 267 students attend grades K through 8. Ultimately, the school plans to expand up through 12th grade. The school‘s waiting list has 1,100 names.

There’s no magic here. When asked for an example of what sets Accelerated apart, co-founder Johnathan Williams offers the middle grades‘ unit on the Middle Ages. Students designed and built castles, and staged a medieval feast -- in addition to the reports and book learning.

Very nice, but nothing extraordinary; you’d find exactly this sort of stuff at a solid suburban school. Accelerated is simply a good school -- perhaps nothing more -- in an area that‘s had to settle for less. Accelerated’s 1999 test scores were a notch below the state average, but ranked at the top when compared with those in similar schools.

At Accelerated, fully 45 percent of the school‘s budget comes from sources outside regular public funding. The site itself was donated by garment-industry executives. All of which calls forth a chicken-egg dilemma: Is Accelerated an effective school because it gets all this extra money, or does it get this extra money because it’s a good school? Both, said Williams, who discovered that many donors prefer giving to an individual school rather than throwing money into the black hole of L.A. Unified. But can this level of university, foundation and corporate largess realistically reach 790 L.A. Unified schools?

What about the other sort of L.A. Unified charter, the ones called “dependent” charters? Palisades High and its feeder schools went charter as a cluster in 1993. Eight schools are in that group. Then, last year, the CrenshawDorsey cluster followed suit -- 17 schools in all. What do these schools have to offer?

Not much as charter schools, according to Chan: “They are wasting charter spots. They are no different from any other school. I have no clue why they would want to be charter.”

One charter-school expert derisively called these schools “wall charters,” meaning they‘ve got the plaque but nothing else.

For these schools, L.A. Unified continues to handle the budget and, in the view of Lucente, there’s no real control without the budget. So why go charter?

“I always ask that question,” said Colin Miller, a program consultant for the state‘s charter-school unit. “I ask, ’Why did you go through this, because it doesn‘t look like you’re doing anything different?‘ And they say, ’We have this great energy.‘

”To the extent they don’t want to change anything and still call themselves a charter, they can do that. A lot of it is just about the process of renewing their commitment to education.“

Weekly researchers got a mixed bag of responses while attempting to survey each of these dependent charters. Some principals relished their charter status and were exploring ways to take advantage of it. But one relatively new principal didn‘t even realize that his campus had already become a charter school. A couple commented that they had little alternative to following school-district mandates. Others were using charter status primarily to apply for grants.

Then there’s the publicity factor. ”In the mid-1980s, this school was losing enrollment,“ noted Palisades High principal Donald Savarese. ”Going to charter, while at the same time pursuing LEARN [an L.A. Unified reform plan] turned the tide because the school was perceived as safer and better academically.“

Savarese added that, perceptions aside, the school already was a good one and has been constantly trying new approaches to getting better. Enrollment at Palisades High rose from 1,500 to 2,600 in about four years.

Both the Palisades and the CrenshawDorsey clusters used their charter effort to make grade levels consistent at schools within the cluster -- so that 2nd grade would mean the same thing at different schools. They also discussed how to make the elementary curriculum flow logically into what students learn at middle school, then at high school. Until then, say school administrators, there was little coordination to link what a student learned from one year to the next. That‘s progress, of course, but it’s hard to understand why this goal would require a charter or, for that matter, why it wasn‘t accomplished about 30 years ago.

Merle Price spearheaded the Palisades charter cluster, initially as the principal at Pali High, before gradually rising to his current job as superintendent of District D, which covers much of the western portion of the school system. Price said that the range of innovation varies from school to school, and that because he respects his charters’ independence, he would not automatically impose a district mandate. And he wants his entire region of schools to base its teacher-evaluation system on the one developed at Westwood Charter Elementary, under the leadership of Principal Michelle Bennett.

In neighboring District G, which contains the CrenshawDorsey cluster, the charter schools ”don‘t really differ at all, because they are dependent charters,“ said Andrea Gordon, one of three administrators who directs elementary services. If these charters wanted to choose their own reading program, for example, they’d have to apply for a waiver just like any other district school, she said. Because some of these schools signed up with the district‘s LEARN reform program, they have a voice in choosing their principal. Others are stuck with whomever the district assigns.

looking forward, charter schools offer a potentially powerful vehicle for creating badly needed new schools quickly -- because they are exempt from restrictive state school-construction guidelines. A charter school can rent space from a church, it can fill the 5th floor of an office building, it can take over a 1970s mini-mall. Such schools are already taking shape.

Official attitudes toward charter schools have certainly changed since the early 1990s, when Principal Chan had to mortgage her house to keep Vaughn afloat during a budget battle with the school district. Now she recounts with pride that L.A. Unified sends staff over to take notes on how her school integrates disabled students into regular classrooms.

As a result, Chan has toned down her rhetorical mortar strikes. Her own test scores ”show how hard it is for an organizational change of this size. I can’t agree with the whole idea that you can turn a school district around in three years,“ she said. ”Even eight years is not enough for us, but we‘ve made progress. For L.A. Unified, a superintendent is going to need 10 years if that person can keep his focus. I haven’t seen it yet.“

On the other side, district officials have never viewed charter schools, despite some demonstrated seaworthiness, as buoys by which to navigate toward system-wide improvement. ”We need to focus on developing good school leaders,“ said Rao. ”That‘s more important than whether or not they run charter schools.