Hard Lesson

Just when it looked like there were no more ironies left to illuminate in the deaccreditation story of Crenshaw High School, here’s the latest: the once overflowing campus is now so underpopulated that up to 20 teachers may be reassigned elsewhere.

Underpopulated is not quite the right word. Sure, the campus has lost well over 500 students since the Western Association of Schools and Colleges stripped Crenshaw of its accreditation in July and nervous parents started routing their kids elsewhere. But that has meant that Crenshaw now has roughly 2,600 students on a campus originally built for about 1,500 — a depressurizing that has meant many classes that were once upward of 40 students are now closer to 20, with some even smaller. This should be a good thing, even ideal. But based on the Los Angeles Unified School District’s own staffing formula, and its acceptance of overcrowded schools as normal, it is more than enough reason to send about 20 teachers packing to schools in greater need. Crenshaw has about 120 teachers on staff. The Crenshaw Cougar Coalition, a parent-teacher group that formed in August to watchdog the reaccreditation process, says that while it doesn’t begrudge worse-off schools getting extra teachers, this is exactly the wrong thing to do.

“Moving teachers out will be disruptive to students, and the class sizes will just go up again to unacceptable numbers, and we don’t want that,” says Jacqueline Lopez, a Crenshaw science teacher and a coalition member. “We want Crenshaw to make a new start, a fresh start. If anything good is going to come out of this deaccreditation experience, we have to stick to a new path.”

Lopez and other coalition members also say that teachers and students are being unfairly penalized for the sins of Crenshaw’s administration, which got the school deaccredited when it failed to submit a corrective plan to WASC in July, a plan the association expected the school to complete after putting it on probation two years ago. The deaccreditation, the first for an LAUSD campus in more than 30 years, was widely assumed to be the result of poor academics rather than poor management; that wasn’t true, not this time anyway, but the damage was done. Parents already leery of Crenshaw’s reputation began moving their kids to neighboring schools like Hamilton, and the incoming freshman class has been smaller than expected. The coalition believes that because the district wanted to downplay a colossal bureaucratic failure, officials were slow to educate parents about what was actually happening at Crenshaw — including the fact that the school is still accredited while the district goes through the appeals process (a decision will be made in January next year). Even if the appeal fails, the school will get another visit from the WASC shortly thereafter in the spring, and have another shot at accreditation.

But Lopez says the real picture either isn’t registering or convincing people; Crenshaw’s deaccredited status has already spun into something of an urban myth. “Lots of people think we’ve closed down, like a restaurant that was closed by the health department or something,” says Lopez. She adds that the underpopulation is hardly across the board: while her own ninth-grade classes are small, several 10th-grade classes run between 30 and 35. “It really depends on the grade and what you’re teaching,” she says.

Alarmed at what it sees as the possible dismantling of a local institution that’s finally getting the spotlight it needs, the coalition has gone on the media offensive with public meetings and press conferences that stress preserving and improving, not downsizing, Crenshaw. The local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has joined the cause, giving the save-Crenshaw effort the tenor of a civil-rights campaign. Now 150 strong, the coalition says it wants to hold district officials to a very public pledge it made in August to not only restore accreditation, but to finally institute the reforms that would move Crenshaw from being generally dysfunctional — the state of most schools in South Central — to exceptional. The district has actually taken some uncharacteristic action since then: four of the guilty administrators at Crenshaw are gone, including the principal. There is a new testing coordinator, a new counselor to deal with excessive absences, new math and science coaches, a full-time nurse. Textbooks arrive more swiftly. The coalition says these developments are all progress, progress that could be impeded by the uprooting of 20 teachers (“The district screwed up, so let them take the money they need for other teachers at other schools out of their salaries,” says one disgruntled coalition member who asked not to be named). Reassignment is nothing new, nor is it illegal, but Lopez and others argue that Crenshaw is a special case, and should be treated accordingly. “Kids are saying these smaller classes are like heaven, and they’re already being shuffled around to fill up empty spaces,” says Lopez. “The real issue is, what’s going to happen when accreditation is restored and the population goes back up? We hate to see things go back to the status quo.”

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