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Harder Than It Looks: Villaraigosa’s “Model” Schools Bite Back

Illustration by Fred Noland

Ronni Ephraim vividly remembers two sad-eyed twin girls struggling through third grade at Limerick Elementary School in Canoga Park. Absent as often as they attended class, they were unable to read, were behind in their lessons, and were on an early path taken by tens of thousands of students who finally just drop out of the massive Los Angeles Unified School District.

It was odd that the sisters skipped class on alternate days, one showing up on Mondays, the other on Tuesdays — but never at the same time.

“We found out they were sharing a pair of shoes,” says Ephraim, who was then the principal at Limerick before becoming the district’s chief instructional officer, a job she recently left after fighting the bureaucracy for years — and sometimes prevailing.

She remembers how the PTA and local civic and business organizations took up collections for the girls. “If we hadn’t intervened,” says Ephraim, a widely acknowledged change agent who now uses her experience to train faculty members at USC, “they would have gone on to the fourth grade not reading and the fifth grade not reading. It could have led to later frustration, patterns of D’s and F’s, and the despair that causes a lot of students to drop out.”

As many teachers leave for summer break, and thousands of kids are shut out of summer-school catch-up classes that have been canceled because of LAUSD’s severe budget cuts, the latest student dropout rates have cast a new pall — and prompted criticism of a two-year push by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to stanch the hemorrhaging.

The precise Los Angeles dropout figure for 2008, as calculated by the state — 34.9 percent — jumped by nearly 10 percent from the year before. And from 2006 to 2007, dropouts in LAUSD also soared by 10 percent — in raw human numbers, that means some 20,000 students vanished from campuses from San Pedro to the San Fernando Valley.

Dropouts for 2009 cannot be calculated for another year, but the fear about what is unfolding, without real-time measurements, is palpable.

One top administrator labels the situation a “catastrophe,” while Superintendent Ramon Cortines — addressing a recent Board of Education meeting — brands the situation “completely unacceptable.”

The city’s dropout crisis consistently attracts political razzle-dazzle, yet so far, none of that firepower is producing results. On a rainy Friday morning in May, for example, an event called the “Dropout Prevention Summit” convened at the showy new Central Los Angeles High School No. 9, the notorious campus where $232 million was spent on cone-shaped buildings and spiffy towers, but whose eye-catching downtown architecture might now be called the stairs to nowhere.

L.A. Weekly was among the first to report last fall on this strange, beautiful and entirely unplanned school. Fitted with a state-of-the art theater and interior design, this glittering school’s overlords — the elected LAUSD school board — failed, entirely, to decide what kind of teaching to stress, which curriculum to use, how to determine the student-selection process, or how to attain academic excellence via a heavy arts program.

This edifice to vagueness was now the site for a daylong program in which Villaraigosa stationed himself in front of the TV cameras but offered no particulars about what’s really driving the kids out of LAUSD, except to say, essentially, I told you so.

“One of the most important things we can do around the dropout rate,” Villaraigosa said, “is to track it.”

Tracking the rate — something the bureaucrats have been doing for years — will help to determine why students are dropping out, Villaraigosa announced.

The mayor was asked, does he have an opinion on exactly why students are dropping out? “Yes, I think for the longest time this school district refused to accept what five studies have said: There is a dropout crisis. When I was asserting there was a dropout crisis, they challenged it.”

Under this logic, then, the existence of a crisis — or the refusal to acknowledge a crisis — is the reason for the crisis. Villaraigosa looked sharp in his shiny blue tie and charcoal suit, and seemed sincere as he grabbed a few moments of TV exposure. Yet months’ worth of work by the mayor’s handpicked team to turn around just 10 of his own schools — a flanking maneuver he undertook after he’d failed to grab full control of all 658 LAUSD schools — is now badly foundering.

Teachers are in revolt at all but one of the schools Villaraigosa now controls, a vivid example of the fervent infighting that consumes huge amounts of time at LAUSD, while creating divisiveness and poor morale.

His Partnership for L.A. Schools program has begun gradually spreading more than $60 million across a small group of supposedly lucky schools, with the money aimed at improving classroom instruction and teaching abilities over the next decade. The Partnership wants teachers at Villaraigosa’s “model” schools who get these substantial extra funds to stress core skills and college prep, while promoting students’ self-esteem.

 

The reviews are now pouring in from those campuses. They aren’t good. Teachers working under the experiment are asking, “Where’s the money going? Where’s the leadership? Why are things more screwed up than ever?”

Faculty at Boyle Heights’ Roosevelt High School were the first to go public, just as the district-wide dropout statistics were about to be released, with embittered teachers slamming the mayor’s effort as merely a rival bureaucracy to the LAUSD.

The ultimate insult came when teachers at nine of the 10 campuses gave Villaraigosa’s reform teams a “no-confidence” vote. At the 10th campus, a vote supporting his policies was being disputed because of voting irregularities, says veteran Roosevelt High teacher John Fernandez.

“Probably the most glaring issue [at Roosevelt] is a lack of any governing structure,” Fernandez laments. After all the mayor’s fine speeches, he says, “No one knows who is making the decisions. Our expectation was that it would be an equal partnership. ... We, the teachers, would work in collaboration with [the Partnership]. We would help determine the goals, strategies, direction and the reforms [affecting the high school]. That has not happened.”

Fernandez says a reorganization was simply imposed, which on paper divided the high school into seven separate schools, each left to create its own curriculum, theme and mission. At his heavily Latino, heavily immigrant school, he says, teachers had no voice in establishing the mission; valuable vocational and technical classes were slashed; and the hundreds of thousands promised was never made available.

“They’re forcing kids to take college-preparatory classes,” he says. “I have no problem with that, but you have to have a curriculum that’s flexible enough to serve the kids who cannot go to college. Many of them need to support their families by getting jobs. By taking out the vocational courses, the technical courses, and eliminating elective courses, in my opinion, it’s only going to exacerbate the dropout rate.”

Marshall Tuck, CEO of the mayor’s Partnership group, blames the no-confidence votes in part on teacher anger over job losses district-wide. Tuck insists that Roosevelt got all of its extra money — some $300,000 — on top of its budget of about $35 million.

He staunchly defends the decision to impose a mandatory college-preparatory curriculum, optimistically declaring that Eastside students who once took sewing classes or wood shop will now take biology and physics.

“To be able to get a living-wage job, you need to be able to read well, write, do basic mathematics, and have critical-thinking skills,” Tuck says.

But some experts believe dropout rates will continue to climb, both under Villaraigosa’s beleaguered Partnership, and district-wide, as these two rival bureaucracies take steps like cutting out popular classes.

Debra Duardo, LAUSD’s director of Dropout Prevention and Recovery, says special elective classes like auto repair, wood shop, arts, dance and sports “are, for some kids, the main reason they show up for school.”

Ironically, or cruelly, some might say, LAUSD has quietly slashed its Diploma Project, the one program specifically aimed at keeping students in school. In the current school year, the Diploma Project placed special advisers at 80 schools with high dropout rates, assigning them to find and counsel teenagers most likely to quit. But this coming fall, if a school wants a dropout adviser, it must purchase the position with funds from its own budget, instead of relying on the school district. Duardo estimates that half of the schools will drop this innovation.

Some parents and community leaders watch such tradeoffs with increasing cynicism toward both the mayor and Cortines.

“People do not believe the district is doing the best it can with the money it has,” says Bill Ring, a parent and activist who was involved in the lawsuit to keep Villaraigosa from commandeering the entire district. “I would say there’s no trust. Parents do not trust the district to do the right thing.”

Former board member David Tokofsky pointedly says, “L.A. Unified is in an advanced state of chaos. ... Unlike [President] Obama, they are not peddling much hope right now.”

One of the LAUSD schools showing some success is Grover Cleveland High in Reseda, a San Fernando Valley campus of nearly 4,000 students, where one in four drops out — a statistic that is better than the district average. Assistant Principal Robert Rakauskas, who oversees Cleveland’s dropout-prevention efforts, says his school’s stable, longtime teachers are essential to any improvements. The school carefully tracks attendance, and “when we see students who look like they’re at risk of dropping out ... we meet with the parents,” he says. “We do a lot of mailing, a lot of calling. We try to come up with the best alternative placements, like home-student programs, or continuation school, or a vocational program — all of which eventually lead to a high school diploma. We try to know what the students’ interests are and get their parents involved.

 

“But we don’t have the staff, right?” Rakauskas adds. “We’re all working in a frenzy.”

Last year, Cleveland, a heavily Latino school in a sometimes-rough area, was assigned one of the district’s special dropout counselors. She was extremely helpful, but near the end of the year, she was assigned elsewhere, because Cleveland’s dropout rate was deemed “too low.” A later bulletin indicated that Cleveland’s rate had doubled, leaving the high school’s administrators baffled — but perhaps not shocked, in a school district that for months could not fix its own teacher-payroll fiasco.

“We’re trying to get answers about what look to be contradictory statements,” Rakauskas says.

Even the raw dropout numbers can be inaccurate, misleading and in some cases deliberately skewed, depending on how they are tabulated and how long a student must be missing from class to be considered a dropout.

Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles–based think tank, says school leaders in years past underreported LAUSD’s dropout rates — a fact that a Harvard University study unveiled and the district now acknowledges. “They’ve always been downplayed and made to seem less,” Hicks says, because average daily attendance is used to determine the state funding of local districts. “There is a lot of money at stake, which drives the desire to plump up the figures.”

The big, upward tick in the number of kids disappearing from their schools may in part reflect more accurate reporting, but Hicks sees a host of factors: the selfish interests of politicians and teachers unions, parent apathy, fear among teenagers about gang retribution and violence, language barriers, and the bloated LAUSD bureaucracy and school board.

“We’ve got a whole building full of edu-crats, who really provide little in the way of real worth to the schools,” Hicks says. “That needs to be rooted out.”

He cautions, though, that not all of the fault is the district’s, Villaraigosa’s or teachers’. “There’s some blame to be borne by parents. ... You can’t expect school districts to do what parents aren’t doing at home — turning off the TV and making sure [students] are doing their homework, exposing them to books, and getting them to libraries to check out books.

“What have the parents done wrong? What have communities done wrong? What’s the totality of the picture that’s causing a kid, at 13, 14 or 15, to say, ‘I don’t need to stay in school’”

The truth is, none of the adults from LAUSD or the Partnership have that answer. Alvaro Alvarenga of the district’s Parent Community Services Branch tries to educate families about the importance of gaining a high school diploma. Her advice is almost painfully practical. “When I was a teacher, I recommended finding a time and a quiet place to do homework, and then a time for TV. When you have five or six people living in a one-bedroom apartment, there is no quiet place to do homework.”

Yet parent Rosalia Olaya, who attended Fairfax High School and has sent her three children to LAUSD schools, says something deeper is driving young teens away from school. “It seems like this generation of kids are apathetic,” she says. “ I don’t think they have that much desire [for success].”

Back in the cavernous and luxurious new auditorium at Central Los Angeles High School No. 9, the dropout summit continues with a slide show and speeches. Villaraigosa goes out of his way to praise School Board president Monica Garcia and board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, two of his staunch political allies, under whose watch the dropout rate has increased. About two dozen teenage students, dressed in bright-yellow T-shirts, fill a section of seats on a morning when they would otherwise be in class. “Inside every student is a graduate,” the shirts proclaim.

The dropout summit is, by itself, a great educational experience for students who are missing several hours of class, says dropout czar Duardo — the kind of claim made continually over the years by bureaucrats in a district where high school kids watch lots of films, go on field trips, and still can’t multiply fractions.

Finally, the session breaks up into small “think tanks,” where students have a chance, alongside teachers and parents, to voice their ideas for solving the dropout crisis.

One of their main proposals, Duardo says later, is that the kids want to sleep in. “One of the things they said is that [classes start] too early. They’re not awake. If you look at the research on brain development, that’s not their functional time.”

 

Good to know — another fact for the district and Villaraigosa to address in their strangely parallel, Rube Goldberg–esque attempts to sift through priorities. “Kids are saying we shouldn’t start school until 10 o’clock,” Duardo offers. “I think it’s definitely something the district could look into — possibly make it an option. Give them more flexibility.”


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