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Schooling the Schools

Denise Ochoa says the fall semester started out unlike any other she had ever experienced at South Gate High School. A senior with college aspirations, she was primed for serious classes and expected to spend most of her time trying to ace her final year so that she could get into prestigious campuses like Pomona College, UC Santa Barbara and USC. Instead, Ochoa and most other South Gate students found themselves beset by the kind of chaos all too typical of large inner-city schools — overcrowded classrooms and not enough books or permanent teachers. “Basically, there were too many students and not enough space or materials,” says Ochoa. “In my honors government class there were 49 students, and 10 people sat on the floor. I’d never seen things this bad.”Yet these conditions were not typical of South Gate, a big, well-tended campus in a small Southeast L.A. town that exudes tradition and a certain civic pride. So after a couple of wholly dissatisfying months, Ochoa and hundreds of other students — led by the senior class president — took matters into their own hands and staged a protest, a boycott of classes that lasted a couple of days. The tactic worked. District officials responded swiftly, sending in more teachers and textbooks and pledging to let students make up any work missed due to a lack of teachers or books; they also promised to supply more college counselors for the seniors who were most affected by the problems. Ochoa says that while things aren’t perfect, they’re much better. “We just got fed up,” she says. “We’re seniors, and this was affecting us now. We didn’t have time to indulge mistakes.”The zero-tolerance attitude toward conditions that have long been tolerated has been visibly growing throughout LAUSD, not so much within the bureaucracy but within the school community itself. Students, parents and teachers are getting better organized and getting more of what they want. They’ve been emboldened by several developments: the small but steady successes of grassroots groups like the Coalition for Educational Justice, which has lobbied against overcrowding and the proliferation of standardized testing, among other things; the settlement last year of the Williams case, a class-action lawsuit brought against the state that charged it with failing to provide quality education for poor students; and, despite the overwhelmingly negative reputation of public schools, the ongoing taxpayer sympathy for them that was evidenced most recently in the easy passage of Proposition Y, a citywide bond measure that will pump billions of dollars into school construction. Billions more, that is; voters were probably encouraged by the fact that the district has finally built and opened new schools financed by bond measures of years past, with 32 campuses opening this year. Many more will be built in accordance with the Williams settlement, which requires the district to provide all students with 180 days of instruction, as opposed to the 163 generally provided by the year-round, multi-track system adopted by most inner-city schools years ago to relieve overcrowding. Ironically, it was because of the positive changes that South Gate High wound up in such a crunch. South Gate was one of the communities that got a new school this year, South East High, and the older school was switched back to a traditional September-to-June calendar after more than 20 years of being year-round. Administrators got 350 more students than they expected, not an enormous number, but enough to throw the school into a programming crisis. Principal Patrick Muretta says a good number of the extra students were seniors, which compounded the problem. School board member David Tokofsky, whose district includes South Gate, echoed several others in saying the problem was not simply extra students, but the convergence of a host of improvements enacted at the same time — notably “block” schedules, a feature of the “small learning” community model in which teachers teach four longer classes a day instead of the usual five or six. Tokofsky says that at South Gate, that left a couple hundred seniors who opted for extra classes without any options. And he questions the complaints of overcrowding, which he says ignored averages — teachers who had 50 students in one class, for instance, didn’t have that many in others. (Talk about looking for a silver lining.) Still, Tokofsky acknowledges that the South Gate protest was justified, and that the biggest problem now is the district catching up to the needs, and the demands, of the students it serves. “Revolutions happen in moments of rising expectations,” he says. “Expectations are rising now, and people are kind of caught betwixt and between. But it’s the bureaucrats who are caught, really, not the students.”The South Gate episode illuminated how the district got caught between two specific sets of expectations — one set at South Gate and another at Crenshaw High, where the Crenshaw Cougar Coalition, a parent-student-teacher group, formed after Crenshaw famously lost its accreditation this summer. The coalition has been gaining in size and influence since forming in August, up from a handful to a roster of a couple hundred. Its latest intervention was precipitated by a steep drop in fall enrollment — the opposite of the situation at South Gate — that had the district calling to cut Crenshaw’s teaching staff by roughly 20. The coalition protested, saying that the school had long needed smaller teacher-student ratios and now was the moment to institute that, not adhere to the status quo. The district compromised and ended up reassigning only six teachers. Tokofsky grumbles that he could have used those teachers; he wound up pulling math coaches from regional offices into the classroom to alleviate the problem at South Gate. Crenshaw Coalition members say that while they empathize with teacher shortages everywhere, it’s increasingly important for groups like theirs to stick to their agenda of reform.“If not now, when?” says Jocelyn Johnson, a Crenshaw parent and member of the coalition. “Our thinking is, okay, if the school is doing so poorly, and if people aren’t coming because of the accreditation problem, now is the perfect time to focus on getting those small classes. When classes are smaller and teachers can operate more freely and give more attention, you help those students who come to high school far below grade level. You can actually help to bridge that gap that is so wide, and that is such a problem.”Johnson adds that it’s crucial that the district continue to feel that its feet are being held to the fire, whether by a group of students who organized a protest in a matter of days, as happened at South Gate, or by a coalition that plans on sticking around — the Crenshaw group meets weekly, and is in the process of getting nonprofit status. “Our key is reaching out to not only Crenshaw parents, but parents and other people across the city who need a model,” says Johnson. “Basically, if you aren’t a squeaky wheel, you get no oil.”

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