Los Angeles Times

Showdown looms over class credits

Two years ago, La Cañada Unified School District's summer school program was on life support, a victim of shrinking state financing for public education. The La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation revived it, taking financial responsibility from the cash-strapped district and increasing enrollment.

Meanwhile, a block away from La Cañada High School, the private Hillside School and Learning Center offers a summer school program used by local families for years, with the classroom credits that students earn accepted by La Cañada Unified.

Today, continued acceptance of those credits is in doubt, as the La Cañada Unified school board is expected this month to revisit policy regarding credits earned outside the district. The decision could leave Hillside on the outside.

The debate is nearly two years old. In January 2011, then-La Cañada Unified Supt. Jim Stratton proposed a credit standard based on instructional minutes, or “seat time,” for students. While the foundation’s summer school requires students to spend four hours each day in class, Hillside's classes are generally two hours long and are supplemented by online components.

But Stratton's proposal stalled, and in June of 2012 his successor, Supt. Wendy Sinnette, issued a report suggesting the district allow credits earned elsewhere if the learning institution meets the approval of the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, an accrediting agency that evaluates numerous college and school programs.

This month, the school board is expected to consider the policy.

Proponents of an instructional-minutes plan say LCUSD needs to keep its standards high to preserve its reputation as one of the best Two years ago, La Cañada Unified School District's summer school program was on life support, a victim of shrinking state financing for public education. The La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation revived it, taking financial responsibility from the cash-strapped district and increasing enrollment.

Meanwhile, a block away from La Cañada High School, the private Hillside School and Learning Center offers a summer school program used by local families for years, with the classroom credits that students earn accepted by La Cañada Unified.

Today, continued acceptance of those credits is in doubt, as the La Cañada Unified school board is expected this month to revisit policy regarding credits earned outside the district. The decision could leave Hillside on the outside.

The debate is nearly two years old. In January 2011, then-La Cañada Unified Supt. Jim Stratton proposed a credit standard based on instructional minutes, or “seat time,” for students. While the foundation’s summer school requires students to spend four hours each day in class, Hillside's classes are generally two hours long and are supplemented by online components.

But Stratton's proposal stalled, and in June of 2012 his successor, Supt. Wendy Sinnette, issued a report suggesting the district allow credits earned elsewhere if the learning institution meets the approval of the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, an accrediting agency that evaluates numerous college and school programs.

This month, the school board is expected to consider the policy.

Proponents of an instructional-minutes plan say LCUSD needs to keep its standards high to preserve its reputation as one of the best school districts in California. Opponents of the change say instituting a new standard unnecessarily limits options for local families.

Hillside Executive Director Bob Frank believes the policy debate masks an effort to deliver a competitive edge to the educational foundation's summer school at the expense of his program. Frank, whose school credits have been accepted by La Cañada Unified for at least 15 years, pointed out that his program recently received a positive review from WASC and said no one questioned Hillside's summer program until the foundation took hold of the district's summer schedule.

“When the foundation took over the summer school, all of a sudden we had an issue,” he said.

Jinny Dalbeck, a former La Cañada Unified board member who heads the foundation's summer school program, said the district should do what is in the best interest of students.

“I don't see us as being competition to Hillside, just like Hillside isn't competition to us,” Dalbeck said. “We're too busy looking at our program. We're not looking at other people's programs.”

“We're running what we feel is a quality program,” Dalbeck added. “We're not going to compromise our standards.”

The educational foundation, which this year raised more than $2 million to help pay for LCUSD teacher salaries, the summer school program, technological upgrades and more, has revived the district's summer school.

In 2010, the first year the foundation ran the summer school, 270 students attended the two-session program. In 2011, 367 students enrolled in a variety of classes. What had been an $89,000 annual expense for the district was no longer a burden, and this year the foundation netted an $18,000 gain from the summer program.

“It's very much a success for the foundation in the eyes of the community,” Dalbeck said.

Hillside, meanwhile, has operated in La Cañada for 40 years, serving LCUSD students and others. In a recent evaluation, a WASC administrator praised Hillside's summer session.

“I had not seen such a combination of independent study methods used by most alternative schools along with direct instruction in a summer school setting,” WASC Associate Executive Director Dr. Lee Duncan wrote on July 12. “My time at [Hillside] convinced me that this program can work efficiently and effectively.”

Frank pointed to the glowing WASC appraisal as a sign of Hillside's quality. He said students are more likely to stay focused when classes are shorter, and said Hillside offers other advantages, such as smaller classes and supplemental materials. He notes that three of the school’s seven teachers are retired or current La Cañada High School teachers, and their experience makes a big difference.

“We listen to parents,” he said. “We take what they say seriously.”

The school board may take up the policy as early as Tuesday's meeting.

Board member Andrew Blumenfeld, a former La Cañada High student who took a summer class at Hillside, said he believes now is not the time to change course. For parents, Blumenfeld said, “Choice is incredibly valuable.”

Dalbeck said the district needs to decide what's in students' best interests.

“We want to keep the bar high,” she said. “The more we expect of our students, the more they perform.”

Frank said he hopes the board brings “finality” to the debate, but said he believes there is room for more than one educational model to work.

“My wish is that they do well,” Frank said of the educational foundation’s summer school program. “My feeling is there’s plenty to go around.”

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