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Board OKs Plan to Reverse Low School Achievement

Times Education Writers

The Los Angeles Board of Education on Monday unanimously endorsed a 10-year, $431-million plan to reverse years of low academic achievement, particularly among students in poor, minority neighborhoods.

School board President Roberta Weintraub called the 7-0 vote approving the plan “probably one of the most important things we do this year.”

She added that her only regret was that the plan’s adoption coincides with “horrendous budget cuts"--amounting to perhaps as much as $90 million--that the board faces as it attempts to find the money to pay for higher teacher salaries.

Supt. Leonard Britton urged the board to adopt the plan based on its general philosophic outlines and not quibble over its specifics. He said he will bring back details for the first round of implementation in about a month.

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“Some strategies may need to be accelerated,” he said, “and some may be delayed.”

Board member Leticia Quezada sounded a note of skepticism because of what she said was the board’s poor history of following up on other proposals to help inner-city schools.

“We may be making a lot of false promises to a lot of people who don’t deserve false promises,” said Quezada, who said she nevertheless supported the plan.

Quezada and board member Rita Walters both stressed that they thought the plan’s greatest accomplishment was its recognition that “institutional racism” has hurt minority students’ education.

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The board’s vote came on the same day as a federal judge dismissed the last defendant in a long-running desegregation lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District. The achievement plan is not directly related to demands made in the case brought by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, but addresses some of the same concerns. The NAACP asked to have the suit dismissed because it could no longer afford to press the case.

Some board members expressed concern about the high cost of implementing many of the proposals, which include smaller classes in kindergarten through the second grade, pre-kindergarten instruction for all 4-year-olds and more decision-making power for teachers. But Walters said the alternative--under-educating youngsters who, as a result, would enter a cycle of failure and crime--would be even costlier.

“It’s a high societal cost to put people in jail and keep them there,” she said.

Implementation of the plan seems to face other difficulties. For example, board member Jackie Goldberg recommended that the program start in the 35 schools with the lowest test scores, specifically those with scores below the 20th percentile on a nationally standardized achievement test. But Quezada, who represents most of the eastern region of the district, said such a strict numerical formula would skip over large swatches of Central Los Angeles where many Latin American immigrants live.

The plan drew mixed reactions from community leaders, who believe that the report inadequately focuses on the specific needs of black, Latino and Asian youngsters.

Alan Clayton of the California League of United Latin American Citizens said at the board meeting that he approved of the proposal but said it would not work unless the district drastically steps up recruitment of minorities in teaching and administrative jobs.

Developed by a team of teachers and administrators, the plan, outlined in a 179-page document, offered 38 recommendations, which included a number of far-reaching ideas that large and small school districts around the country have turned to as a means of reversing low test scores and high dropout rates.

One of the more controversial elements called for creating at each school a “shared decision-making” team of teachers, parents, administrators and clerical workers, which would work together to run the school. An increasingly popular concept among reform-minded districts, it operates on the theory that more highly qualified people will want to become teachers, and education overall will benefit if teachers are given greater power to shape their schools.

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As proposed under the Los Angeles plan, teachers would form the majority of each school team. Some board members, such as Walters, have said they do not believe teachers should hold the balance of power on the decision-making councils.

Another recommendation would allow schools to set their own spending priorities, an attempt at decentralizing power in the mammoth district. Other parts of the plan call for giving elementary school principals and teachers one afternoon a week for planning and conferences.

District statistics show that among all elementary students districtwide, the majority--56%--scored at or below the 40th percentile on the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills, a nationally standardized test of reading, writing and mathematics. Among students at the district’s predominantly black or Latino schools, the percentage scoring at or below the 40th percentile rises to 90%. That means that 60% of elementary students nationally scored better than the vast majority of students in the district’s most heavily minority schools.

The Los Angeles school district, the nation’s second largest behind New York City, has 595,000 students, 59% of whom are Latino. Blacks represent 16.7%, Anglos 15.8%, Asians 5.9%, Filipinos 1.9%, Pacific Islanders 0.5% and American Indians 0.2%.


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