As children prepare to begin school Tuesday, the talk among Los Angeles school district and teachers union bigwigs is the start-up of a landmark plan to grant committees of teachers, parents and principals far-reaching authority over the ailing city school system.
But the work of Camellia Avenue Elementary School Principal Judith Hergesheimer suggests that maybe schools need new ideas rather than new bosses.
Hergesheimer has combined the elements of the Los Angeles Unified School District's highly touted magnet school program with a power-sharing management style that has earned her North Hollywood school districtwide attention as well as a prestigious grant.
"If she can persuade people to buy into the idea, that's great," said Los Angeles district Supt. William R. Anton. "The bottom line is that it works as long as kids are learning." When Hergesheimer transferred to Camellia two years ago, school test scores were among the lowest in the city. She said she had no time to wait for the Los Angeles school district to begin "school-based management," an ambitious reorganization giving parents and teachers a greater say in the running of schools.
Under the district reorganization, which was part of the teachers strike settlement 15 months ago, all of the district's more than 600 schools have elected decision-making councils that are intended to run the schools in future years.
Hergesheimer said drastic action was needed at Camellia right away.
"Whatever was happening here before wasn't working," Hergesheimer said. "Our test scores were well below the district and state ranks. That almost gave us carte blanche. It's easier to take a risk when you don't have much to lose."
So Hergesheimer did what successful principals have been doing for years--she set a new course for the school and enlisted support from teachers and parents.
At one of the first faculty meetings after transferring from Melvin Avenue Elementary School in Reseda, which had won an award for excellence from the U.S. Department of Education, Hergesheimer told the teachers she wanted to make Camellia more like a magnet school.
As part of a voluntary desegregation plan, Los Angeles school district officials created magnet schools that specialize in subjects such as the arts, science and math, or offer programs for gifted students. The test scores at Los Angeles magnet schools are well above the district's average and waiting lists are sometimes years long.
"The magnet schools are popular, parents want their children there, teachers want to work there, so I asked, 'What can we do to emulate the positive aspects of the magnet school?' " Hergesheimer said.
The result was the creation of Camellia's "mini-magnet" program. The 1,000 students who attend the year-round school are grouped into four tracks having vacations at different times throughout the school year.
Hergesheimer asked teachers in each track to develop classroom lessons around a particular theme.
The themes are communication, performing and visual arts, social science and the arts, and social science and the world community. Students also study state-required disciplines that include math, English and reading.
"The idea is to bring the teachers in each track together, to build a curriculum that hangs together rather than isolating subjects and specific skills," Hergesheimer said.
The Camellia mini-magnet idea has earned the attention of big-name oil and banking foundations that make up the California Educational Initiatives Fund, which awarded the school a $12,000 grant. The school has also been selected as a model school by the district, one of only two in the San Fernando Valley and 13 citywide.
"Magnet schools all have themes, but what is new at Camellia is four themes at once," said Raymond Jung, a professor of education at Cal State Northridge who has been hired by the district to evaluate the school program at the end of the 1990-91 school year. "Its purpose must be to improve student achievement through improved instruction."
In addition to Jung, the school will also be evaluated by a board of trustees to oversee the state grant this year. Selection of board members by school officials was promised as part of the grant proposal.
Because the mini-magnet began only last year, it is still too early to measure whether students are learning more. Student test scores at Camellia ranked well below district and state averages, and the sixth-graders who graduated in 1988 scored last in the reading portion of the California Assessment Program test when ranked against 37 other elementary schools in the area.
But instead of being discouraged by the low test scores, teachers arrive early for work and talk enthusiastically of the new plan. Parents in the largely Latino, working-class neighborhood now fill the auditorium for meetings.
"Here is an example of what the magnet school idea could do for all children," said Camellia parent Tony Alcala.
Norman K. Crocker, the Camellia teachers union representative and a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher said "the program is working well. All the teachers are involved."
In teacher Julie Baron's sixth-grade class, for example, students are creating an imaginary classroom banking system that enables them to write checks for purchases such as toys and books with money earned from classroom jobs such as line monitor and cleanup crew. Bounced checks cost students $10 and rent for their desk space is $20 a month. They earn $1.25 a day for attendance.
Later in the year, students in Baron's class will choose countries in Africa to study and create a new banking system for those countries. They will eventually trade goods and services among themselves, requiring knowledge of international rates of exchange, Baron said.
"Our theme is 'Social Science, the World Around Us,' " Baron said. "For me, teaching out of the textbook is boring. For the students, they are more likely to remember something if they've experienced it."
First-grade teacher Patty Lopez, whose students are also studying a social science theme, said pupils are creating a mural showing their homes and neighborhoods.
"To teach children about their environment you have to start with something they know," Lopez said. "After we draw their neighborhoods we can go on to talk about North Hollywood, then California and the United States."
Hergesheimer said the work of those teachers and others illustrates her desire to have students experience what they learn. Students are creating museums and giving other classes tours, and they are putting on performances of plays and music.
Camellia teacher Nancie Perozzi, who has a combination class of second- and third-graders, said the classroom activities being created in the school's mini-magnet program are giving children a chance to be successful.
"Maybe they can sing or dance, or work the computer, or sew a costume, something besides just pushing a pencil," Perozzi said. "The results may not show up right away but maybe we can get them hooked on school and keep them from dropping out in the ninth grade."