The Los Angeles Board of Education on Monday gave the go-ahead to four Pacific Palisades schools to embark on a unique "charter school" experiment, freeing the campuses from cumbersome state and district rules that regulate classroom teaching.
The 6-1 board approval of applications from Pacific Palisades High School and three of its feeder elementary schools marks the first time since state legislation was enacted in January that a cluster of schools has joined forces to attempt to improve student achievement.
The Palisades charter designation culminated six months of intense planning among principals, teachers and parents and will be closely watched throughout the district as a model of how school clusters can work.
By the beginning of the 1994-95 school year, Supt. Sid Thompson vows that all 650 Los Angeles Unified School District campuses will be grouped in about 25 clusters of high schools and their feeder campuses as part of the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now reform movement.
"What has happened here can really be seen as a model for what we are trying to achieve throughout the school system," said school board member Mark Slavkin, who represents the area. "Many of the themes they have embraced are similar to what we are trying to achieve in LEARN."
Under LEARN, principals, working with teachers and parents, will make nearly all school site decisions. The Palisades schools did not want to wait for the district's LEARN program to take hold. Under their charter applications, the campuses--which include Marquez, Canyon and Pacific Palisades elementary schools--have won the autonomy to devise their own curriculum, graduation requirements and teaching methods. They will rely on the district for business services, such as budgeting, transportation, cafeteria services and employee labor negotiations.
"This charter is the best way to go for us," said Pam Burns, a parent activist who coordinated the applications. "The LEARN time frame is uncertain, the breakup is a political minefield. The kids are here right now. We felt a charter gives us what we want right away."
The state Charter Schools Act was passed last fall to allow schools to try to improve student performance by freeing them from the voluminous constraints of the state Education Code. Under the law, up to 100 schools in California and 10 in any one school district can achieve charter status, which continues the schools' public funding.
Eighteen schools throughout the state have been designated as charters by the State Board of Education. With approval of the Palisades four, Los Angeles Unified now has seven charter schools--Vaughn Street Elementary in Pacoima; the Open School, a small Westside campus, and Edu-Train, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that teaches dropouts.
Merle Price, principal of Palisades High School, said during the first year about 200 ninth- and 10th-graders and about 27 volunteer teachers will embark on a "school within a school" program. Students who volunteer to participate will go through a rigorous, individualized course schedule that will focus on interdisciplinary instruction.
Also, graduation requirements will be altered to include community service. Teachers will have flexibility to design their courses.
Under the five-year charter contract, Price said a goal is to raise the students' achievement 10% per year. They will be evaluated on a number of fronts, including attendance, state test scores and the numbers who enroll in advanced courses. Goals state that 95% of charter students should attend college. About two-thirds of the youths at the 1,500-student Palisades campus travel from outside communities.
The three elementary schools will embark on team-teaching methods to bring a variety of courses to children.
Because all four schools have vacant classrooms, one part of their programs will be to devise outreach programs so parents throughout Los Angeles can choose to enroll their children in Palisades schools. There is little school choice for parents under district rules. By improving the education program, principals hope to attract more neighborhood children, many whom now go to private schools.
Their efforts came under intense scrutiny over the last two weeks after education experts from four civil rights groups, including the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who said that achievement standards were not clear and that children from inner-city neighborhoods may be shortchanged and not benefit from the innovative programs.
Also, school officials and civil rights groups objected to the first draft of the application, which called for all four schools to be considered a single charter application. Some perceived this as an attempt by schools in one community to initiate their own breakup from the district.
Thompson said such a move would set a bad precedent, opening the door for schools to decide to band together and break away by using the charter process. The issue is particularly sensitive because the district opposes legislative efforts to break it up into seven units.
"Where do you draw the line on that?" Thompson asked. "Could 50 schools be one charter? Would a region be one charter. That was a problem for me. That is not what we should be about."
In response to the concerns, school leaders submitted separate applications for the five-year charter and drafted achievement standards. The schools must also follow the district's guidelines for bilingual education and integration ratios.
School board member Barbara Boudreaux opposed the application, saying important details had not been worked out.
In other action, the school board approved a number of management contracts as part of Thompson's restructuring effort. Thompson filled three key administrative posts with longtime district officials.
Amelia McKenna, a mid-level manager who is an assistant to a regional elementary school superintendent becomes chief of district school instruction. Daniel M. Isaacs, head of the senior high school division, was named school operations chief in charge of the day-to-day running of every campus. Gordon P. Wholers, who has been in charge of directing school reform efforts and calendar schedules, becomes quality control manager, supervising evaluation of principals and LEARN.