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Snatching Victory From the Jaws of Social Promotion

It’s hard to believe now, what with half the political world watching, but there was a time when almost nobody was interested in Miguel Lopes’ kids. They were the cutups, the laggards. Teachers banished them to the hallway, sighed with relief when they ditched.

When the Long Beach school district, where Lopes is a principal, set out to give them a special campus, the neighbors sought an injunction. They imagined a school full of delinquents next door. Lopes wasn’t surprised. Nothing makes a town more uncomfortable than having to face the fact that a bunch of its kids’ grades are poor.

But this was Long Beach, the city with some experience in uncomfortable school issues. (These were the people who brought the nation public school uniforms.) For an encore, the district had taken on “social promotion,” the practice of passing students based not on achievement, but on age and attendance. Change meant taking a hard look at those kids almost nobody had cared about before.

At the time, social promotion was a simmering issue; now it’s a political comer, though it still generates less action than talk. Long Beach set up nonnegotiable checkpoints. If you couldn’t read by third grade, for instance, you were shipped to an intensive summer program. The toughest hurdle was for eighth-graders, who were told: Two Fs and you get held back for a year at the Long Beach Preparatory Academy, Lopes’ school.

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Next week, Lopes will graduate his first class of suddenly interesting kids. To the extent you can stand one more word about politics and its new best pal, education, his story offers an interesting preview of California’s next big debate.

The school was thrown up in about five months in an old GTE maintenance yard. Underwritten by budget reserves, it was basically a bunch of prefab barracks across from a used car lot.

There were 425 angry kids when the school opened in September, possibly the biggest single group of Californians to be flunked in a generation, maybe two. There was beach-blond Adrian Chavez, whose teacher had once told him that he was “wasting taxpayers’ money,” and freckle-nosed Monique Flores, known for picking fights. There was Brandon Perkins, an ordinarily bright kid who, according to his mother, had a terrible report card and “the attitude to go along with it.” There was Jose Benavides, whose grades sank when his parents divorced.

These kids’ desperation would have been apparent if anyone had asked. But middle schools are big, full of flying hormones and teachers who’ve had it up to here. Long Beach Prep was the opposite. Twenty kids, max, to a classroom. Ninety-minute classes, lots of time. An on-site social worker and a full-time psychologist. Every child, at any moment, had an adult to talk to; faculty took kids to dinner, visited their homes.

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And, importantly, there was money. By year-end, the district would spend about $6,300 per pupil, $2,500 more than if the district had just passed the kids. That was the upside. The downside was that when the school opened, 13 of the 18 teachers hired were inexperienced, and seven of them were uncredentialed. The kids took such advantage that Lopes had to hire a dean of discipline.

By year-end, only 292 students remained; most of the rest had moved, been expelled or been reassigned to programs for, say, non-English-speakers or the handicapped. Of those left, however, only 32 failed to raise their grades to passing. Even more striking was their gratitude, tarnished as it may be by embarrassment.

Adrian Chavez spoke of his relief at finally being able to talk to someone about his father and brother in prison, about his dream of becoming a boat captain, about how it hurts when teachers ridicule. Monique Flores credited teachers with helping her gain the confidence to realize that “the reason I’d get really mad was because I didn’t want to accept my own faults.” Brandon Perkins’ mother reported “a complete turnaround.” Jose Benavides said he had developed a friendship with a teacher for the first time in his life.

Politically, there’s grist here for every perspective. The kids buckled down, but kids tend to buckle down in ninth grade anyway. Their grasp of fundamentals improved significantly, but when they get back to their peers it’s unclear whether they’ll turn off again because they feel ashamed.

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But it’s interesting, in this year of fat state budgets and proposed tax cuts, what a difference serious money can make in a state that has strangled its schools for two decades. Sixty-three hundred per kid is just short of the national average, by the way.

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Shawn Hubler’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Her e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com


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