5 L.A. County Schools Face State Audit

Times Staff Writer

Maintaining pressure on California schools that fail to meet their growth targets in test scores, the state Board of Education on Thursday announced a list of 24 schools that will be audited and possibly face tougher sanctions.

With the exception of Blair High in Pasadena, all five of the Los Angeles County schools cited by the state are in the Antelope Valley: Tamarisk Elementary and Palm Tree Elementary in Palmdale, and Antelope Valley High and Wilsona Elementary in Lancaster. There were none listed in Orange, Riverside or Ventura counties.

Other Southern California schools included Vina Danks Middle in San Bernardino County, and Clairemont Senior High, Lexington Elementary, Central Elementary and Crestview Elementary, all in San Diego County.

The two dozen schools statewide could potentially face actions such as a principal's ouster or having its administration taken over by state employees. Such outcomes will be decided after evaluations of the campuses, which are expected to begin after April.

"It can be disheartening.... It tells us that we need to examine if we're not seeing [problems] ourselves," said Willie Thomas, assistant superintendent of educational services at the Palmdale School District, which includes Tamarisk and Palm Tree. Another school in the district, Mesa Intermediate, was cited for an audit earlier this year as part of a different state schools evaluation program.

Tamarisk's principal, Frances Ufondu, said she has been frustrated with her school's test scores, which have dropped two years in a row after a sizable gain in 1999. She said it was challenging to teach students in a predominantly low-income area.

"We feel very optimistic" about the state audit, Ufondu said. "I hope something good will come out of it."

The 24 schools to be evaluated voluntarily belong to the 3-year-old Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program, which provides consultation and extra funding in exchange for stricter student achievement targets.

Of the state's 8,800 public schools, 1,290 joined the program, which allows the state to audit a school when its test scores decline over two consecutive years.

Rich Boccia, an administrator at the Pasadena Unified School District, said Blair High's students struggled to adapt to changing state academic standards as they were rolled out. He said the school has spent months improving professional development to turn its test scores around.

"Nobody likes an audit," Boccia said. "It hurts."

Under a different initiative targeted for the California's 4,900 "Title I" schools that serve predominantly low-income students, the state announced audits for 13 schools in 2001 and 11 schools in 2002. Of those two dozen schools, 10 are in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"From monitoring the schools, we have seen a great deal of change, and we're hopeful that will translate to improved scores this spring," said Wendy Harris, assistant superintendent for the California Department of Education.

The auditing programs have been criticized by some officials for targeting a few schools that drop in performance two years in a row despite possessing admirable test scores. Some feel the time and money spent evaluating these high-achieving schools would be better spent on troubled campuses.

Such is the case for the soon-to-be audited Wilsona Elementary in Lancaster, which had to adjust to a 15% increase in enrollment last year. The school has the highest test scores of the 24 schools mentioned Thursday, and is on par with most other high-performing schools in the Antelope Valley.

"The public perception ... is that we have mega-problems," said Ned McNabb, superintendent of the Wilsona School District. "We don't. But we fully accept the responsibility that we need to improve test score gains.... It's not fair for quality teachers to be cast in that light."

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