When the Los Angeles school district was confronted this week with news of alarmingly low graduation rates, officials from the superintendent on down offered their solution: small learning communities.
Those three words have become the reform of the moment in the nation's second-largest school district, where troubled high schools are a major focus. With scant evidence to prove it works in a large, urban system, the Los Angeles Unified School District has embraced the concept that creating smaller schools within a school will improve large campuses.
"We have to get smaller," said schools Supt. Roy Romer at a conference this week to address the problem of high school dropouts. "We have to get more personal in our education experience."
After successes in elementary schools, where test scores have been steadily rising, Romer now must deal with the district's 56 high schools, particularly the underperforming schools with the lowest graduation rates. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, districts must raise achievement levels or face sanctions.
A Harvard University study released this week showed that just 39% of Latinos and 47% of African American students in the district who should have graduated in 2002 managed to do so. Overall, the district's graduation rate was 45.3%, the report found.
In an effort to deal with troubled secondary schools, the Board of Education voted last fall to convert its 131 middle and high campuses into smaller schools of no more than 500 students each by 2009. And the board held a recent afternoon session solely to examine the district's troubled high schools.
But some experts question whether the district -- with its many challenges -- will be able to transform its existing high schools into substantially different programs.
Converting to small schools, said Pedro A. Noguera, a professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education and the director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, "is a fairly complex process, and it typically takes time to pull it off. You're not just changing the structure of schools. You are changing the structure in order to improve the teaching and the relationships between adults and kids."
Romer acknowledged that the district's accelerated timetable, which demands that all secondary schools begin their move to small learning communities in the next two to three years, was extreme.
But, he said, "I can't wait that long. If you take what's happening in this city ... I've got to risk the change being very, very rapid."
Most of the research on small schools has not focused on large campuses that have been divided up. It is one thing, educators and academics say, to make structural changes in buildings or changes at new schools; it is another to change the culture of existing schools.
"I'm real leery of creating smaller versions of what exist," said Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Public Schools, which operates independently run but publicly financed charter schools. Barr also leads the Small Schools Alliance, which last month launched a $1.5-million campaign aimed at winning support for its version of education reform from L.A. Unified and the city's mayoral candidates.
Gary Orfield, director of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project and a coauthor of the recent graduation rate report, said school size was not as important as quality leadership.
"It's not a simple formula," Orfield said. "What it is about small schools that are good is you have a new principal, new teachers ... more human contact."
In the case of small high school campuses, Orfield said, money -- not research -- has been the driving force behind reform. In the last few years, hundreds of millions of private and public dollars have become available to school districts that convert large campuses.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has poured more than $730 million in the last five years into opening about 1,500 small high schools across the country -- schools that focus on more personalized attention, teacher training and more engaging programs.
So far, L.A. Unified has received about $1 million from the Gates Foundation as a start-up grant for its small learning communities. The district expects to join such other urban districts as New York City, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, which have received tens of millions of dollars from Gates for small-school initiatives.
The U.S. Department of Education's Smaller Learning Communities Program has distributed nearly $300 million in grants to hundreds of districts since 2000.
Nineteen L.A. Unified schools have received funding from that program.
Several cities' reform efforts are beginning to show some positive results. Five years ago, the Kansas City, Kan., Public School District placed secondary students in small, themed learning communities and paired teachers with individual students for an extended part of their school career. That program, called First Things First, has boosted student achievement, graduation and attendance rates, studies show.
But in other locations, schools have struggled with the practical problems inherent in forging innovation on such a large scale.
They have had problems hiring enough quality principals for the smaller learning communities; encountered strong resistance from teachers, administrators and sometimes students and parents; and often failed to make strong changes in instruction and curriculum.
In Los Angeles, officials are converting large high schools by forming smaller groups around a particular theme, providing a stronger academic curriculum and encouraging more parent participation.
As the district opens new secondary schools as part of its $14-billion building program, officials are attempting to keep these smaller groups separate from each other, placing science labs, for example, in each area.
"We recognize that young people have always needed a great deal of support," said Fonna Bishop, the principal of Hollywood High School, which is attended by 3,200 students on staggered schedules. "It's easy to get lost in the masses. Working and making the connection with the students ... can make such a difference."
So far, a handful of L.A. Unified high schools have undergone the transformation. Two high schools -- Locke and Polytechnic -- have separated their ninth-grade classes, housing them on separate parts of the campus. Monroe, Hamilton and Roosevelt high schools have completely divided into smaller communities.
Roosevelt has 13 small learning communities, focused on such themes as performing arts, environmental and social policy, and math, science and technology. Some elective classes still are taught together, and school sports draw students from all parts of the campus.
The move, said English teacher Ron Kendrick, who teaches in the Performing Arts group, has been a learning experience for everyone on the 4,600-student campus.
"Everybody had to focus on the structure, getting the structure in place," said Kendrick. "That's a major hassle."
Focusing too much on structural changes, warned Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of education for the Gates Foundation, can be a pitfall for school site administrators who must also reform curriculum and instruction.
"There are dozens of ways to get tripped up," said Vander Ark. "The best situations appear to be when some decisions are simply made at the district level and other choices are left to local implementation."
L.A. school officials, said Barr of Green Dot charter schools, "get intoxicated with the idea of small schools, but they still don't trust the stakeholders. They still don't believe in the kids, that they can all succeed."
In order for school reform to be successful, said Barr, the district must grant school sites more control over their budgets, have higher expectations for students, help teachers feel motivated and make parental involvement a premium.
"You can't have two of those or three of those," he said. "You have to have all of those.... Just dividing schools up is not reform. It's lazy."
Next month, the Los Angeles Board of Education will consider a motion introduced by President Jose Huizar to incorporate some of those qualities into its school reform.
Romer said that Los Angeles high schools face the same challenges as the communities the district serves: immigrant populations, poverty, crime and violence.
Still, he said, "We need to assume all of that as a responsibility, a challenge."
Times staff writer Duke Helfand contributed to this report.