Teachers Give College Prep Plan an F

Times Staff Writer

In an ideal academic world, the staff at Hollywood High School believes, everyone would live up to the words carved into the side of the school: "Equality Breeds No War." Every student would enter ninth grade with the desire to attend college and the academic skills needed to pass rigorous courses.

But in reality, counselors and teachers say many of their students don't have that hunger nor are they prepared for tougher academics.

They say a Los Angeles school board proposal to require all high school students to take college prep courses is intellectually valid but practically impossible. The Los Angeles Unified School District, they say, doesn't understand what they are up against.

"In L.A. Unified, we can't teach these kids to multiply," said math instructor Geoff Buck, who has been teaching for 19 years. By expecting them to meet more difficult standards "we're forcing them to drop out. We're actually doing them harm."

The Board of Education is expected to vote in June on the proposal, which would require all students to take the 15 high school courses needed for acceptance into the University of California or California State University systems. Students would be required to take four years of English, three years of math, two years of history, science and foreign language, and a year of visual and performing arts and advanced electives.

Board members and community groups who support the idea say it would give students equal opportunities to go to college and prevent them from being tracked into less demanding courses.

But skeptics, such as those at Hollywood High, say the plan would hurt students who are already struggling with coursework. And, they say it would put pressure on schools to find qualified teachers in subjects already difficult to staff.

Board of Education President Jose Huizar, who is co-sponsoring the resolution, believes more rigor will lead to higher graduation rates. Board member Jon Lauritzen, Supt. Roy Romer and State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell strongly support the idea, along with a coalition of more than 2,000 Los Angeles parents, students and community members.

If approved, the plan would be implemented beginning with the freshman class in 2008, allowing the district three years to improve math instruction for middle school students who would enter high school facing the more rigorous requirements. The district also could use that time to hire teachers and put tutoring and other support systems in place to help students with the additional coursework, Huizar said.

"We have to set high expectations for these students," Huizar said. "It's a psychological and cultural change."

The Education-Trust West, an Oakland-based advocacy group for disadvantaged students, released a report recently examining L.A. Unified's potential to implement a college prep track in all high schools. To fully staff the new courses, the district would need to hire about 104 additional teachers in its high schools, including 71 foreign language instructors, according to the report.

School district officials say they do not yet have a cost estimate for the additional classes.

But at schools such as Hollywood High, teachers and counselors say the district's focus needs to be shifted more toward middle schools, where even failing students are promoted to the next grade level.

"A lot of students just never receive these basic skills in middle school," said Hollywood High counselor Elizabeth Payne. "Kids come to me and say 'I don't understand anything he's telling me to do.' This is understanding simple things like percentages and ratios."

During one Hollywood High math class on a recent afternoon, Buck went over a lesson on parallel slopes and positive integers. He was vying for the attention of two girls whispering about Spanish soap operas in the back of the room.

"Guys, I've lost you completely," said Buck, who was teaching a basic class required for high school graduation. "I've lost you."

Another student flipped through a magazine with pictures of Jennifer Lopez. A 20-year-old sophomore gazed through a window, twirling a ruler around his pencil.

Buck tried again: "This is not hard."

Most had already failed algebra once. Buck worries what would happen to students like them if the district approved the college track plan.

Patty Iniguez, 18, a senior at Hollywood, doesn't have much faith in her classmates. "They're going to fail," she said.

But student Luis Vides, 17, said a college track plan would help students who are not motivated.

"If students had decided not to go to college but they took [college prep classes] it might change their minds," he said. "If they want to get a better job, it's better to have all the classes for college even though not everybody has to go to college."

This semester, counselor Cynthia Ross worked with an 11th grade student who had never passed a high school math class. Ross found out the girl had failed math throughout middle school too, but the system kept passing her along to the next grade.

If the district implemented the college prep curriculum, "what do you do with the kids who continue to fail? What does that do for their self-esteem?" Ross said.

"We want them all to continue their education, but not all are college material," Ross said. "It's just hard when they're not motivated."

Hollywood High college counselor Judy Campbell said one student had failed algebra six times. He should have graduated a year ago, she said, but "he just can't get it."

Every student should have access to college prep courses, Campbell said, but "they have a hard time now just meeting regular graduation requirements."

In her office, Campbell flipped through a 13-page list of this year's 538 seniors and their grade point averages. Students who had between a 2.0 and 3.0 took up six pages; students receiving lower than a 2.0 filled four pages.

Campbell pointed out that some of the students excel in the school's culinary and performing arts classes. But because most of those classes don't qualify as college prep courses, she worries that students will miss out on those subjects.

Last year, 85% of Hollywood High's graduating seniors went to college, Campbell said. Fewer than half of them, however, enrolled in a four-year university.

Districtwide, 38% of graduates completed the college track requirements last year, the state Department of Education said. At Hollywood High, just 15% of graduates completed the college prep curriculum last year.

Implementing a college track system, which includes an extra year of math and two years of foreign language, would push students who are capable of getting into a university to apply, said Payne, the Hollywood High counselor. Some say they don't want to attend a university, but when senior year rolls around, they change their minds.

Hollywood junior Karla Magallon, 17, who wants to be a makeup artist, said she has had problems with overburdened counselors giving her classes she didn't want or need. Still, Magallon said she has no desire to attend college.

"From my perspective, I don't need it," she said. "It would really waste my time."

Supporters of Huizar's plan believe students will rise to the challenge if they are put on a college track in their freshman year.

Luis Sanchez, a member of Communities for Educational Equity, the grass-roots group that introduced the college prep curriculum proposal to Huizar and Romer, said the district has a responsibility to offer the chance for college admission to all high schoolers.

"Do you really want to allow a 13-year-old kid," he said, "to decide what they're going to do with their lives?"

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