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For Mayor, Opportunity and Daunting Challenges

Times Staff Writer

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa faces a formidable challenge in trying to reform the Los Angeles Unified School District. But the legislative deal that gives him partial control of the school system also provides him with an opportunity.

Despite predictions of impending political doom for the ambitious mayor, the gambit to improve the schools has a lot going for it, some educators and political analysts believe.

Villaraigosa will help run a district in which elementary school test scores have been rising steadily. He can build on that success, touting even modest further improvement as proof that his involvement has paid off.

He will have a say, through the superintendent, in the district’s school-building program, a $19-billion enterprise that has proved to be one of L.A. Unified’s biggest successes -- and one that incidentally raises the specter of mayoral patronage in school construction projects.

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Perhaps most intriguing, Villaraigosa will have direct control of three clusters of low-performing schools with the promise of significant private foundation money and a wealth of expertise he can tap for campuses in this “demonstration project.”

According to the legislation, Villaraigosa will have wide latitude in choosing the three high schools and the elementary and middle schools that feed into them.

The only requirements are that he pick them in concert with the district superintendent with consultation from parents, community leaders, teachers, school administrators and other school employees, and that the high schools have students who are among the lowest-achieving in the district. An L.A. Unified official would be appointed to work with each cluster.

The school district’s authority over the campuses would be transferred to the new community partnership overseeing the schools.

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The mayor’s new education advisor, former interim L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon Cortines, will have a central role in shaping the reforms at these roughly three dozen campuses.

Cortines and the school and community leaders will explore the effectiveness of the campuses -- asking whether they have adequate programs to serve special education students, others who are still learning English and those who may want to learn a trade rather than go to college.

The reformers will also look at the organization of the schools and ask whether they have arts and gifted-student programs that other campuses offer.

Villaraigosa could take credit for improvements and try to marshal the resources to spread them to other campuses.

“I think it’s a fresh opportunity to rethink how schools are integrated into communities,” said Johnathan Williams, founder and co-director of the Accelerated School, an acclaimed South Los Angeles charter school that offers a health center for its students and opens its gym to the nearby community.

“We can look at governance differently and perhaps not have school districts and cities [operate] in silos,” Williams added.

But before Villaraigosa can push forward, he must overcome an anticipated legal challenge and mend relations with the school district.

And he must accomplish both as he juggles his responsibilities as the city’s newly anointed education czar with his existing job of running Los Angeles -- no easy balancing act even for a workaholic mayor who thrives on a frenetic schedule

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“Pulling this community together and developing the working relationships that give this plan a chance is really job No. 1 for the mayor,” said Paul Koehler, director of the policy center at WestEd, a nonprofit research and education agency based in San Francisco.

On Wednesday, Villaraigosa told a celebratory crowd at Animo South Los Angeles Charter High School that he recognized the need for reconciliation after months of fighting with the Los Angeles Board of Education over his reform plans.

Villaraigosa extended an olive branch to school board members, urging them to join his cause rather than fight in court as they have threatened.

“As our kids go back to school, it’s time for the whole community of Los Angeles to work in a partnership,” Villaraigosa said. “And just so there’s no confusion on the question, I want to be crystal clear about the vote the Legislature took [this week]. It really wasn’t a vote for mayoral control. It was a vote for community control.”

Not everyone is sold on the value of Villaraigosa’s involvement.

Some critics say his plans lack details and wonder whether he can overcome the same obstacles that Supt. Roy Romer and the school board have been wrestling with for years: high levels of poverty and students with limited English skills.

“We haven’t heard how those challenges will be confronted,” said Priscilla Wohlstetter, director of USC’s Center on Educational Governance. “There hasn’t been much attention on the content of the reform strategies. The attention has been on the politics -- who should have power over what. I don’t know how much he knows about education.”

But for Villaraigosa, Wednesday was a day for savoring his victory and not thinking about the nuts and bolts of his education plan.

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“Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot possibly convey the sense of hope that I’m feeling for our city’s future right now,” Villaraigosa told about 1,000 students and civic leaders in the parking lot of the Animo charter school. “I don’t know about you, but I feel like a kid again.”


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