Plan Aims to Boost School Choice

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles school and union officials have agreed in concept to develop a group of independent small schools in the Pico-Union area, allowing students to choose a campus that best fits their interests, the district announced Monday.

Although still in the conceptual phase, the Belmont Pilot Schools Network would consist of five to 10 fully autonomous high schools launched over the next five years, with a maximum of 400 students each. Principals and teachers at those schools would work under a separate contract that would free them to determine school calendars, curricula, budgets and administrative structures.

"We're providing a menu of options, and in the Belmont area, we're going to have choice," Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer said during a morning news conference at Belmont High School.

Several officials compared the model to the freedoms given to independently run, publicly financed charter schools.

The first schools in the group are set to open in September 2007. The six theme-based learning communities at Belmont High -- including Performing Arts, Business and Finance, and the International School of Languages -- would probably become candidates for the autonomous schools, said Cris Gutierrez, a teacher who has worked to launch Civitas SOL, or School of Leadership, one of the first pilot schools in the plan.

Romer said that the network is an experiment, one of several initiatives the district is exploring to combat high dropout and low graduation rates.

"It is truly a leap of faith on both sides," Romer said, referring to the district and the teachers union.

Advocates tout the smaller schools as an opportunity for more personalized education and a closer link between students and teachers -- a difficult proposition in many of the district's overcrowded high schools.

"You get to know every kid, every teacher, families," said Gary Yoshinobu, Belmont High's principal. "You'd know why a student was having problems at school."

Teachers also could be more flexible with their time, Gutierrez said. If students needed more help with math, for example, their instructor could choose to extend that period instead of sticking to a rigid schedule.

The idea of the Belmont network was patterned after a Boston model created about 20 years ago.

For school and community leaders in the Pico-Union area, the agreement marked a triumph.

"It really is huge," Richard Alonzo, the local area superintendent, said of the agreement. The community could have taken the easier route and turned to charter schools, he added. But "we want to bring a change from inside of the district to improve things in the district, not try to improve it on the outside."

Some cautioned against celebrating the initiative too early.

Maria Estrada's sons -- ages 15 and 17 -- attended Belmont High's Performing Arts academy this past year. Though the longtime Pico-Union resident was pleased with the notion of choice, she urged officials to offer more than lip service.

"I would like to see this truly become a reality for everyone's future," she said in Spanish.

School board member David Tokofsky said he was open to the idea but expressed wariness about the details of the pilot schools' contract that remain unsettled. He questioned how the district would evaluate whether the program was working.

"What will be the specific improvements in student achievement? On what timeline will they be reached and with what freedoms?" Tokofsky said.

School board President Marlene Canter called the plan "a first step."

"This isn't beginning tomorrow," she said.


Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.

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