A venerable, ailing school got the official word this week on a long-awaited cure to its high dropout rate and low test scores: Crenshaw High will fix itself.
That is the reform concept approved by parents and teachers at Crenshaw and also at Westchester High when they voted their schools into the new Innovation Division of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
For both schools, the elections, which took place last week, signify a watershed moment. Crenshaw, south of Leimert Park, was traditionally a successful flagship school for African Americans, but today its woes echo the struggles of the surrounding community. Westchester, near Los Angeles International Airport, hasn’t slipped as far, but there has long been a sense of alienation between the school -- abandoned by most of the middle class -- and nearby neighborhoods. Both schools have sharply declining enrollments.
Plans call for the district bureaucracy to cede far-reaching control over budget and curriculum to each school’s leadership team of administrators, teachers, parents, older students and community members. The Crenshaw effort is to be guided by the Urban League and the Bradley Foundation, two community-based nonprofit groups, and USC. Westchester is to join with Loyola Marymount University, which is nearby.
“We fully expect great things,” said Supt. David L. Brewer, after a celebration rally at Westchester. “A major reform piece is coming into place.”
For Brewer, in his second year on the job, the 7-month-old Innovation Division represents both a major reform thrust and an answer to critics who accuse him of accomplishing little.
Last month, six of seven other schools voted to join a similar reform partnership led by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Skeptics abound regarding this approach to improving schools.
“Innovation is good,” said former school board member David Tokofsky, “but it might be less expensive and less time-consuming to duplicate and triplicate some of the great schools already in L.A. Unified.” He specified, among others, the Open Charter Magnet School, north of LAX, and the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies.
Other critics have focused on a bumpy election process or the minimal parent turnout -- about 6% at Westchester, about 5% at Crenshaw. UCLA professor William Ouchi is among those who worry about diffuse lines of authority. He favors a New York City-style approach that invests local control in the principal, then holds that school leader accountable.
But Brewer’s vision made a convert of Crenshaw parent Joel McGhee: “The standard way of doing business,” he said, “isn’t going to work anymore.”
Case in point: In 2006, 340 students graduated from a Crenshaw class that had enrolled 1,066 in the ninth grade. And though school-wide test scores met improvement targets last year, only one in five students scored “proficient” in English language arts; even fewer hit that mark in math.
Crenshaw’s woes crystallized when the school temporarily lost accreditation in 2005 -- threatening to invalidate students’ course credits. The episode spurred campus and community activism -- as did an incident the same year in which angry parents found themselves locked out of a planned campus meeting with teachers over conditions at the school. Now, every Monday, the core members of the Crenshaw Cougar Coalition convene in the library to discuss reforms and occasionally to press demands.
In recent months, their most powerful obstacle to achieving autonomy was school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who represents the area.
LaMotte had concerns about the haste of the process, the project’s financial stability and the school’s shaky accreditation. In November she called a school meeting, prepared to assert that local control had to wait. LaMotte faced a phalanx of 150 determined teachers, parents and students -- including the entire basketball team -- and eventually, she decided not to oppose the election.
At Westchester, about 71% of students are African American, a higher percentage than at any other traditional district high school. The attendance area, by contrast, is 39% black; the immediate surrounding neighborhoods are thought to be considerably whiter still, not to mention more prosperous. Census data suggest that more than half of the area’s students are not attending L.A. Unified schools. Such dichotomies have led to discomfort between the school community and those outside it.
Some Westchester parents and teachers have worried that groups such as the nonprofit Westchester Playa/Education Foundation embody a secret agenda to “take back” the school from students of color. Co-founder Kelly Kane, who, like many members, is white, said her goal is to make Westchester better for all. Her group has raised substantial funds for school programs. She said she wants her children, ages 5 and 6, to attend the school.
Kane has forged an alliance with Crissina Johnson, the black leader of another parents group that initially focused on bringing parent volunteers to campus.
Johnson also has come to embrace the promised local control.
In fact, Brewer’s reform effort grew out of a paradigm common on the Westside: schools with more students of color than the surrounding neighborhood, where middle-class parents feel a competing pull from charter schools and private schools.
It was school board member Marlene Canter, who represents most of the Westside, who urged Brewer early on to give motivated communities autonomy to aggressively improve their schools.
“Other reform models are top-down,” Canter said. “I’m not saying they don’t work, but we don’t have to do the same thing. We are going to include the community.”
Westchester teacher Andrew Kamm had no hesitation in voting yes: “This is a nice umbrella to work under. We will get more resources, and we will have a direct pipeline to Brewer, who has a lot riding on making this work.”