Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa learned a major lesson in school reform Tuesday: It's hard to fix failing schools in Los Angeles, even those under his purview.
That insight arrived with the release of the state's standardized test scores. They painted his reform efforts at 10 of the city's historically low-performing schools as an inconsistent work in progress.
A similar story emerged at South Los Angeles' Locke High School, which just completed its first year under the management of a charter school operator.
The mayor's schools and Locke have been the city's two highest-profile reform efforts. Although scores weren't markedly better across the board, there were some positives, as there also were for the Los Angeles Unified School District and for California as a whole.
"We expect progress and we have progress, but we still have a long way to go," Villaraigosa said of his schools. "Transforming a failing school takes more than one year."
The test results arrived at a crucial juncture for the mayor, for the charter school movement and for school improvement citywide. A school board resolution, scheduled for a vote next week, could turn over new schools as well as low-achieving campuses to outside operators, including the mayor and charter schools. The mayor's team already has quietly obtained control of a new Boyle Heights campus, an implied endorsement by the district of his effort at nearby Roosevelt High School.
The mayor has made the pending school-board resolution a signature reform and cited his own schools as a model. The proposal is also being pushed by Green Dot Public Schools, for which Locke High has become a kind of demonstration project of what an outside group can accomplish.
The scores at Villaraigosa's schools fall well short of what his original rhetoric suggested. He implied that he could deliver rapid academic gains if given control of schools in the nation's second-largest district. At the time, L.A. Unified officials and some education experts said Villaraigosa was unfairly discounting the school system's incremental progress.
On Tuesday, it was the mayor's turn to celebrate increments.
He and his team touted 99th Street Elementary in South Los Angeles, which had the eighth-largest increase among traditional district elementary schools. For middle schools, Hollenbeck in Boyle Heights was ninth in gains in math among traditional district middle schools. Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights and the Santee Education Complex south of downtown both ranked in the upper third in improvement in English.
The average gain in reading for the mayor's elementary schools outpaced both L.A. Unified and the state, according to a Times analysis.
Still, achievement levels at Villaraigosa's schools were low: At Santee, 13% of students scored as proficient in English. And Santee's math improvement moved the school from 1% to 3% proficient.
"At the high school level we've obviously got a lot of work to do," said Marshall Tuck, chief executive of the mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.
Markham Middle School in Watts declined slightly in math and reading. Scores had gone up the year before the mayoral takeover, despite a child-molestation scandal there. Ritter Elementary School in Watts had significant gains in reading, but a significant decline in math.
The partnership, which took over the schools July 1, 2008, had been plagued by operational difficulties, including an exodus of experienced administrators that resulted in the hiring of eight new principals the next month. And the mayor's team had only six months to ramp up after learning which 10 schools it would manage. This last year, many teachers complained about a lack of promised resources and input into running the campuses. Nine schools passed resolutions of no confidence in the mayor's team.
L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines called the mayor's results "a very mixed bag. . . . It is very easy to talk about gains. It is very difficult to make gains happen."
He added: "It was unfortunate there was a vote of lack of confidence at many of these schools. It's hard to make gains when there are those kinds of feelings."
At Locke, test scores were flat -- and still dismal by any standard -- but Green Dot officials cited a related marker of progress. Hundreds more students took the tests, and hundreds more finished the school year at Locke, which was long regarded as a dropout factory.
In May 2008, for example, 1,546 students took the state's English test; this year, that number rose to 2,130, an increase of 38%. The number of math test takers rose by the same percentage.
"A big part of this is building a college-going culture and kids feeling safe on campus," said Kelly Hurley, a senior Green Dot administrator. "I think we're there, but we have a lot of work to do in getting kids to grade level."
Charter schools are independently managed public schools that are free from district-union contracts and some state regulations.
L.A. Unified officials also highlighted progress, reporting that 80% of campuses improved in English. In math, 62% of schools achieved higher scores. All told, 38% of district students were proficient in reading and 37% in math.
California this year hit a milestone in another year of broad gains: 50% of students now test as proficient in English, said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. Those gains, however, are skewed toward the lower grades. And scant progress was made in narrowing the achievement gap separating black and Latino students from their white and Asian counterparts.
O'Connell and Cortines presented the new data at Holmes Middle School in Northridge. They praised the school's across-the-board gains, which included a 10 percentage point rise in math: 63% of students are now proficient in a school where 20% speak limited English and 65% come from low-income households. The school is also boosted by a magnet program and a separate accelerated studies program.
Principal Gregory J. Vallone credited a teaching staff that, among other strategies, embraced periodic tests -- using the results to pull students out of electives for three-day sessions to teach them specific skills they needed to grasp.
"We're representative of what's happening in this state," Vallone said. "We're not the only school that's doing it. We're just doing it really well."
Times staff writer Jason Song and data analysts Doug Smith and Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.