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Students face closure of alternative schools because of L.A. County budget cuts

Nearly 700 students enrolled in specialized programs will be uprooted Wednesday if Los Angeles County education officials proceed with plans to close nearly two dozen alternative schools because of budget cuts.

Students, teachers and some county leaders are mounting a last-ditch effort to keep the schools open, at least temporarily.

“I don’t think I have a place to go, to tell you the truth,” said Gabriel during a break between classes at Downey Community Day School, one of those slated to close. Like many of the students, Gabriel had been in trouble, running with a gang and ditching classes at his regular school.

At the Downey school, his grades improved and he passed the mandatory California High School Exit Exam. He fears that all of the gains he made may be erased if the campus closes.

“It’s hard for me to stay out of the streets,” said Gabriel, who, like other students in the programs, can’t be fully identified because of their status. “When I’m here, it takes my mind off things. If the school closes, I worry it might be a big fall for me.”

Operated by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, the community day schools and independent study programs serve juvenile offenders on probation, students who have been expelled, pregnant teens and new mothers and those who can’t return to traditional schools for various reasons. Most of the schools operate year-round.

County officials said the alternative schools are closing because of low enrollment and financial constraints. The schools are $3.8 million in the red after state funding was reduced 20% for the 2009-10 fiscal year, said David Flores, director of the county’s alternative education division.

The alternative programs also have been hurt because not as many students are being referred by school districts experiencing their own budget problems, Flores said.

“It’s been multiple compounding issues that have hurt funding,” Flores said. “In a perfect world, we would be opening new programs instead of closing them.”

Currently, 53 of these schools operate throughout Los Angeles County and serve 1,683 students; 28 of them will remain open. The fate of three others has yet to be determined.

About 30 teachers will lose their jobs when the 22 schools close June 30, Flores said.

Officials are working to help students stay either in remaining alternative programs or in high schools or continuation schools in their home districts.

“We’re reviewing every student’s case to determine what’s best,” Flores said. “But our programs are not intended to keep kids for their whole high school education, but to help them get right and stop bad behaviors.”

County officials said news of the program cuts caught them by surprise. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will consider a proposal at its meeting Tuesday to request that the schools remain open for at least 30 days. That motion, by Supervisor Don Knabe, urges the office of education to work with local districts to find a way to keep the schools open, including cost-sharing arrangements.

Supervisor Gloria Molina said she supports those efforts.

“We want to make sure that students are being accommodated,” Molina said. “We appreciate there are funding issues, but many kids unfortunately need to attend these schools and we need to try to find a way to fund them and keep them intact.”

Many students said they fear returning to volatile situations and huge classes that hinder learning. Others said that only the alternative programs offer the kind of individualized support they need to succeed.

Ana Karen came to Downey Community Day school in November after being expelled from a traditional school for selling drugs. Her teachers and classmates at Downey have become like family, and she said they have changed her attitude. She now aspires to attend nursing school.

“I don’t think they would take me back at my other school,” said Ana, 17. “If this school closes, I wasn’t really thinking of going back to school. I’m thinking of dropping out.”

Rudy Spivery, a teacher at the Downey school, is scheduled to be out of a job July 1, but he has focused most of his attention on his students’ plight.

“This is morally wrong to me to put kids out like this,” Spivery said. “It’s a shock to the psyche and unfair.”

Teachers said students do not have enough time to find and enroll in new schools. Many face an uncertain future back on the streets, squandering opportunities as well as taxing county law enforcement and welfare services, the instructors said.

At the Mission Independent Study Program in Pomona, most of the 16 students are teenage parents who also have jobs and can’t attend regular classes, said teacher Pamela Wright. In the four years since it began, the program has had a 100% graduation rate and a 100% passing rate on the High School Exit Exam, Wright said.

She has presented a plan to Supt. Darline P. Robles to continue her program by taking on more students without a teaching assistant.

“My students and their parents are very fearful and very upset,” Wright said. “I understand that we’re in a budget crisis in California. I’m trying to present something that is solution-oriented.”

The Los Angeles County Education Assn., which represent teachers, has proposed keeping the schools open for 90 days to allow county probation, mental health and welfare departments, community-based providers and others time to collaborate on a plan, said president Mark Lewis.

“Many of these students are going to fall through the cracks,” Lewis said, “and the county as a whole is going to suffer.”

carla.rivera@latimes.com


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