What’s eating LAUSD?

Today, Tokofsky and Downtown Magnets High School junior Jordan Senteno navigate the obstacles to high-quality schooling. Thursday they debated readin’, writin’ and relevance; Wednesday they focused on social promotion; Tuesday the topic was class size; and Monday they chewed on teacher motivation.

Three strikes, we’re out
By Jordan Senteno

I want to thank to you, Mr. Tokofsky, for taking the time to engage one of UCLA IDEA’s youth research teams.

One of the biggest obstacles to better schools are the standardized tests — especially the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) — that the district has to issue because of, among other reasons, the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act. Schools should have more say over how to measure what students are learning, not have standardized measurements forced on them. Students are getting strikes against them for the mistakes that the government is making.

In our study of student disengagement in Crenshaw High School’s community, we found the issue of school control was a recurring theme. The district should share control over the school with the parents, the students and the community around Crenshaw.

Two committees should be formed with equal power. One committee should be district personnel. The other committee should include local parents, students, teachers and community members. The two committees can make recommendations about school issues and then everyone should get a vote.

We also found the problems at Crenshaw exist in schools across the district — uncaring teachers, Eurocentric textbooks, outdated curricula and irrelevant tests. We are always getting the lower-end teaching, the lower-end classrooms and the lower-end learning. This affects our CAHSEE scores and marginalizes our culture as well. It is an academic injustice. Strike one.

Many Black students and many Latino students like me have already been pipelined by the system for failure. Yet, when given an opportunity like IDEA’s summer seminar, we were able to produce graduate-level research, write 40-page reports, conduct self-analysis, design professional-quality Power Points with 30-minute oral public presentations and create 10-minute documentaries. Our research team studied in order to make a positive change in our lives and communities. Unlike school standardized testing, this experience was challenging, creative and personal. Standardized testing is long and boring; the test treats us as if we’re stupid. It measures what we learn in school, but we learn nothing that is important to us. Strike two.

The No Child Left Behind standardized test treats students of color as inferior, not good enough. The test marginalizes non-English speaking cultures. It makes students feel as if their culture isn’t good enough because they must change or hide their culture to learn English so they can pass these tests. Students who come into this world learning English as a second language have their intelligence silenced.

The Los Angeles Unified School District takes state-approved textbooks, curricula, teachers and tests, and puts them into a school such as Crenshaw, where fewer than 1% of the students are white, or Garfield, where 37% are English-language learners. Is it a wonder that so many students are failing? Then, they expect the students to be engaged in learning from the European point of view while their culture is kicked to the curb. The school district still wonders why a majority of students drop out and fail? Instead of changing this problem, they point the finger at the students. Strike three.

The union needs to protect teachers when they want to change something the government forced upon them, if that will make the school better.

Equal control at Crenshaw High is needed to address these and many other issues. Without it, these problems will still occur and we will remain oppressed.

The district knows what the problem is because the CAHSEE test is at an eighth-grade mathematics and English level. They know that this is a challenge for students in LAUSD schools because they know what they are putting into the schools. What goes into a Los Angeles high school is only preparing students for an eighth-grade education. That is academic injustice again. The government, from the federal government to the Los Angeles Unified School District, should be put in jail for life. They are setting us up for failure. The school system is a pipeline to failure. They do not want to see people of color succeed.

Students, parents and the community can’t wait for schools to make the change for us. We have to raise the awareness of what happens around our communities. We will always be oppressed by an oppressive system unless we put our problems aside and become one.

Three strikes — we’re out. That’s why they are building more jails than schools, because we are being pushed out of schools and pushed into jails.

Jordan Senteno is entering his junior year at Downtown Magnets High School in Los Angeles.

Focus on the goal
By David Tokofsky

Jordan, I am glad you had a good experience this summer at UCLA. I appreciate that your magnet school in LAUSD along with UCLA provided you the opportunity to write for the L.A. Times.

Unfortunately, today’s topic for us frames the debate as “obstacles” to change. It ask us to list in rank order who is the problem: the teachers? their union? the district? governments? parents? kids? You name it and some power corrupts our purity. Rather than solely listing our frustrations and enemies, we instead need to identify our progress and then itemize our action steps.

Understandably, today’s topic drives your article into a discussion of oppression. The Black and brown kids you describe, and no doubt other groups of students, are victims of power, oppression, exit exams, Eurocentric textbooks, uncaring teachers and outdated curricula. I understand the temptation to list the problems. If only City Hall could make the areas around schools safer to come and go for students and staff. If only the county health system provided school nurses, psychologists and social workers requisite for our kids in schools. If only Sacramento would not let the budget go 51 days late and then fail to add anything significant for public schools, colleges, teachers and students. If only Washington would spend on public education what it spends on the war machine.

Nonetheless, let’s itemize some of our progress. First of all, your magnet school and the ones that the other students attend clearly have lined up an opportunity for you to experience this UCLA research project. Nowhere in this county is there such a well-developed array of magnet school choices. Additionally, your teachers and the ones at the other schools felt committed enough to engage you and the students in the project. In a city where it often takes one and a half hours in traffic to get to work, your instructors stayed beyond their union-contract hours because it benefited their students.

Further, in LAUSD, unlike in other districts in L.A. County and California, we have implemented full-day kindergarten, built schools by passing four publicly voted bonds, raised elementary school scores and created more charter schools than any other district in America. We now have an atmosphere of rising expectations — which is exactly when historians tell us revolutions can happen. There are no similar rising expectations in the county health system, the city’s parks and recreation division or the national discussion on poverty led by presidential candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Clearly, we have so much more to do for all kids in LAUSD, but especially our poorest kids. L.A. County is among the poorest of California’s 58 counties. Thus we ought to focus on an achievable agenda for the year or two ahead. We can move forward without revolutionary chaos.

I would focus on leadership and accountability through data, give more academic rigor to LAUSD’s alternative schools and solidify content instructions in grades four to six. I would also break up the middle schools into more manageable and competitive sizes. I would obtain more instructional and support funds to compete with the $30,000 a year private schools get. I would pay teachers more, especially for results. I would subsidize public employees’ housing and transportation costs to keep the best employees around to get more and better training. Above all, I would keep building the infrastructure of new and repaired facilities in LAUSD initiated with the four school bonds.

To be specific, I would elevate former Supt. Ray Cortines, now deputy mayor, to be the ambassador for L.A. County’s poor kids and families. I would send him to Washington, to Sacramento, to foundations and even to the United Nations, if necessary, to get the aid we in L.A. County need. I would take advantage of the three elections in California in 2008, in February, June and November, to press issues important to L.A. County’s families and kids. Consideration of a countywide parcel or sales tax for families’ safety, health and education would be good local policy. We are probably the only “Blue County” in California that has not done so.

A parcel tax that would extend the benefits of SB 1133, a class-size reduction act, to more than the lowest-performing schools would attract more middling-class families to stay in LAUSD. And finally on the money front, I would continue to build new schools to downsize L.A. Unified schools, which currently are three times the size of the state average for elementary, middle and high schools. High schools in L.A. Unified are now reduced to a little more than 3,000 kids year-round. As recently as three years ago, some L.A. high schools were serving as many as 5,400 kids in a year. Most of California’s high schools serve 1,250 students at most in a year.

Lastly, we most stop the mindless attack on bureaucracy and administration. This tirade, while popular, is wounding our fight for accountability. Let’s use the data from these state and national tests to gauge our progress, investments and challenges, including removing bad leadership.

It must be amusing for others to see the Cain and Abel battles of L.A. City Hall, the county and school boards each hitting each other over the head while the money that could be used together to help our impoverished circumstances is frittered away. Clearly, there are difficult obstacles to helping our public schools, and teachers, parents, unions, districts and kids are among those obstacles. But only together will we in “blue” L.A. County have a chance for aid, especially from “red” Sacramento and “red” Washington.

David Tokovsky is a former board member of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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