One solution to failing K-12 schools? Let universities help

UCLA graduate student Andrew Gutierrez III talks with eighth-grader Avani Green during class at Horace Mann Middle School, which has a new partnership with UCLA and is now called Horace Mann UCLA Community School.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

When Horace Mann Middle School principal Orlando Johnson thinks about the eighth-graders he sent off to high school last year, he worries about how they will fare.

Only about 1% of Horace Mann students in that grade and the ones below it tested at grade level in math. At the end of the year, the eighth-grade math teacher was dismissed for ineffective teaching. Sixth- and seventh-graders, meanwhile, were learning math from long-term substitutes.

Johnson wanted to fill the vacancies, but teachers weren’t lining up to work at one of the lowest performing schools in L.A. Unified.


“I felt almost like a failure as a principal because I was sending kids off to high school without a solid math foundation,” he said.

Prospects have improved for Mann students this year. UCLA has formed a partnership with the school, now called Horace Mann UCLA Community School, that includes an effort to change the school’s image, and plans to expand so that the campus eventually will serve grades 6 to 12, and potentially elementary grades as well.

The new eighth-grade math teacher is on the faculty of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. A UCLA doctoral student is teaching sixth-grade math. And UCLA undergraduates are tutoring Mann students.

As the district struggles with financial woes and an enrollment crisis, universities including UCLA and Loyola Marymount are stepping in to help. In exchange, they are gaining a significant say in how the schools are run, winning some of the freedom that charter schools enjoy, including having a say in teacher hiring and curriculum choice.

UCLA’s partnership with Mann in South L.A. is the university’s second foray into the school district. The first UCLA Community School opened in 2009 on the site of the old Ambassador Hotel in Koreatown, on the campus of Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools.

For Loyola, expansion has come in response to the popularity of Playa Vista Elementary School, which it operates in conjunction with the school district. Recently, the LAUSD school board approved a new middle school in the Westchester neighborhood that would give preference to children already attending Playa Vista. The middle school, which does not yet have a name, is expected to serve as a teacher training ground for Loyola’s students.


“The field of education is changing. Universities and K-12 systems can’t work in isolation anymore,” said Manny Aceves, an associate dean at the LMU School of Education. “The days of learning to become a teacher at university, those days are not really the way we want to approach things anymore. We truly feel we can prepare educators in a much stronger way at local school sites.”

For district officials, part of the appeal of these university partnerships is the possibility that they will encourage families to keep their children in L.A. Unified schools. When the first UCLA Community School opened, the district was feeling newly threatened by the arrival of charter schools.

“It was a very new movement, People didn’t really know how it was going to play out in L.A.,” said Karen Quartz, research director for the UCLA community schools. “And so the university wanted to be part of this alternative reform effort that would be inside [the district].”

Mann’s enrollment has been hit hard as the number of charter schools in South L.A. has mushroomed. Although the campus was built for about 1,500 students, today fewer than 400 attend Mann. The district has turned some of the empty classrooms over to one of the charter schools.

LAUSD’s board approved the partnership between UCLA and Mann in October, and on a recent visit it appeared the university was already making its presence felt. Multiple UCLA education school faculty members serve on the school design team, helping to plan curriculum and teacher development. One UCLA graduate student researcher co-teaches the school’s first ethnic studies class, while another holds after-school seminars and surveys students about safety, classroom instruction and school climate.

At first, Johnson said some Mann teachers were apprehensive.

“They felt like, ‘oh, somebody else is coming in … to tell us how to do it. And then they’re not going to succeed and they’re going to leave in a year or two.’ That’s what they were afraid of,” he said. “I think [UCLA] earned a lot of respect when they started to work with us before the ink was even dry.”

In Westchester, Loyola’s partnership with the district to open a new middle school has become the focus of a heated battle between families in Playa Vista who have greeted the school with enthusiasm, and their neighbors in Playa del Rey and Westchester, who say the district has excluded them.

At the center of this fight is well-off families’ resistance to the idea of sending their children to their zoned middle school, Orville Wright Engineering and Design Magnet, which is under-enrolled and has struggled to counter its reputation for low academic achievement. Many of the families who live near the school choose to leave the district, enrolling their children in charter or private schools or seeking permits to attend the nearby El Segundo Unified School District.

Under the district’s plan, Playa Vista Elementary School students will be given an admission preference at the new middle school, virtually assuring them seats in what has been billed as an extension of their high-performing, science and technology-focused school. If these students do not fill the 150-seat sixth- and seventh-grade classes opening next fall on the campus of the old Westchester High School, children from nearby neighborhoods will be permitted to enroll.

At public hearings, Playa Vista parents have praised the district for opening a new school, but other families have expressed disappointment and anger.

“When those tiered admission priorities came out, it was a slap in the face,” said Christina Nairn, 39, a Westchester resident who hopes eventually to send her kindergartner to Loyola’s new middle school but is considering leaving for the El Segundo school district. “We’re being told. ‘It’s not for you, it’s for them, but we’re going to put the school in your community.’”

District officials’ explanation that they are trying to create a “pathway” for Playa Vista students to continue in a school similar to the one they will have graduated from has failed to quell the discontent.

School board member Monica Ratliff said the area’s affluence may have been a factor in the district’s decision to open the school in Playa Vista. “It feels a little bit like based on socioeconomics and based on LMU, this is happening here,” she said, “whereas in other areas where we have the beginnings of pathways, they aren’t getting anywhere.”

L.A. Unified’s partnerships with universities have not always gone smoothly. In 2007, USC’s Rossier School of Education took on the challenge of trying to improve Crenshaw High School’s academics. But the university walked away from the collaboration after five years, too frustrated with the school district to continue, according to an essay by the school’s dean published earlier this year. The university has since founded a network of three charter schools, with two more expected to open next year in Pico-Union and East Los Angeles.

Frances Gipson, the district’s chief academic officer, said LAUSD wants to increase the number of schools linked to reputable universities.

“Can I tell you how many of each type of school we will have in the near future? Not at this time. But we’re actively pursuing partnerships,” she said.

Reach Sonali Kohli at or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.