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Once again, a focus on disparities in L.A. Unified

There was a familiar ring to last week’s announcement that the Los Angeles Unified School District plans to improve the education of its black students and children not fluent yet in English.

Again.

The campaign to raise the achievement of black, Latino and low-income students has been bumping along in this school system for so many years, it’s begun to seem like smoke and mirrors.

The achievement gap was an issue when I moved to L.A. in 1979. Then, integration was going to be the solution. Then more money for inner-city schools. Then “culturally relevant” instruction for minority students. Now, at least, it’s fundamentals: better teachers, libraries and technology.

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Raise your hand if you see that happening soon.

The pledge this time comes in response to a federal Department of Education probe into whether L.A. Unified has neglected students who are learning English and shortchanged black students.

The investigation was part of a national campaign to force improvements in school districts with persistently lopsided student performance. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan shared the stage with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the news conference announcing the settlement, praising the district for cooperating.

Can you say dog-and-pony show?

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I know I sound cynical. Maybe I’ve been watching and writing about this struggling school district for too long.

I’m glad for the renewed attention on what is an enduringly shameful problem: the persistent gap that separates white, Asian and high-income students from their black, Latino and low-income counterparts.

Translated demographically, that means 15% of the district is shining while 85% sinks.

Four years ago, as Times reporter Howard Blume pointed out in his story last week, the district was focused on helping Spanish-speaking students and hosted a landmark conference of experts on students with limited English skills.

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Ten years ago, the district put forth its “Action Plan for a Culturally-Relevant Education that Benefits African American Students and All Other Students” to “eliminate the disparities in education outcomes” for black students. Big title, big goal. There was a steering committee, a timeline, a planning process that came up with “398 action activities.”

And, of course, there were the conferences, featuring “nine nationally known researchers with backgrounds related to the topics of cultural relevance and cultural responsiveness [who] produced research and presented” papers twice, in one year.

Then the money ran out, and the politics amped up. And that program was swallowed by a cloud of broader efforts aimed at educational improvement for everybody.

The watchword then, as now, was equity.

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Students in Watts and Hollywood and Boyle Heights should have the same access to libraries and computers and college-prep courses as my daughters did in Granada Hills.

This new settlement requires the sort of basics that every school district ought to offer: intervention for struggling students, adequate instructional materials in every classroom, monitoring of everything from test scores to discipline to student and teacher attendance.

It leaves the details up to local officials, but promises no A based on effort; only good results will matter.

I thought about the years of district stumbles as I visited a tiny, no-frills charter high school whose principal, Angelique Jacques Marcoulis, has a missionary’s zeal to educate low-income kids, including those who are struggling even now at her school.

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What she offers on that makeshift campus, in a South Los Angeles church down the block from a motel and across from a liquor store, certainly didn’t look like equity. It was hot and crowded and loud and busy … and both teachers and students seemed happy to be there.

She’s African American, a product of L.A. Unified, a double major in English and biology in college. She taught in inner-city Oakland and rural Lodi, Calif., before becoming a principal in Los Angeles. She also knows what made the difference in her life, and it wasn’t a teacher’s “culturally relevant” classroom lesson.

It was a schoolteacher-mother who focused on education, and teachers who had high expectations and would not accept failure.

Jacques Marcoulis can’t replicate that home life for students whose apartments have no books, parents don’t speak English or single mothers work two jobs and never meet the teachers.

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“I tell my teachers that’s no excuse,” she said. “That just means we have to work twice as hard between 8:30 and 3:30. That’s all we can control.”

While district leaders talk about equity, Jacques Marcoulis talks about expectations — and accountability.

She can still remember the day in third grade when her teacher made the class work all day on one lesson: writing a business letter. “When Ms. Goldstein got mad, her chin shook, and it terrified us. ‘We are going to keep doing this and doing this. And you are going to get this!’ There was not an option.”

And she still feels heartsick about the time she disappointed her junior high homeroom teacher, Mr. Camboris, who kicked her out of class one day. She realized at that moment that she cared more about living up to his ideal in class than socializing with her friends.

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“Kids are barometers of truth,” she said. “They know whether you care for them.”

I know it takes more than tough love to lift the masses of struggling children. And improving academic performance isn’t cheap. We need more committed teachers, a rigorous curriculum, classroom activities that stimulate curiosity and creativity; assessments that demonstrate what students lack and what they need.

I hope this time, we won’t let the hurdles slow us down.

Equity is only the starting line.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com


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