When the 2011 winners of the coveted National Blue Ribbon Schools award were announced, only one of the 305 recipients was in Los Angeles, and that was a charter school. By contrast, two were located about 30 miles away, in Santa Ana — in a school district less than one-tenth the size of L.A. Unified. Yet Santa Ana Unified is far from affluent. A higher percentage of its students are poor and not fluent in English than in L.A. Unified. Close to 95% are Latino — making Santa Ana the most demographically homogenous school district in Orange County.
The two elementary schools that won are among what Santa Ana Unified calls its “fundamental schools,” which operate like charter schools in a couple of significant ways: Admission to the school is determined by lottery, so parents and students have to opt in. Both parents and their children must sign compacts promising high levels of commitment and involvement, such as requiring parents to sign all homework and limit television at home.
The results are impressive. At Jim Thorpe Fundamental School, three-fourths of the students are impoverished enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and more than 60% aren’t fluent in English. These are groups that are generally thought to have two strikes against them when it comes to succeeding academically. Nevertheless, the school’s most recent API score was a top-tier 901; the state goal is 800. John Muir Fundamental scored 894. Disadvantaged students and non-English speakers, though they scored a little lower, still performed strongly — in the high 800s.
Los Angeles Unified, which has lost more than 10% of its enrollment to charter schools, should pay attention. The district has its own excellent schools that parents can choose, but these tend to be magnet schools, with a labyrinthine system for admissions. What the district lacks are neighborhood schools targeted at highly motivated families. It has generally ceded this territory to charter school organizations — and in so doing, has lost students and the state funding that comes with them. The school board recently approved a resolution that instructs staff to devise a plan for increasing enrollment by 5%. Why not use Santa Ana’s fundamental schools as a model?
When it comes to imitating charter school success, L.A. Unified has emphasized modified teacher contracts and local control. Those have their merits, but there is another, possibly more major reason why many charters produce high scores: Families have to sign up for them. That means the schools start with parents who are more aware and more involved in their children’s education. They agree to uniforms, stricter behavioral rules and parent volunteer work.
In other words, charter schools provide a place for ambitious parents and children to form a more rigorous academic environment with like-minded families. There’s no reason L.A. Unified can’t create public schools in almost every neighborhood that do the same. In fact, Santa Ana started its first fundamental schools three decades ago, before charter schools and year-end standards tests. The original focus, since softened, was on strict, back-to-basics education — hence the name “fundamental.”
Parents lined up in person for days to nab a spot under the first-come, first-served enrollment rules. About 10 years ago, the district switched to lotteries. It now has seven fundamental schools that enroll close to a fourth of its students. The debate raging elsewhere about teacher seniority laws and union contracts doesn’t resonate as much in Santa Ana. Teachers in the fundamental schools work under the same contract as the rest of the district’s teachers and are subject to the same layoff and rehiring rules.
The creation of such schools isn’t a painless choice. It means that other schools have a higher concentration of students with disciplinary problems, and less-involved families. Foster children especially have little shot at schools that require an active parental role. This doesn’t let the district off the hook for improving outcomes for all students — and in Santa Ana, the regular public schools have been improving steadily and borrowing ideas from the fundamental schools. But L.A. Unified should encourage ambition and excellence wherever it can; motivated families are rightly unwilling to wait years or decades for chaotic neighborhood schools to improve.