Wednesday, September 30, 2009


By Diana L. Chapman

The Los Angeles school district last week placed San Pedro High School – my son’s campus -- on the list of 12 campuses that can now be taken over by outside operators for failure to improve.

Since Ryan goes there, I quickly assessed the real meaning, and as usual, it comes down to this: “It’s all politics ma’ dear.”

Putting that into perspective, I don’t believe for a second that San Pedro High School is one of the worst in the district. It’s not the best either and has definite issues, not all caused by the school. For example, its overcrowded (a problem the district created) and has more than ten percent of its students drop out (a problem society created.)

Some of the staff, however, have become entrenched and are not engaging their students. We are on the third principal in less than six years. An enthusiastic Jeanette Stevens – the new principal who accepted the post in August – had little idea that the school would be placed on the nicely-named: “focus list,” along with Gardena, Garfield, Maywood, Lincoln and Jefferson high schools.

The LAUSD school board, this fall, opened the door to allow non-profits to go after 12 underperforming schools – and 24 brand new schools – while competing against Los Angeles Unified’s own staff, a competition the board believes will prompt improvement amid its most ailing campuses.

Without using the words, the focus list seems like a hit list of campuses that failed its students with low test scores and more than 21 percent of its students unable to cope proficiently with English or math. That district’s action can possibly trigger a bidding process – so to speak -- for outside operators – charters and non-profits – to take a shot at running any of the schools on the list.

Stevens and her crews can also compete which is exactly what the principal plans to do – and win.

I have a theory about why this has happened to our school of 3,375 students. But first, let me start with Richard Wagoner, a caring, San Pedro High math teacher, who charges the district’s mathematical equation remains incorrect and that he was demoralized when his phone rang off the hook with friends “wanting to know how I could work at such a lousy school.”

He disputes, for instance, that while the API (Academic Performance Index) went down last year, the school has increased by 40 points the year prior and maintains overall one of the highest math scores in the district that can compete with other nearby district high schools, including Torrance.

 “Yet in interviews you continue to give the impression that we are a failure,”

Wagoner wrote LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines. “Whether this is by design,
statements out of context, or accident, the facts are so easily obtained and so
obviously opposed to this impression. Unfortunately, perception is reality, and you
are hurting us by continuing to spread this perception.”

Here’s what I think in a nutshell and I know not everyone will agree: San Pedro was classified this way to force the staff to work closer with the new principal – as relations between the staff and top executive year’s past were: frozen, locked up, stale-mated, going nowhere, burned up, lambasted.

The former principal, on his way out, left a scathing letter behind that the staff refused change. That may be so, and now the ball is in the hands of our new principal, who should I say has her hands full.

Whatever plan offered by outside agencies, Stevens and her crew will have to beat out other proposals that come forward – if any.

Cortines and the school board have the final say on who will run the school.

Stevens, known for remarkable team-building skills, nurturing of students, and bringing her staff together, crusades that she’s already has an excellent staff in place and that they are teaching. The students are willing to learn and what the school needs to discover is a fresh approach in the “the art of teaching.”

“Clearly, we’ve got to make it better for the kids and keep their interest,” she explained adding that “we are going to win that contract or whatever it is.”

Many things piled on top of each other making it difficult to manage San Pedro High. For example, it has about 1,375 students more than it was built to handle. The leadership became a revolving door and then came the real slam: the school received about a D rating during the accreditation process.

But Teresa Feldman, whose child attends Hollywood High School, said she sees the most recent action as a way for the district to transfer the blame.

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“I love how SP High School's administration is being put on notice to clean up their act, when the real problem stems from the District's policies that lead to serious overcrowding,” Feldman emailed.

“You can't cram all of these students onto campuses and expect anything but warehousing to take place. No adult would be able to function in the working world under these conditions, but the District assumes these children will not only function, but thrive. I hold out hope for the new principal in her endeavors, but overcrowding is a tough obstacle to overcome.”

She added that as soon as the district opened Bernstein High School near to Hollywood High – and 1,000 students transferred to the new school – Hollywood had the highest “jump in API scores in the district this year.”

I also had three emails – at least two anonymous -- suggesting San Pedro High dump the district and become a charter.

That did surprise me. Starting up a charter means a process. Teachers have to be re-interviewed to keep their jobs and the outside operator has to decide whether it wants to become an independent charter – one that operates under its own policies with its own school board – or a dependent charter.

A dependent charter keeps LAUSD as its school board and also continues the staff benefits.

When my husband heard the news about San Pedro, let’s say he wasn’t thrilled. I, on the other hand, have faith in the new principal and still believe this most recent action was done for one reason -- to give the district a way to break the ongoing stalemate.

Only time will tell us who gets to say checkmate.