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Educating Maria

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The LAUSD Board of Education is being pilloried for its new, stunning $572 million Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools— costing $135,000 per student — and whose top-end architectural flourishes commemorate the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and Ambassador Hotel, which once stood on the site.

Now, these two trends seem to be coming together: LAUSD's splashy expenditures on bricks and mortar, and the old-school battle to keep the flame alive for California-style bilingual education. Alice Callaghan has a bird's-eye view of it from her plain but vibrant storefront school on Skid Row.

Over the years, Callaghan, who describes herself as "one of those knee-jerk liberals who supported bilingual education," has spent hundreds of hours researching the best ways to teach English fluency and mathematics. But just blocks away, at Ninth Street, LAUSD's staff has become locked in the old ways.

The teachers, some of them acolytes of once-popular bilingual theoretician Stephen Krashen — who never taught young immigrant children to read or write English yet became the bilingual movement's Pied Piper — resisted teaching reading and writing in English. About the same time, when the LAUSD school board in 1999 ordered its worst schools to resume teaching phonics and grammar — which many L.A. schools had downplayed in the 1990s thanks to a fad known as "whole language" — Ninth Street balked again.

Callaghan was appalled as the teachers resisted teaching serious math, on top of that. "It was a general level of exceedingly low expectations," she says. "[The principal and teachers] said: 'Woe are these children. They can't learn this stuff.' It was a complete dumbing down."

Test scores and something called "similar schools" rankings reflected what was unfolding at Ninth Street. For a time, under then–Superintendent Roy Romer, Ninth Street adopted a credible math book published by Harcourt, and there was talk that the school's poor teaching might finally be addressed. But when Romer left in 2006, a shaky new era began under School Board President Monica Garcia. Elected to represent the Eastside, Garcia complained bitterly about the unattractive Ninth Street campus — not about the years of second-rate teaching.

California's "similar schools" rankings were created precisely so that school board presidents, principals, teachers and parents could quickly learn how their schools were doing against schools whose student demographics were just like their own. Ninth Street from 2001 to 2008 plummeted to a 1 out of 10 in California.

Simply, it is the worst among demographically disadvantaged, very poor Latino schools like it. Yet in 2001, before Skid Row parents began yanking kids from its dumbed-down classes, Ninth Street was a 10 — the best among poor Latino schools statewide.

Today, incredibly, the school's principal, Anne Barry, who arrived in 2008 and has made no serious changes to its approach, claims the school has no big problems. Instead, she boasts about a new $54 million complex to soon rise on the site. The old school closed down in June so construction can begin.

"In three years," says Barry, a seemingly sincere, well-meaning educator who nonetheless sounds like a member of a downtown L.A. booster club, "we're going to build a brand-new, state-of-the-art school. It is designed to serve this community and those children who are elementary age. I think the school reflects the dynamic and energetic part of this city."

Does it matter that a massive district with a budget of $5.4 billion per year has no idea why a small school on the wrong side of the tracks is at the absolute bottom against schools like it? Does it matter that indigent, illegal immigrant parents hunt down Callaghan and ask for an opening in her small school? Does it matter that the principal has given no thought at all, to the curriculum of a school on which $54 million will be spent to educate an Eastside community LAUSD has failed so completely before?

Principal Barry says she does not pay attention to the "similar schools" ranking, yet the rankings were designed so that people like Monica Garcia and Anne Barry would act promptly, accepting the fact that something is going very wrong inside the classroom. "I don't really know why [the rankings] were higher before," says Barry. "I'm not really sure."

Maureen Diekmann, a director of school services at LAUSD, made the odd admission that she has not looked at Ninth Street's decadelong data trend. LAUSD has no full-time employees researching its voluminous school test scores and ranking data, says L.A. Unified spokeswoman Ellen Morgan. Only four people out of the district's 71,851 employees work primarily on "analysis and reporting of data, including test scores."

Diekmann points to another piece of data, the Academic Performance Index, saying that is the more important score, and it's rising gradually at Ninth Street. In fact, it's somewhat meaningless to see moderate jumps in the so-called API. Since the state Board of Education forced classroom educators to teach more rigorous subject matter a decade ago, almost all California schools have seen a gradual rise in the API.

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Patrick Range McDonald

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