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Educating Maria

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"Everyone is growing," says Jenny Singh, a consultant to the California Department of Education.

Judy Burton, president of the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, says the drop in Ninth Street's "similar schools" ranking from 10 to 1 should "sound an alarm."

Burton, who has opened charter schools in Watts, East L.A., downtown, South Los Angeles and several suburbs, says of Barry's and Diekmann's denials, "If anyone who looks at the [school's rankings] and doesn't see that's a problem, then therein lies the problem." Bill Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a nationally recognized expert in K-12 education, calls it "a precipitous fall."

Former LAUSD board president Caprice Young finds the district's disinterest outrageous, saying that Ninth Street's principal, at the very least, "needs to know what causes the drop — and to take the required actions" to fix the school. John Mockler, former executive director of the California Board of Education, who helped to create the rankings system in 1999, says that ignoring the facts about what has happened on Skid Row makes no sense.

"Why would you not look at it?" Mockler asks. "It's a very good tool that acts like a thermometer."

Yet there is no classroom curriculum planning under way to avert academic disaster when the big, gorgeous Ninth Street school opens on Skid Row in 2013 — the fate that befell troubled yet beautiful new nearby schools such as Santee Education Complex and the $232 million High School for the Visual and Performing Arts downtown.

Looking like a marine-life museum with a water slide, and erected despite almost no curriculum planning, the posh Performing Arts school underwent a calamitous first year, and its principal, Suzanne Blake, is being removed. At Santee Complex, near the 10 and 110 freeway junction, more than 40 percent of kids drop out, it has fallen in just five years to the poor "similar school" rank of 2 in California, and LAUSD had so many problems running it that Santee is being operated instead by Antonio Villaraigosa's group, Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

Principal Barry uses language that makes skills-based reformers like Callaghan wince. Like the founding principals at Santee and Performing Arts, Barry is not focused on a rigorous curriculum as a way to fix Ninth Street. "I can't say exactly what those needs will be in three years," she insists, describing her future students.

School Board President Garcia declined to talk about Ninth Street Elementary with the Weekly. She represents the failing school because it falls within the jurisdiction of her downtown and Eastside district seat on the school board. Yet during her tenure she has shown little public interest in the curriculum and academic disaster unfolding there. She has, however, been intensely interested in $54 million in new buildings.

Of that cost, up to $12 million is from the nonprofit Para Los Niños, which will operate a charter school for sixth- through eighth-graders there. According to Diekmann and others, Garcia is outraged that the mostly poor Latino students learn in trailers, with no cafeteria or auditorium.

The campus, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence and looks like a temporary military outpost, could use a face-lift. But the hyperfocus on buildings, and not on what is taught inside, is a frequent failing at LAUSD, where the children of poor and often illegal immigrants tend to be handled as political pawns.

Former LAUSD board member David Tokofsky says the multimillion-dollar project suggests district officials are more concerned with showing off new schools, and the high district dropout rate tells the story. "The district has an edifice complex," says Tokofsky. "Socrates taught under a tree. There are nations that don't have the wealth or school buildings we have, but teach literacy and math well."

Para Los Niños is, however, going to focus on curriculum when Ninth Street Elementary reopens. Andrea Purcell, the organization's director of new schools, tells the Weekly that since the LAUSD school will be a "feeder" into the Para Los Niños–run middle school, she expects her group to be "very involved" with how students at every grade level at Ninth Street are taught. "It is part of the partnerships we will be developing," says Purcell.

Purcell says Para Los Niños, which currently operates an elementary charter school downtown, strongly recommends to immigrant parents that their Spanish-speaking children first be taught in Spanish until their English improves. It will bring that philosophy and an experimental program from Italy called the "Reggio Emilia Approach," which promotes a "self-guided" curriculum.

"We know from the research that it's best to be taught in the first language," Purcell says.

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Patrick Range McDonald

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