Winter 2006 Newsletter

L.A. Alliance Encourages Building Much Smaller Schools With Parent & Community Involvement

Judy BurtonThe mission of the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, a nonprofit charter management organization, is to open and operate a network of excellent small high-performing 9-12 and 6-8 public schools in historically underachieving, low income, overcrowded communities in Los Angeles that will significantly outperform other public schools in preparing students to enter and succeed in college.  Alliance CEO Judy Burton explains how the Alliance’s mission complements that of NSBN.

As the leader of the Alliance, whose goal is to create small secondary charter schools in the LAUSD, elaborate on the connection between school size and student educational success.
We did a lot of research in deciding what kind of approach we would use to get different outcomes for kids. In looking at best practices across the country, particularly in high schools and middle schools, and particularly in the kinds of communities we serve, which are low-income, historically under-performing communities, small schools we found that where kids are able to personally connect with adults, schools are achieving significantly different outcomes including higher graduation rates, and more students consistently performing at proficient levels, The primary factor is that students get much more personalized attention n small schools.  They’re known individually.  The faculty and all the adults on the campus know their families, so kids don’t slip through cracks the way they do in a 4,000- or 5,000-student school.

That said, being small is not enough.  Small schools have to offer rigorous curriculums, and they can do that more successfully, even with historically under-performing communities, because they’re able to pay more attention to individual kids and their needs. Therefore, they can better accelerate their learning to help them meet grade-level appropriate expectations.

Part of the culture of Alliance charter schools, which you and other like charter school operators are promoting, is community and parent involvement in the design, programming and operation of the school campus.  Why is that input important?

It’s a key element because even though we take tests to measure our success, parents still play a critical role in holding the school responsible and accountable for the academic progress of their children.  Also, in small schools kids aren’t just numbers, and neither are their families, so teachers are able to easily communicate with parents, know about things that may be getting in the way of a child’s learning as well as being able to communicate with parents on an ongoing basis ­ not just when there’s a problem but to keep parents informed about how their children are doing, including when they’re doing well. 

For example, in small schools we spend a great deal of time educating our parents, who are primarily going to have first-generation kids going to college. We spend a great deal of time educating our parents on what it takes to get into college, what kind of financing is available.  We are able to reach all of our parents, not just some of them who might be interested, so it makes a big difference.

New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, with the support of First 5 LA has been working with school districts and parent communities throughout L.A. County on model ways to leveraging facility bond funds to respond to the full of array of  family and student needs in urban impacted neighborhoods. These efforts have not always been warmly embraced by LAUSD. Why do suppose it has been so difficult for school facility managers to collaborate with parents, and to build smaller, neighborhood centered, community schools that include pre-K and family resource centers?
For the first round of schools designed before LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer came on board, plans were already underway, had already been approved, and were finding that apparently it wasn’t possible to go back and change designs already approved by the state.  But we are hopeful that in new designs being built by bond funds, there will be more attention to creating smaller schools.  I think the district tends to look at seats, such as, “we need to provide 2,000 seats in a given community.”  The way we see it, it doesn’t mean you have to have a 2,000 seat school.  It could be a community center with four areas that could each be a 500 student school rather than making it one 2,000 seat school under one principal.  So, it’s going to take that kind of shift in thinking and understanding what successful schools need to offer that are different from the schools that aren’t getting the results that we all need and want right now.
And what’s at stake if Los Angeles doesn’t expand it’s mission to build more than just seats?

A recent article in the L.A. Times about one of our 4,000-student high schools, in not even the most impoverished community, reported that roughly half of those students are not even completing high school, and fewer than half of those are going on to college.  I think that’s the result we’re going to continue to see unless we change the current model of middle school and high school education.
The Alliance has focused on secondary schools, and you’ve just mentioned that middle schools are a community and educational challenge as well. Is there a nexus between early education and primary education and the outcomes that you’re seeing in middle and high school?  Will the Alliance schools be successful if early education is unavailable or done poorly?

We initially started focusing only on high schools, but we found that many of our 9th graders were coming to us with 3rd grade skills in mathematics and three or four years behind in reading, which prompted us to start kids into smaller middle schools that feed into our high schools.  From the very beginning, from preschool to kindergarten and on up, every single year is important so the kids don’t fall behind.  By and large, when kids start out early and have early success and don’t fall so far behind that they give up, they’re much more likely to be successful in middle school and high school and then be prepared for college or the workforce.  But, that isn’t

currently happening.  Too any students in Los Angeles fall behind in elementary school, enter middle school behind and by the time they get to high school, they are over whelmed with trying to catch on things they should have learned in earlier grades.

We find that even though were seeing improvement at the elementary level in L.A. Unified, when students go on to large middle school campuses, that progress does not continue.  Kids fall behind in large impersonal middle schools and then go into high school and struggle even more.  I think, also, with everyone being pressed to be accountable to meet their academic performance responsibilities, there’s pressure to get it done, and in the middle of that we’re losing kids and not nurturing them enough to succeed.
NSBN is working with the Boyle Heights community and Plaza Community Center on a early education facility project that’s the outgrowth of the building of East L.A. High School No. 1 at 1st and Mission. The objective is to create a family friendly community center in the neighborhood  adjacent to the new high school.  Clearly there are successful multi-use campuses in LAUSD,  the Elizabeth Street Learning Center and Foshay are example, which include pre-education through adult education on a campus. Why is the latter the model for new educational facility planning?
I think it takes training and support for teachers and administrators to look at things differently.  I have been personally involved in the development, financing, and implementation of K-12 schools that have been very successful.   I’ll use the Foshay Learning Center as an example of a model similar to the Elizabeth Street Learning Center.  Even though it’s a large school, each component within the school is a small school ­ small elementary school, small middle school, and a small high school all with the focus on building a family concept so that kids are nurtured from pre-K all the way through 12th grade, and both teachers and parents are able to follow a child’s education without significant gaps. Achieving academic results still requires an effective instructional program and high expectations at each level.
Lastly, the lead article in this NSBN newsletter is a ringing endorsement by Mayor Villaraigosa of NSBN’s community planning efforts to site, design, and build neighborhood-centered schools in Los Angeles.  You serve on the mayor’s task force that is dealing with school governance.  What’s the promise and outcome of this work?
I think the mayor really gets it. All of the people on the mayor’s education council have focused on looking at and defining what works for kids.  Across all five council committees there is a common thread of working with parents, working more personally with kids in our schools, having higher expectations and not looking at schools in isolation, but looking at schools as centers of communities so that all needs that kids have are met, not just in the classroom but also looking at the supports that children need to be healthy citizens and to be connected with the community. We’re not just looking at schools as completely separate entities from the rest of city services and the community.