September 5, 2008
Villaraigosa Outlines School Plans Changes: Mayor’s Initiative to Address City’s Worst Performers.
By Rick Orlov
WATTS -- As students return to classrooms today for the start of a new school year in Los Angeles, major changes will greet 10 of the worst-performing campuses now under the authority of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
During a visit Tuesday to one of the schools, Villaraigosa laid out ambitious goals for the coming year to reverse a failing system that has resulted in more dropouts than graduates.
"The whole nation is watching to see what we do here," Villaraigosa told a group of about 200 parents and teachers who reported to Markham Middle School on Tuesday to prepare for classes. "A lot of people are looking at the public school system and giving up on it. Not me. I believe in public education. I believe in these students."
Under his Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, Villaraigosa has authority over about 20,000 students at the schools during a five- year pilot program.
He said he wants to see API test scores increase by 30 points and to see improvements in proficiency of 5 percent in English and 4 percent in math on state standardized tests. He also wants to reduce the high school dropout rate to 44percent.
"If we don't make that at the end of the year, then we retool," he said. "We will look at where we failed and see what we have to do to succeed. We cannot be stopped by having lower expectations."
Money is not expected to be an issue at the campuses. Villaraigosa said the schools within the partnership are starting off with $3 million more than they had last school year, and his team has found an additional $2 million within the LAUSD that was not appropriately assigned to the schools.
It will be up to the principals, staffers and parents to account for the money to determine how it is spent, similar to how charter schools operate.
The mayor won control of the schools only after a bruising political battle in which state legislation giving him authority over the entire district was overturned by the courts, and he campaigned to elect a new school board majority that agreed to negotiate with him.
Several teachers at the event said they had voluntarily joined to be part of the mayor's schools.
Suzanna Herrera, a seventh-grade English teacher, said it was the challenge and the freedom offered by the mayor that drew her in.
"I wanted to teach in an urban school," she said. "And I wanted to see if they can really free us of the red tape and bureaucracy and let us teach."
Also, the mayor said the schools will be returning to offering some of the programs that have been lost in recent years. For example, a music teacher has been hired for Markham, the first one in more than 10 years.
"I know these students can succeed and I know there is talent there that we have to cultivate," Villaraigosa said.
At the same time, the hard realities of life in Watts were evident Tuesday.
Several parents told of the fear they have of sending their children to the school nestled between two housing projects, Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens.
One mother said her daughter was killed during a robbery at her home, while several others complained of gang members threatening them and their families and of rampant graffiti at government buildings. Villaraigosa promised to look into all the issues, including increased police patrols to protect the students. He also said he hopes to bring an after-school program to middle schools.
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