October 8, 2008
Making the Grade Despite Cutbacks, Students Thrive at Cleveland High in Reseda
RESEDA - Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, Cleveland High officials take pride in the achievements of their 4,000 students. The school was recently accredited by the prestigious Western Association of Schools and Colleges. A banner tacked above the entrance reminds visitors this is a California distinguished school.
The school's students, including more than 700 English-language learners, have consistently outpaced state and local averages on academic achievement scores. But even amid the gains, the school struggles with inadequate resources.There are a little more than 120 Cleveland High teachers - 1 for every 32 students. There are just nine full-time counselors - 1 for every 422 students who attend either the traditional high school or a separate magnet program.
And the school recently lost its diploma project adviser, who worked to keep students from dropping out. Now the work is shared by a dean and an assistant principal, neither of whom can give it their full attention.
"At the end of the day, what happens in the classroom will determine the direction this district is going," Principal Robert Marks said.
"Teachers are probably the most important part of this whole equation," he said. "They're delivering instruction. They need to do it appropriately and they need the support to do it."
A larger problem
The struggles at Cleveland are a microcosm of those at the majority of Los Angeles Unified's network of nearly 900 schools. While every campus struggles to find sufficient resources, LAUSD's bureaucracy surged 20 percent from 2001 to 2007. At the same time, 500 teaching positions were cut and enrollment across the district has dropped to about 650,000 students.
Schools across the district also are now bracing for more than $400 million in state budget cuts that officials acknowledge will affect classroom and education programs.
Part of LAUSD's bureaucracy are eight local districts, each with its own headquarters and staff designed to serve as a bridge between the schools and LAUSD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Local District 1 in Van Nuys, serving 106,000 students, includes Cleveland.
"If it was a standalone district, local District 1 would be the fourth-largest in the state behind LAUSD, Long Beach and San Diego," said Kathy Rattay, a high school services director who works in the Van Nuys office.
District 1 headquarters has 57 employees - more than half of whom earn at least $100,000 annually, according to a Daily News analysis. The majority of District 1 staff are mid-level managers who oversee everything from data analysis to parent outreach.
By contrast, at Cleveland High just eight workers among the school's 221-person staff earn more than $100,000, according to the Daily News review.
The Daily News obtained LAUSD's salary database through the California Public Records Act. The database - searchable by name, job title and salary range - is posted at www.dailynews.com.
As is the case throughout LAUSD, teaching positions have been eliminated at Cleveland. The average class size at the high school and its magnet campus is now about 32 students, Marks said.
There are exceptions. State law requires a limit of 20 students per teacher in ninth-grade English and math as well as 11th-grade English classes.
But it doesn't always work out that way.
"The main thing we would like is smaller classes because that's how you educate kids," said Ricky Kupferer, a 37-year LAUSD veteran and a site representative for the teachers union, who said her classes can have as many as 40 students.
Some guidelines hinder
Though Cleveland has a budget of $20 million, Marks has discretionary use of about $200,000. Even those funds have restrictions.
Rattay said school budgets and staffing are initially determined by the number of students. Additional teachers and counselors are funded with money for class-size reduction initiatives, as well as specific funds for students from low-income households and schools with large minority populations.
But Rattay said union contracts, funding requirements and district initiatives often hinder moving staff around to put more teachers into classrooms and reducing class sizes.
"Even if schools were given those funds directly, they would still have to follow state and federal guidelines," said Rudy Ramirez, a fiscal services manager for local District 1.
Marks said principals are no longer able to pull teachers out of class to serve as counselors, as was previously the case.
"You can't do that anymore," he said. "It's not a funding issue with the principal at this school. It's a general, district-funding issue on what's allocated for counseling purposes."
Despite struggling with resources, Cleveland's staff, teachers and students remain upbeat. Most teachers have been at the school for more than a decade.
"When you have a supportive administration and supportive teachers, you don't want to leave," said Marshall Goldman, a science teacher who has been at Cleveland since 1978. "When the students do well, you don't want to leave."
On a recent Friday afternoon, a group of seniors hanging around after school credited Cleveland teachers' persistence for their own success.
"They are adamant that you do your work," Carly Veneracion, 16, said.
"They care if you pass or fail," echoed Alex Rodgers, 17, a member of Cleveland's student council.
Over his nearly 40-year career with LAUSD, Marks said he has seen some shifts away from centralized leadership, including moving staff out of local district offices and into schools.
Marks said that plays a part in the successes at Cleveland, which has a literacy coach and a math coach who previously had been based at the local district office.
"Putting these coaches inside the schools has brought about an increase, in many ways, with our test scores," Marks said.
"They're working directly with the teachers to develop model lessons which address the standards, which students ultimately need to learn."
Marks advocates even more decentralization, noting he'd also like to have a history or social studies coach.
Cleveland's part-time math coach, who also teaches in the magnet school, earns more than $102,000 as a teacher and an additional $12,640 as an academic coach. The school's literacy coach earns slightly less than $80,000.
Teacher salaries are largely determined by experience, level of education and contract agreements between the district and the teachers union.
But education coaches, who help teachers with student assessment, test score analysis and classroom planning, are not without their critics.
"Most of us don't think they do much," said Kupferer, who has worked at Cleveland for the past 15 years. "The idea that they would spend so much money on outside-the-classroom teachers doesn't make much sense to us."
Officials, however, contend the coaches are just one of many layers in the district that teachers may not understand.
"The classroom teacher might see the immediate connection with an English coach, but might not realize that somebody supervises the coach, somebody trains the coach, somebody brings materials to the coach," said Rattay, the District 1 high school services director.
"Somebody is tracking the materials the schools have. Somebody is counting the textbooks. All those other support activities are behind the scenes and all the classroom teacher needs to care about is whether there is support at the school site and support from that coach and department chair.
"All those other people are invisible."
But Kupferer also questioned the number of people involved.
"They are making a lot of money. We don't know what they do and that money can be used for our salaries and put back into the classroom," she said.
"If you have all those people making all that money and we don't know what they do, do we need so many of them?"
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