Students, parents, teachers, and community stakeholders at Crenshaw and Dorsey high schools are fighting for the school’s existence and, according to Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi, community activist and co-founder of the Ma’at Institute for Community Change, they are determined that instead of continuing to make and break promises the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is going to step up to the plate and partner with the struggling inner city campuses.
One of the next steps in this effort is to ask LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy to meet with the coalition of organizations, parents, and community stakeholders to see how he and the district can truly meet the needs of the two schools.
The formation of this plan followed in the wake of several community meetings held to alert people about what is happening at the two schools.
According to 14-year veteran teacher Noah Lippe-Klein, Dorsey is part of the district’s reform effort called Public School Choice 4.0. In this program, groups submit plans to win the right to take over operations of consistently low-performing schools.
The state calls these schools program-improvement campuses, and Dorsey has been in PI for five years. During the 2011 academic year it did not meet its annual progress target. This is happening despite the fact that its Academic Performance Index (API) score has gone up nearly 100 points since 2005–from 501 to 596.
A group headed by Dorsey administrators, teachers, staff and parents, along with alumni and other community stakeholders, last year won the right to run the school, but Deasy rejected the plan.
Lippe-Klein, who is also the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) chapter chair at the school, said they were told their plan lacked urgency and did not meet the expectations of the superintendent. They are in the process of rewriting the plan utilizing the comments Deasy provided.
Crenshaw, too, has consistently underperformed academically and even temporarily had its accreditation suspended in 2005 by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
And according to recently released data, the majority of students at the school are not proficient in either English or math.
Attempts to turn the situation around have been ongoing. They include creating a partnership that consists of the school, its staff, community members, the Los Angeles Urban League, and the Tom and Ethel Bradley Foundation. Additionally, the school voted to become part of the LAUSD’s iDesign division in 2008. Under this program, the lead partner, the Urban League, signs a memorandum of understanding with the district that spells out what areas of responsibility they will undertake.
Ideally, being part of this division gives schools more flexibility for innovation.
In the case of Crenshaw, the three key organizations involved in the turn-around efforts created another nonprofit organization called the Greater Crenshaw Educational Partnership (GCEP).
According to Chris Strudwick-Turner, the L.A. Urban League’s vice president of marketing and communication, the Urban League was never in charge of the academic turn-around. Instead the agreement with the LAUSD addressed the wrap-around services that the school would be provided.
Crenshaw’s academics have been rocky. The school’s API score grew anemically from 505 in 2005 to 554 in 2011.
Additionally, the school is suffering from a great deal of instability in its leadership ranks, with four principals in the last five years, according to long-time teacher Alex Caputo-Pearl, who is also the lead teacher of the school’s social justice and law academy.
According to Jitahidi, the resources the school were promised were never forthcoming.
Caputo-Pearl said some of that lack of support comes in the guise of no help for the school’s new principals.
“[One] of the principals came in from outside the district, and when you are not familiar with LAUSD, it’s a whole new ballgame,” said Caputo-Pearl. “Even if you are the most experienced principal in the world in another district, LAUSD has its own set of dynamics, and you need somebody with deep understanding to help you.”
The veteran educator said the principal also needs a team of assistant principals who are experienced and have skill-sets that match each other. That is one resource that has been inconsistent, admitted Caputo-Pearl. He said there have been 30 some assistant principals in the last eight years at the school, and last year was the best in terms of skill-set match, Unfortunately he said there were only two assistant principals for a campus of more than 2,000 students.
He also noted the irony of how budget cuts have impacted the school.
In one case, the college counselor has been moved into a role of providing general counseling services, leaving parents and students frustrated that there is no one to provide assistance to help with the college application process.
“It’s not good, when you have more police assigned to the campus that you do college counselors. It sends the completely wrong message,” lamented Caputo-Pearl, who said he has attended the various community meetings because of the rumors he heard that the superintendent was planning to restructure the school.
“Superintendent Deasy has said to different people that he wants to restructure Crenshaw, which for him often means reconstitution. And when he’s been asked if he plans on reconstituting Crenshaw, he hasn’t denied it. That is one of the reforms of choice that Deasy and others in his circle use,” asserted Caputo-Pearl.
Reconstitution often means that all of schools employees are essentially fired and must re-apply for their jobs.
“. . . that is not something that is going to work for the kids,” contended Caputo-Pearl. “You’ve got teachers who have long-term relationships with sponsoring programs that are very important for the kids, who are institutions in the schools in terms of academic programs. You’ve got alumni who teach at the school and community members work at the school as faculty and staff.”
The threats of re-constitution have had a dampening effect on the school’s ability to bring in outside funding to address some of its needs, said Caputo-Pearl.
While many things are not working at Crenshaw, and people on the ground at the campus are well aware of what does not, the Urban League’s Strudwick-Turner said there have been some key gains in the last few years.
“When the League and GCEP started talking with Crenshaw, and asked them what is the most important thing needed in the school, we thought it would center around curriculum. But that was a flat-out no. They said if you don’t get safe passage for the kids to come to school every day, you can have the best curriculum in the world but it won’t matter.”
Strudwick-Turner said safety has truly improved around the campus.
Other wrap-around services that she identified as being needed at Crenshaw are health services that help students arrive each daily in good health, and creating a culture of learning at the school.
“Students need to believe they can learn; that they are the best of the best, and they can excel.”
One element that does frustrate her is the question of the quality of teaching going on in the classrooms.
“I’m not in the classroom everyday so I haven’t seen it firsthand. [My information] is from what I heard from administrators, other teachers and district personnel, who have been in the classroom. The quality is not where it should be.”
But Strudwick-Turner stressed that she does not want to play the blame game, because that will take the focus away from where it should be–on the students.
No one involved at Crenshaw or Dorsey believes that solving the complex mixture of challenges that confront the two schools is simple, nor will it be done quickly.
But doing so in a traditional public school setting is vital, particularly for African American students, said Jitahidi, adding that the two campuses are the last places in the district where the population of African American pupils is so high.
Consequently, he said bringing back education excellence is paramount.