Senator Romero takes on the "toughest assignment of all" in California schools
Senate hearing at Locke High School focused on how to turn around low-performing schools
State Senator Gloria Romero, chair of the Senate Education Committee, held a public hearing on Monday night on how to turn around low-performing schools, including the story of Locke High School's transformation in South L.A.
"This is a civil rights issue," said Romero (D-East Los Angeles).
In her introduction, she unfurled a list of 581 California public schools that have failed to meet academic targets for more than seven years as proof that current intervention strategies are not working. She said she was tired of hearing excuses from administrators, teachers and others who blame students, poverty, parents or other factors.
"I've heard it all," said Romero. "Too often, legislators want to take the path of least resistance.
Senator Romero said that many in Sacramento don't believe school turnaround is possible.
"The people who say it's not happening, tell them to come to South Central and check out Locke," said Aubrey Ross, 16, a current student at Locke. He said he was nervous when he started there after hearing about fights at the school from his older cousin, but said he felt very supported by teachers and staff and was making a 4.0 GPA.
Renee Lloyd, 18, said when she first came to Locke, it didn't seem like anyone cared and when she acted up, there were never consequences, but now she's getting A's and B's and wants to become a criminal defense attorney.
Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Public Schools, and Marco Petruzzi, Green Dot chief executive officer both testified on Monday. Barr is a frequent adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on turning around chronically failing schools, which Duncan has called "the toughest assignment of all" in public education today. The issue is a focus of President Obama's Race to the Top program, which will award competitive grants to states making progress in four areas, including school turnaround.
"I think the biggest issue is, frankly, courage and determination to do this," said Petruzzi. "There are so many schools and kids at-risk that we need to throw everything at the problem."
He emphasized that Green Dot's approach is not the only one, that their program is a work in progress and they consider it just one blueprint among many.
"Los Angeles is a hub of innovation," said Barr. "We just need to rally."
He criticized LAUSD for its top-heavy bureaucracy, arguing that charter schools have an advantage by being directly funded.
"All dollars should go to a school site and let them make the decision. Then public confidence will come back," said Barr. He also said that there isn't a shortage of teachers, but that too many teachers don't feel supported by their districts and principals.
Several of those who testified said one of the biggest challenges in turnaround, but also a game-changer, is changing the culture of the school from apathy to one of success, empowerment and hope.
"Long-term, lasting transformation in schools requires long-term, lasting transformation in communities," said Dr. Winston Doby with the Los Angeles Urban League, who said that efforts to transform the community go beyond the school walls and encompass many areas.
Reverend Eric Lee, Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Los Angeles argued for system and district-wide change to benefit all students. He emphasized that costs have to be framed from a personal perspective.
"The question that needs to be asked is 'What is the cost of not reforming education?'" he said.
Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, said simple solutions are inadequate and that the Legislature's many simplistic efforts since the 1980s have all failed.
Marshall Tuck, Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, and Michael Piscal, Founder of Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools, both discussed their organization's approaches. Yolie Flores Aguilar, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, discussed her Public School Choice Resolution which opens up new and low-performing LAUSD schools to outside management.
Senator Romero proposed SB 742 earlier this year which called for immediate action to turn around the lowest-performing schools in California. She is also a co-author of
SB X5 1 (Romero, Huff, Alquist, Wyland), a bipartisan bill pending in the State Senate, that would require California to identify the bottom five percent of lowest-performing schools for aggressive turnaround strategies and empower parents whose children are trapped within California's low-performing public schools.