LA Unified promotes reforms on first day of classes

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Monique Cruz Garcia, sixth grade english history teacher, prepares her class room at the newly opened Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex on September 13, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.

It was all hands on deck as Los Angeles Unified’s top administrators visited school district campuses on the first day of school today

More than half a million L.A. Unified students got up early for the first day of classes.

Daphine Bonner’s ninth-grade daughter was one of them. As Bonner stopped her car along the curb at Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles, she stared in disbelief at two welcoming lines of civic leaders and highway patrol officers. They waved little fluorescent green and yellow plastic clappers as a five-piece mariachi played.

"I wish I was dressed so that I could get out and take some pictures, honestly," she said.

Bonner enrolled her daughter in Crenshaw High’s magnet program because she wants her to go to college, "I had a little apprehension, a little worry, but like I said, we are God fearing people. We prayed over everything today. We’re excited, she’s extremely excited. She went to summer school here so she’s grounded already so she’s familiar with the school."

Crenshaw High has begun to turn around. Five years ago the school lost an important academic accreditation. Two years ago the school district enlisted several nonprofits - including the L.A. Urban League and USC – to help improve instruction and raise money.

L.A. Unified Deputy Superintendent John Deasy says Crenshaw High offers an example of the district’s effort to delegate more financial and academic decision-making to the campuses.

"We have a number of options for students this year. We have our pilot schools, which are schools that are smaller, actually have a thin contract, different working conditions that allow flexibility, we have numerous charter schools," Deasy said.

In East Los Angeles, former area congressman Esteban Torres greeted 1,000 students in the auditorium of the new school that bears his name. "This community school, yes you heard me, community school because it belongs to the community. It belongs to you," Torres told students.

The new 2,300-student school includes five “academies” focused on engineering, performing arts, and social justice themes. School board member Yolie Flores Aguilar says this arrangement offers parents a portfolio of choices.

"No one size fits all, so we want to give choice to our children, to our students. We want parents to see there are many models, some work better for some kids than others, and the themes draw out the passion that our students have so that they want to be in school, they want to go every day, they’re learning something relevant," she said.

Flexibility and self-governance compelled English teacher Michael Leavy to leave nearby Garfield High after seven years. He and other teachers wrote a proposal to run a school on this campus. He says their successful pitch leaves them with a big challenge.

"Well, money. You know, like the rest of the district we’re ridiculously underfunded. And you know, that affects the resources we can provide for the kids. There are still teachers, and that’s the core of it. There’s still students, still parental support and that’s all the essentials but we don’t have computers for everybody, we should have computers for every student," she said.

In the last decade, L.A. Unified has built a hundred new schools and decentralized decision-making. But the sluggish economy means that part of the district’s formula to improve student performance remains out of its control.

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