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New York Times
Published: June 24, 2010

LOS ANGELES — As recently as 2008, Locke High School here was one of the nation’s worst failing schools, and drew national attention for its hallway beatings, bathroom rapes and rooftop parties held by gangs. For every student who graduated, four others dropped out.

Now, two years after a charter school group took over, gang violence is sharply down, fewer students are dropping out, and test scores have inched upward. Newly planted olive trees in Locke’s central plaza have helped transform the school’s concrete quadrangle into a place where students congregate and do homework.

“It’s changed a lot,” said Leslie Maya, a senior. “Before, kids were ditching school, you’d see constant fights, the lunches were nasty, the garden looked disgusting. Now there’s security, the garden looks prettier, the teachers help us more.”

Locke High represents both the opportunities and challenges of the Obama administration’s $3.5 billion effort, financed largely by the economic stimulus bill, to overhaul thousands of the nation’s failing schools.

The school has become a mecca for reformers, partly because the Department of Education Web site hails it as an exemplary turnaround effort.

But progress is coming at considerable cost: an estimated $15 million over the planned four-year turnaround, largely financed by private foundations. That is more than twice the $6 million in federal turnaround money that the Department of Education has set as a cap for any single school. Skeptics say the Locke experience may be too costly to replicate.

“When people hear we spent $15 million, they say, ‘You’re insane,’ ” said Marco Petruzzi, chief executive of Green Dot Public Schools, the nonprofit charter school group that has remade Locke. “But when you look closely, you see it’s not crazy.”

Locke High, with 3,200 students, sprawls across six city blocks in south-central Los Angeles. The school’s principal in 2007 complained publicly that the Los Angeles Unified School District had made it a dumping ground for problem teachers.

Kevin Rauda, a senior, recalled a teacher who read newspapers in class instead of teaching. In spring 2008, only 15 percent of students passed state math tests.

Green Dot, which operates charter schools in Los Angeles and one in the Bronx, won control of Locke from the district in 2008 and began a turnaround effort.

In August 2008, Kevin King, a retired police lieutenant hired by Green Dot, toured Locke’s campus and found broken windows, smashed lights, and security cameras that did not work. Teachers’ cars were parked helter-skelter, including on some handball courts; gang members were selling drugs on others.

“Kids couldn’t even go to the bathroom without being pocket-checked or hassled,” Mr. King said.

He put together a new security force to expel the gangs. Green Dot fixed the lights and cameras, painted over graffiti, reorganized the parking, and hired bus companies to transport 500 students who previously walked dangerous streets to school.

Green Dot divided Locke into small academies. Several, modeled on the charters it operates elsewhere, opened in fall 2008 with freshman classes of 100 to 150 students and are to reach full enrollment of 500 to 600 students by fall 2011.

Other academies concentrate on remedial classes for older students, including some returning from jail. Another focuses on preparing students for careers in architecture.

Green Dot required Locke’s 120 teachers to reapply for their jobs. It rehired about 40, favoring teachers who showed enthusiasm and a belief that all Locke students could learn. The campus stays open each day until early evening for science tutoring, band and other activities.

Although state test scores administered in spring 2009, just months after the Green Dot makeover began, showed modest gains, Locke remained among California’s lowest-performing schools. Still, a dozen students said in recent interviews that the school was safer and instruction had improved.

Hundreds of school districts across the nation will soon be trying makeovers, prodded by the Obama administration’s push to remake the nation’s 1,000 worst schools, and the availability of $3.5 billion in federal money.

But if they rely on federal money alone, they will have to spend less than Green Dot.

Under rules set by Congress, districts can apply for up to $6 million for each failing school, to be spent over three years.

During a Senate hearing in April, Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, congratulated Mr. Petruzzi on the Locke transformation, but also suggested its reliance on philanthropic donations would make it difficult to imitate.

“I’m thinking, how scalable is this?” Mr. Franken said

In interviews, Mr. Petruzzi and other Green Dot officials offered a budget overview. Before and since Green Dot’s takeover, tax dollars have financed Locke’s annual operating budget of upward of $30 million, which during the four-year turnaround will total about $115 million, he said.

By then, expenditures will have exceeded that four-year, taxpayer-supported budget by about $15 million, with philanthropies making up most of the difference.

Over the four years, Green Dot is set to spend about $2 million on increased security and busing. It spent about $700,000 to create a classroom for a new architecture academy.

Green Dot has also spent several million dollars for additional classroom space because hundreds of students who had cut school or dropped out now show up for class, Mr. Petruzzi said.

Dividing Locke into academies resulted in extra personnel costs, Mr. Petruzzi said, because each academy has its own principal and other staff members.

Another cost: the salaries of two psychologists and two social workers who help students endure hardships like losing a sibling to gang warfare, or being evicted. They have helped prevent several suicides this year, said Zeus Cubias, an assistant principal.

Some new services for students have cost Green Dot nothing. Ms. Maya’s grades have improved since a teacher noticed she could not see the blackboard. Her parents are unemployed, and she had no money for glasses. But she had her eyes tested at a mobile eye clinic that visited Locke in October, where Vision Service Plans, a nonprofit provider, donated eyeglasses to her and 200 other students.

Experts are debating whether Locke is a good model for other turnarounds.

Justin Cohen, a turnaround expert at MassInsight, a Massachusetts nonprofit organization, said most districts could expect to spend $2 million to $3 million over three years to overhaul a failing school. Costs often include teacher training and extending the school day, he said.

“I don’t doubt they’re putting all those resources to good use,” Mr. Cohen said of Locke’s $15 million costs. “But that’s high.”

Tim Cawley, a managing director at the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit group leading several turnaround efforts in Chicago, disagreed, arguing that even expenditures surpassing $15 million on a big school could be a smart national investment.

“We’re wasting billions every year by not fixing these schools,” Mr. Cawley said, “because the students they’re not educating end up filling our prisons.”

Studies support charter schools' performance

By Jim Waters At issue Recent articles about charter schools

Charter schools might not offer a magic pill that can cure all of Kentucky's public education ailments. However, it's tough to ignore the growing amount — and credibility — of evidence that charter schools offer opportunity for change that could transform the lives of many of Kentucky's neediest students.

The charter concept has existed for only 20 years. So opponents for a long time often claimed charter schools lacked proven success.

But parental attitudes are changing. Parents of children in underperforming schools throughout the country are increasingly taking advantage of charter schools. More than 1.5 million students now attend 5,000 charter schools in the United States.

Critics have drawn on a charter-challenged public to convince reform-illiterate legislators and the media that charters represent "uppity" private schools that threaten public education. But residents and many legislators who represent them are "learning" the truth:

■ Charter schools are publicly funded schools managed in a way that gives many students falling through the cracks of traditional public schools a chance to avoid welfare rolls, street corners, prisons or worse.

■ These schools often do it for 33 percent to 50 percent of the cost of their public school counterparts, and in schools with Taj Mahal facilities that lack costly bells and whistles.

But you can't always judge a school by its facilities. And you also can't ascertain charter-school success by listening to fear mongering.

Mary Ann Blankenship, executive director of the Kentucky Education Association, recently wrote in her KEA News column: "Research by Stanford University shows that most students in charter schools perform about the same or worse than similar students in regular schools."

Blankenship wasn't the only one to jump on the study conducted in June 2009 by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcome. But she joined many embarrassed by data found deeper in the report: Students in charter schools for at least three years outperformed their peers in traditional schools. They closed gaping academic-achievement chasms between black and white students.

One of the problems with Stanford's first study involved a flaw in its student sample: 60 percent of the national sample was first-year students. Like any remedy for a long-standing illness, charters take time, and the first Stanford study showed that.

Blankenship wrote that charters were "an unproven strategy."

Ironically, Blankenship wrote that in January — about the same time a second Stanford report focused on the performance of charter schools in New York City.

The respected Education Week publication summarized the second report: "On a school-by-school basis, 51 percent of New York City charter schools are producing academic gains in math for students that are statistically larger than students would have achieved in regular public schools."

Education Week also reported: "Black and Hispanic students (in New York City), as well as struggling learners, do better on average in charter schools than they would have in their regular public schools."

Look at KIPP Academy Nashville: "The average fifth-grader begins two grades below the national averages," stated a recent report on the charter school by Paducah's WPSD-TV. But KIPP Academy Nashville doesn't close the gap with magic.

Students attend school until 5 p.m. each weekday, on Saturdays and during the summer. Is it any wonder that more than 90 percent of these students scored "advanced" or "proficient" on the standardized Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests?

"Educrats" and union bosses might want you to ignore these results.

But I'm betting the thousands of Kentucky parents with children trapped in failing schools would render a favorable verdict about the need to bring charter schools to the commonwealth.

Sacramento city schools, teachers may announce contract deal Monday

By Melody Gutierrez
Published: Saturday, Jun. 12, 2010 - 12:00 am

The Sacramento City Unified School District and the Sacramento City Teachers Association are expected to announce a two-year agreement Monday that preserves class sizes and saves pink-slipped teachers and counselors.

District officials said details of the agreement will not be available until Monday, while specific impacts will be hammered out in the coming weeks. The deal still must be ratified by union members.

District officials and teachers' union hope to maintain 25 students per teacher in kindergarten through third-grade classes, according to a press release. The agreement also is expected to save many middle and high school counselor positions.

"I am extremely proud of our entire district today," said district Superintendent Jonathan Raymond in a press release. "This announcement illustrates a commitment by both sides to stand together as we weather uncertain financial times, regardless of how long they may last."

Union members will vote on the agreement Monday. If OK'd, it will go to the school board for final approval later this month.

"SCTA is also proud that we were able to work together to reduce layoffs and to maintain stability at our schools, as well as help protect important programs," SCTA President Linda Tuttle said in a press release.

The district and SCTA have been at odds for months while the district tried to close a $30.6 million budget deficit. That deficit grew to $32.5 million after the May budget revise, district officials said.

District lawyers filed an impasse application May 20 with the California Public Employment Relations Board in order to have a state mediator assist in negotiations.

PERB officials said the district withdrew the application days later.

The district was asking the teachers union for $4 million to $5 million in savings through three furlough days and increased health contributions, such as increasing co-pays to $15 or contributing $50 toward monthly premiums.

The union wanted to find savings by cuts to common planning time and generate money through a parcel tax.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

5 capital-area school districts try for Race to the Top Funds

By Diana Lambert
Published: Wednesday, Jun. 2, 2010 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jun. 2, 2010 - 8:08 am

California is back in the Race to the Top and five area school districts are lacing up their running shoes.

Sacramento City Unified, Natomas Unified, Twin Rivers Unified, Woodland Unified and Dry Creek Joint Elementary school districts are among 100 school districts and 200 charter schools statewide that have jointly applied for the second phase of the federal program.

The districts could collectively win up to $700 million of the $3.4 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds up for grabs, according to state officials.

There had been some doubt that the state would apply for the second round of funds after losing out in the first round in March. The state ranked a dismal 27th out of 41 applicants. Federal reviewers said a lack of support by unions and an insufficient data system to track student performance seriously weakened the state's application.

This time around, state officials took a different tack, enlisting seven school district superintendents, including Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond, to be the primary authors of the application.

"They wanted to have a bottom-up approach," Raymond said Tuesday. "A lot of work the first time was done by the California Department of Education and they wanted more work to be driven by school districts."

The approach may be working. About a quarter of the unions of participating California school districts signed on for the first phase of Race to the Top, while 33 percent signed on to this round, according to state Department of Education reports.

The Sacramento City Teachers Association was among the unions declining to sign. But Raymond is hopeful. "We all have to work collaboratively locally should we win the grant," he said.

Raymond said this application differs from the first in that it offers more specifics about implementation. He said the superintendents also included a strong emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) course work.

Raymond said he worked on the application for about three weeks before it was finalized.

"We have seen unprecedented collaboration in regard to putting this application together," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Tuesday before he signed the application at a ceremony at Lafayette Elementary School in Long Beach.

Districts statewide were invited to join the application two weeks ago. They had about a week to make the decision, without the opportunity to back out later that was allowed in round one.

The districts had to agree to implement the reform measures promised in the application. It focused on adopting international benchmarks that make up common core standards; recruiting and retaining effective teachers; expanding the education data system to measure student success; and improving the state's lowest-performing schools.

Most districts opted not to join the race for funding. Locally, Elk Grove Unified, San Juan Unified and Folsom Cordova Unified officials all cited the short time to make the decision and the inability to opt out as the main reasons for not applying.

But there were other reasons.

"Still, to this day, I don't think anyone knows how much money we'd get," said Patrick Godwin, superintendent of Folsom Cordova Unified. "We're signing on to all these obligations, and it is costly to do these things. The value of the money may not be equal to what it costs to implement."

He said he was also leery of fracturing relationships with the school district's unions when their cooperation is imperative to balancing the district's budget.

The 300 districts that signed on for the program have a total of 1.7 million of California's students – 68 percent of whom live in poverty, according to the state Department of Education.

In January, nearly 800 of the state's 1,729 public school districts, independent charter schools and county offices of education – including all 14 Sacramento County school districts – applied for the first phase of funding.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia had applied for the second phase of Race to the Top by Tuesday's deadline, U.S. Department of Education officials reported.

Federal officials will select the phase two winners over the summer. Ten to 15 states are expected to receive grants. The winners will be announced before the end of September, the department said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Natomas Unified closes all 8 elementary school libraries

By Diana Lambert
Published: Friday, May. 28, 2010 - 12:00 am

Is it the end of an era, or just a blip on the education budget radar?

As school districts throughout the Sacramento region confront another year of multimillion-dollar deficits, school libraries have moved into the cross hairs.

On Thursday, the Natomas Unified School District closed all eight of its elementary school libraries in a last-ditch effort to overcome a $17.3 million shortfall.

"These kinds of cuts are a last resort," said Heidi Van Zant, Natomas district spokeswoman. "No one wants to close elementary school libraries, but our budget situation is so severe there was no choice."

Across the region, schools are closing libraries, laying off library staff or drastically cutting back hours. Unless funding improves, the traditional school library may join band, art, chorus, shop and other programs that have all but disappeared from the education landscape.

"We used to have dance and art," said Ramneek Kaur, a fourth-grade student at Bannon Creek Elementary in Natomas Unified. "Now, no books. All that is left is PE."

School libraries have always been more than a place to go for quiet reading and study. Decades ago, that's where kids were introduced to the Dewey Decimal System, encyclopedias and research methods. In recent years, they have become media centers with computers and other technology – and staff trained to support them.

Earlier this week, Ramneek and the rest of her fourth-grade class circled the tables in the Bannon Creek library excitedly picking through books to take home. Library technician Clara Allen was clearing out excess paperbacks before the library doors were locked for good Thursday.

Allen has been with the district 29 years. Thursday was her final day of work.

Over the years, she said, the school's library has served as a venue for small performances, kindergarten graduation, book fairs and author visits, as well as a place to study and check out books.

"Somewhere, they should have found a way to keep the libraries open," Allen said. "To me, it's very important to have a book in the kids' hands.

Natomas Unified hopes to reopen the libraries once the budget situation improves. For now, schools will lock the doors and leave the books and supplies inside.

Elk Grove Unified also has targeted the library program for cuts. This month, 57 elementary school library technicians were given their final layoff notices. District officials said the libraries aren't closing. Each school's staff will develop a plan to provide access to books, said Elizabeth Graswich, district spokeswoman.

Folsom Cordova Unified closed its libraries last summer, but last-minute concessions from the teachers union allowed the district to reopen them with limited hours. Superintendent Patrick Godwin has recommended cutting seven of the 11 full-time library positions next school year.

Even Twin Rivers Unified, which is planning to add three libraries over two years, could decrease library hours if the budget shortfalls continue, said Trinette Marquis, district spokesman. The money to add the new libraries is coming from a special pot of funds limited to improving facilities.

Staffing school libraries with parents or other volunteers as a means of keeping them open is not an option. The state Education Code prohibits replacing a laid-off person with volunteers, said Sacramento County schools chief David Gordon.

One district bucking the trend is Sacramento City Unified. The district is keeping libraries open and even increasing funding for middle school libraries next year.

"I'm proud of our superintendent and his vision," said Martha Rowland, district coordinator of library services. "I don't know how that vision will be funded, but he has the right idea – that libraries are important to kids."

Even so, the district has four schools with no library workers and staffs its elementary school libraries only two to three days a week.

Will closing school libraries have an impact? No one knows, said Connie Williams, past president of the California Library Association and a librarian at Petaluma High School.

She said studies show that having an active teacher-librarian at a school raises student achievement.

"Across the United States, research has shown that students in schools with good school libraries learn more, get better grades, and score higher on standardized test scores than their peers in schools without libraries," according to a report from the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science.

Allen, Bannon Creek's outgoing technician, is worried about the kids who don't have computers. The library offered four for their use. She's concerned about who will order the textbooks and keep them organized. And she wonders what will become of the school's book collection.

"It's a sad day," she said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Editorial: School suit offers chance for reform

Published: Friday, May. 28, 2010 - 12:00 am

It should be no surprise that California is the latest state to face a lawsuit attacking its school funding system. The current system is utterly broken. It was only a matter of time before someone took the state to the courts.

The Robles-Wong v. State of California lawsuit, spearheaded by the California School Boards Association, certainly is a high-stakes gamble.

But if the threat gets lawmakers and the governor moving to revamp school finance on their own to avoid a court-imposed system, Californians should be all for it.

In our current school finance system, funding decisions have been taken out of the hands of legislators and the governor (and local school boards) in favor of a fixed formula written into the California Constitution.

So the lawsuit takes a big whack at Proposition 98. Finally, the education community (which has protected that monstrosity to date) seemingly has abandoned it.

For good reason. As the complaint states, "Rather than linking education funding to the actual cost of providing and delivering the education program to all students, Proposition 98 ties funding to growth in personal income and growth in State General Fund revenues in a given year."

That makes funding "volatile and unpredictable." Further, the formula is based on the 1986 education budget and does not take account of education program changes that have taken place since then. Worse, what was supposed to be a minimum guarantee of funding, has become the maximum.

The lawsuit also is highly critical of so-called "categorical funding," money restricted to certain programs. Thirty years ago, most categorical funds in California went to services for disadvantaged and disabled students – and tied up only 13 percent of education spending. Today, categorical programs tie up 30 percent of education spending. California relies more than any other state on categorical programs.

As the lawsuit points out, this has resulted in a "significant decline in general purpose funding" and a significant increase in inflexibility and bureaucratic complexity for local districts – thus impeding their ability to "provide the core educational program."

This sharp analysis marks a major shift away from long-held sacred cows in the education community and should help to move the state away from the usual tinkering with the status quo, in favor of doing something bold.

The governor, to date, has said he will fight the lawsuit, content to say that Proposition 98 provides adequate funding, a lame approach. Yet he came into office as an education reformer. He should take advantage of the lawsuit to achieve real change, leading in offering alternatives to the current system – inside the courtroom and outside, in the Legislature. Opportunities like this are rare. Seize it.

What California does not need is more money spent the same old way. Even as the lawsuit proceeds, the governor and lawmakers should work toward a financing system that requires stronger accountability, more parental choice, different ways of paying teachers, performance incentives to districts and other reforms to ensure an "adequate" education for every child.

Leadership by the governor will be crucial if California, finally, is to win large-scale, positive change in school finance.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Mayor's fiancee brings tough-on-education talk to Sacramento

By Melody Gutierrez

Published: Tuesday, May. 25, 2010 - 12:00 am Page 2B

Controversial education reformer Michelle Rhee brought her get-tough-on-education stance to Sacramento on Monday, saying schools need to be run like Fortune 500 companies, but with student achievement replacing capital.

The fiancée of Mayor Kevin Johnson acknowledged her reputation as a callously outspoken chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools system.

"I am someone who does not mince words; I don't spare feelings," said Rhee, speaking to the Sacramento Press Club downtown.

Rhee joked that she trying show her softer side in her husband-to-be's hometown. Then, she laughed as she noted that Johnson didn't think she could hide her true nature long enough.

Being Rhee means offering no apologies for reforms she says are in the interest of students.

"People have called me the terminator, the hammer, the dragon lady," said Rhee, who served on the board of Johnson's St. HOPE Public Schools in 2006 and 2007.

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty hired Rhee in 2007 after persuading the City Council to give him complete authority over the school system's operations and budget.

Since Rhee took the reins of D.C. schools – which were widely considered some of the worst in the country – she wasted no time identifying what she saw as dead weight. She fired administrators, replaced principals and closed 23 under-enrolled schools.

At the Sacramento event, Rhee said the two biggest problems in public education are too much politics and not enough accountability. The solutions are political courage and quality teachers, she said.

Rhee has taken aim at one of the things teachers unions have fought hardest to protect – the guarantee of lifetime employment. She has offered teachers large pay increases if they agree to give up tenure and be evaluated on student test scores.

She said challenging seniority is an "ugly, ugly battle," but it's in the best interest of kids.

"We have taken a blind eye to what is best for kids in order to maintain harmony among adults," Rhee said.

In an earlier interview with The Bee, Johnson echoed many of Rhee's concerns, saying mayoral control over city schools allows mayors to take out the "extra level of bureaucracy and self-interests."

Rhee said California schools face an uphill battle without mayoral control, but both she and Johnson acknowledged that California law prohibits mayors from directly running school systems. Defenders of the current system say elected school boards give residents a direct voice in education.

Rhee said radical change is possible with traditional school boards, but it is slower to come about.

"She can come up with very bold reform," Johnson said. "She doesn't have to go to the school board and try to convince (them)."

Johnson said he plans to find ways to "wedge" himself into Sacramento's education system. Johnson said he plans to review candidates for school boards in the November elections in the five districts serving the city. If he doesn't approve, he says, he'll recruit his own.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.