Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Charter school disqualified from receiving API score due to cheating allegations

Charter school disqualified from receiving API score due to cheating allegations

By most measures, Green Dot Public Schools, a well-regarded group of a dozen public charter schools in Greater Los Angeles, had a great year on test scores.

But that success has been tempered by a black spot: One of its high schools, Animo Leadership – which has an Inglewood address but is chartered by the Lennox School District – was disqualified from receiving an official Academic Performance Index score due to concerns over cheating.

The state on Wednesday released API scores for most every school in the state, but for Animo Leadership, in place of a score, the state database listed a cryptic message regarding a testing “irregularity.”

Green Dot leaders on Wednesday explained that they discovered a high number of erasure marks on several 11th-grade physics exams, and promptly reported the matter to officials with the California Department of Education.

“We went after it pretty hard and aggressively,” Mario Petruzzi, CEO of Green Dot schools, told the Daily Breeze. “We did not try to sweep it under the rug. Will people every now and then try to cheat? Of course. But how you react to it sends a strong signal about how the organization feels about it.”

The news comes at a time when other charter schools – as well as traditional public schools – are coming under fire for cheating on test scores.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is shutting down the half-dozen schools run by Crescendo Schools for a scandal in which directions from the founder ultimately led underlings to open sealed tests and use the questions to prep students. On the East Coast, Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools and the public face of the school reform movement, has been hounded by the media ever since USA Today broke a story about an usually high number of erasure marks at 41 Washington schools when she was chancellor.

But Petruzzi said the situation at his school is vastly different than other highly publicized instances of alleged cheating, in that it was the result of a rogue teacher, as opposed to pressure from the top.

“It was an isolated case,” he said.

Petruzzi said administrators reported the discrepancy as soon as they saw the tests – the day after the students took the exam.

He declined to divulge the fate of the teacher, citing concerns about personnel confidentiality laws.

Named multiple times in recent years to U.S. News & World Report’s list of the 100 best high schools in the country, the 11-year-old school is part of Green Dot Public Schools, a leader statewide and nationally in the burgeoning charter schools movement.

The organization took over Los Angeles Unified School District’s failing Locke High in 2008, and its crusading founder Steve Barr was profiled in the New Yorker a year later. The schools are branded “Animo,” or “spirit” in Spanish. The school draws most of its students from the K-8 Lennox School District.

Animo Leadership was the organization’s first school – and the first charter campus in the South Bay. It opened in 2000, initially operating out of classrooms at a small Inglewood law school.

The school is building a new 50,000-square-foot, environmentally friendly campus, set to open in coming months, about a mile east of LAX in unincorporated Lennox.

John Boivin, a testing administrator with the California Department of Education, said the specific testing issue involved about 150 of the school’s 604 students.

Even though Animo reported the discrepancy, the state is punishing the school not only by invalidating its API score, but also disqualifying it from receiving awards for two years.

While the school’s score has officially been disqualified, administrators there have calculated its API to be 796 – a 52-point leap over last year. The average one-year gain for the franchise’s “founding five” schools – which also includes Animo Inglewood, Oscar de la Hoya Animo, Animo South LA and Animo Venice – is 30 points. The founding five’s average API score is 766.

Staff writer Melissa Pamer contributed to this article.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Is Grade 8 Too Early for Algebra?

Is Grade 8 Too Early for Algebra?

The Manhattan Beach Unified School District boasts the third-highest test scores in the state of California. So it would be natural to assume that a relatively large share of its eighth-graders are on the accelerated track in mathematics.

Conversely, the Lennox school district has the highest rate of poverty in the South Bay. One might assume that a disproportionate number of its eighth-graders take it slower in math.

But the opposite is true.

In affluent Manhattan Beach, 44 percent of eighth- graders took algebra I or higher in 2009-10, the latest available data from the California Department of Education. The corresponding figure in Lennox was 94 percent.

The comparison of Manhattan Beach and Lennox mirrors an odd trend that is happening statewide. While the overall rate of eighth-graders taking algebra is skyrocketing, the change is most dramatic among low-income school districts serving disadvantaged minorities, according to a February study by EdSource, a nonprofit research group.

“If you’re a student from a disadvantaged background – and are African-American or Hispanic – you are more likely to be placed in an algebra class in eighth grade than if you are a white suburban kid in an affluent district,” said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, and a critic of California’s algebra rush. “The schools in the suburbs still have standards for entrants.”

The phenomenon is partly the result of a 2008 decision by the state Board of Education mandating algebra in the eighth grade.

This was at the urging of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who drew parallels between universal eighth- grade algebra and putting a man on the moon.

The policy was later challenged successfully in court, and so is not currently law. But it nonetheless added encouragement to a trend that had already begun: More and more eighth-graders in California are taking algebra I or higher, regardless of whether they are ready for it.

In just seven years beginning in 2002-03, the statewide percentage of such students has nearly doubled, from 34percent to 62 percent.

As for Loveless, he conducted a widely reported study three years ago looking at the bottom 10th percentile of U.S. eighth-graders in mathematics. About a third of these low scorers on a test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress were enrolled in algebra I or higher.

“A large percentage are functioning at the second- to third-grade level,” Loveless told the Daily Breeze. “For instance, they don’t know fractions.”

Closer to home, EdSource this year released a study examining how the push has affected California students.

The study concluded that while taking algebra in eighth grade serves the most prepared students well, it also has set many students up to fail.

The study found, for instance, that a third of students who performed poorly in regular seventh-grade math were nonetheless placed into algebra I in eighth grade, “with almost no chance for success.”

Loveless credited Manhattan Beach’s approach as sensible. There, a large chunk of students – about a third – take algebra in two parts, the first in eighth grade, the second in ninth.

Here, too, the number of students completing algebra I in eighth grade is slowly rising. But Manhattan Beach administrators say they are more concerned that students have a solid grasp of the material.

“Are all kids ready for that level of abstraction and complexity by eighth grade?” district spokeswoman Carolyn Seaton said. “Many (experts) say no.”

As it happens, school districts with low numbers of eighth-graders completing algebra I actually get dinged by the state on test scores. But this doesn’t concern John Jackson, principal of Manhattan Beach Middle School.

“Our job is to get them ready for high school, and that’s what we do really well,” he said.

(It could be argued that Manhattan Beach Middle School, with its off-the-charts API of 941, has a few points to spare.)

As for Lennox, its eighth- graders have struggled in recent years to master the algebra class in which they were placed. In 2009-10, a disappointing 27 percent scored proficient or better on the Algebra I California Standards Test.

But Joann Isken, the Lennox district’s assistant superintendent of instructional services, said the district three years ago launched an initiative to boost performance in the elementary grades, with an eye toward the ultimate goal: that all eighth-graders not only take algebra I, but also succeed.

She said the effort is beginning to pay off: Last year, it produced a class of students so advanced they were able to take algebra in seventh grade.

“We’re very excited about the progress we’re seeing,” she said. Administrators, she added, are waiting with bated breath for the release later this summer of the latest California Standards Test results.

Math problem

There were 90 employees in a company last year. This year the number of employees increased by 10 percent. How many employees are in the company this year?

A) 9

B) 81

C) 91

D) 99

E) 100

The answer is D.

A report by the Brookings Institution found that only 49 percent of eighth-graders taking algebra knew the correct answer.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Orphaned teen embraces new start

It was the beginning of May, and Heavynle Ceasar’s senior year at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale was shaping up to be an unqualified success.

Heavynle (pronounced “Heavenly”) was captain of the cheer squad, her grades were good and prom was just days away. She’d been accepted at a slew of universities, including San Francisco State and three others out East: Howard, Clark and St. John’s.

Heavynle Ceasar in front of Leuzinger High School in Lawndale. Her father killed her mother then himself. She is getting ready to attend San Francisco State. Chuck Bennett/Daily Breeze
Heavynle Ceasar in front of Leuzinger High School in Lawndale. Her father killed her mother then himself. She is getting ready to attend San Francisco State. Chuck Bennett/Daily Breeze

But on May 5, in an instant, the charming year was marred by a nightmare. On that afternoon, in her parents’ bedroom, Heavynle’s father aimed a gun at her mother, Lisa Brown, and pulled the trigger. Carlton Ceasar then turned the gun on himself and fired again — as Heavynle was struggling to open the locked bedroom door.

The apparent murder-suicide put an instant end to the after-school clubhouse feel of her home on Rosecrans Avenue, located across the street from Leuzinger High School. Nearly every day, a handful of her friends came to the town house to hang out — not only with Heavynle, but also her parents.

“They were pretty close to my friends,” she said of her parents. “My friends called them mom and dad.”

But Heavynle isn’t letting the tragedy derail her college plans. In the fall, she intends to head to St. John’s University in New York City, where she’s never been. She’s looking forward to getting a fresh start in a new setting.

“I’m excited, but I’m kind of scared because I don’t know too many people there,” she said. “It’s going to be a change.”

She plans to major in communications and dreams of having her own talk show one day, like Oprah Winfrey. Money, though, is a bit of a problem. Tuition at the private university runs upward $33,000 a year. Heavynle believes about a third of that will be covered by federal financial aid. She’s believes she’s on her mother’s life insurance policy, but said she doesn’t know much about it.

In any case, covering all the expenses in a strange new land is bound to be a struggle.

Heavynle has since moved in with her maternal grandmother in South Los Angeles. She tried returning to Leuzinger, but everything had changed. The halls were filled with well-meaning people who overwhelmed her with sympathy. And seeing the house across the street brought back a flood of wrenching memories.

She will, however, walk the stage for Leuzinger’s graduation ceremony on June 23.

“I’m really excited about it, but kind of sad,” she said.

Heavynle is a petite and bubbly 17-year-old girl whose easy smile reveals two rows of braces. She has not allowed the tragedy to sap her sense of humor, and delights in good-naturedly rib-jabbing her young-looking grandmother (age 61) about being old.

Her popularity at school extends to her teachers.

“She’s the kind of student that makes my job worth it,” said Brian Yoshii, the school’s longtime ceramics teacher. “Very appreciative, very pleasant. Every day says `Hello Mr. Yoshii,’ when she comes in, and `goodbye’ when she leaves.”

To illustrate Heavynle’s graciousness, he relayed a story. Shortly after the shooting, like many teachers at the school, Yoshii felt a strong urge to help her in some way. He gave her $100 to cover her expenses for grad night on June 16 – $85 for the trip to Disneyland, and $15 for the picnic. Later that day, she learned that the school would be picking up the tab for those expenses. She returned to his classroom and handed him the rolled-up cash.

Heavynle’s mother had worked at Hamilton Adult Center, an adult-education school in Torrance. She’d been attending California State University, Dominguez Hills, in Carson to become a special-education teacher. Her father, Carlton, was not working, in part because he was on disability. Lisa, her mother, had recently left him.

May 5 wasn’t the first time violence had visited the family. In fact, Carlton’s disability status was the result of it. Several years ago, a man tried to shoot him in the face near their home. The bullet struck his hand as he raised it in self-defense.

Also, two decades ago, before Heavynle was born, her mother’s brother died in a drive-by shooting at age 15. Lisa’s recent death means that Heavynle’s grandmother, Patsy Warner, has buried both of her children.

But despite the devastation wrought by Carlton’s actions, both Heavynle and her grandmother insist that he was a good man who was never violent toward his wife until the fateful day.

“My girlfriend had two boys, and if she had any problems with them trying to gangbang, I would call him,” Warner said. “He would try to put them on the right track.”

The apparent murder-suicide has not torn one side of the family apart from the other. While Heavynle’s maternal grandmother has provided her a place to live, her paternal aunt has been serving as a liaison between Heavynle and St. John’s.

“I’ve been explaining her situation to the counselors, so she doesn’t have to do all that legwork,” said Susie Fuller, Carlton’s sister and a human-resources manager at LAUSD, who has a master’s degree from Dillard University in New Orleans. “I’ve been through it.”

Fate can be cruel to victims of catastrophe. A couple of days after the incident, a thief broke into their home and stole three computers and a television.

Hardships notwithstanding, Heavynle’s grandmother has sought to ensure that she not miss out on the joys of senior year.

“That’s the way my daughter would have wanted it,” she said.

Prom took place on the day after the funeral, and it was Warner who insisted that the prom party proceed. About 100 people showed up. Heavynle maintained a brave face at the party, but finally broke down on the way to the dance.

Lisa was not only a mother, but a close friend. It wasn’t uncommon for her to accompany Heavynle and her friends on trips to the mall or to movies.

“There were like eight of them – they’d do everything together,” said Lisa Mims Wyrick, the mother of one of Heavynle’s friends.

Also living with the family was a foster child named Gloria. She, too, is a student at Leuzinger and now lives with Heavynle and her grandmother.

On the day of the incident, Gloria was at home and heard the parents fighting. She called Heavynle’s cell phone. Heavynle ran to her home from the school across the street, accompanied by her cheer coach.

While the coach waited outside, Heavynle went inside the house and tried to open the bedroom door. It was locked. She took a knife from the kitchen to jimmy it open. It worked, but when she pressed on the door, it was blocked by something. She heard a bang like a firecracker and ran back outside.

An hour or so later, the premises were crawling with police and the apartment was taped off. Helicopters thrummed overhead. The next thing they knew, Heavynle and Gloria were sitting in the back seat of a squad car.

“They asked us all kinds of questions, over and over and over again,” she said. “Our names, our parents’ names, our birthdays.”

Heavynle had initially planned to attend San Francisco State University, to be closer to her parents.

“I’m a momma’s girl,” she said.

Is she upset with her father?

“A lot of people ask me that,” she said. “I don’t know. … I don’t know.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Family of boy with pain syndrome leaves Stanford for new treatment

Family of boy with pain syndrome leaves Stanford for new treatment

It had seemed like a dream come true.

In early April, when insurance providers finally agreed — after months of denials — to send a 14-year-old Torrance boy to a children’s hospital in Stanford for treatment of an extremely rare pain disorder, many people cheered.


That day, when the medical plane lifted off at Torrance Municipal Airport bound for Palo Alto, family members of Joseph Martinez hugged and cried, believing that this might bring back the old Joseph — the one who played video games and baseball — as opposed to the one who lay in bed 24/7, screaming, moaning and addicted to painkillers. The one who’d missed an entire year of school.

But it wasn’t to be.

After about six days, the family felt that the team of doctors in Stanford was making insufficient progress. So they pulled out of the program in mid-April. Now, they are in Texas, pinning their hopes on a podiatrist with a gadget.

Not long after leaving Stanford, they learned of the folksy doctor whose practice does not carry nearly the same prestige as the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Stanford, which is among just a handful of U.S. medical centers equipped to treat children with complex regional pain syndrome, the rare disorder from which Joseph appears to be suffering.


Dr. Donald Rhodes of Corpus Christi is a podiatrist by trade, a “foot guy,” as he says. Though he is little known in the small field of pain management, the family in late April was impressed enough by the look of his methods to rent an RV for $2,700 and drive out to Texas from Torrance. (Joseph is in too much pain to sit in a car for extended periods.)

Unlike Stanford’s comprehensive treatment, Rhodes’ approach does not require a medical team of nutritionists, physical therapists, psychiatrists and pediatricians. Instead, it requires just a black box, 8 inches by 8 inches, from which protrude electrodes that attach to various parts of the body.

Unlike the treatment at Stanford — estimated to cost $17,000 a week — Rhodes’ care is not covered by insurance. Instead, the cost is borne entirely by a $35,000 pot of donations raised mostly by Joseph’s school, St. Catherine Laboure in Torrance. A day or so before leaving for Texas, the family requested and received $15,000 from the principal. Joseph’s mother, Susan Martinez, said the family has about $5,000 left.

Complicating matters is that Susan has missed about eight weeks of work to travel with her son. Her husband, Justin Martinez, who himself suffers from spinal disease, is on disability.

As for the device, called a VECTTOR machine, it was invented by Rhodes and is designed to treat damaged nerves through electronic stimulation. It has not yet been approved by the FDA. As of Tuesday, posted on Rhodes’ website was a letter of apology about a malfunction in the device that seemed especially prevalent when used by children.

The family purchased one of these machines for $4,500. Every day, they hook Joseph up to it twice – once using their own machine at the $80-a-night hotel where they are staying, and once at the doctor’s office, which costs $100 a visit.

Despite the skepticism of experts and others back home, the family insists Joseph is finally making progress.

For the first time in months, they say, he has been able to shower without screaming in pain. He is chatty – sometimes excessively so, his mother says. He watches movies while sitting in reclining chairs. Before, he was not only bed-bound, but constantly prone, because for some reason it hurt too much to lie on his back. He now plays cards with his younger brother. But there is still a long way to go, they say.

“He’s really better than he was as Stanford – that I can tell you,” Susan said. “It should take a while to get the full benefits of this.”

The biggest negative, she says, is that Joseph is experiencing withdrawal from his heavy-duty pain medications, such as methadone, from which Rhodes is weaning him. The withdrawal has triggered excessive sweating, nausea and insomnia.

The latest twist in the Joseph Martinez story demonstrates the intense frustration that can accompany pain-related disorders. Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is characterized by severe and relentless pain due to misfiring nerves, which in turn send pain signals to the brain. It afflicts between 200,000 and 1.2 million Americans, according to the Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome Association.

As for Rhodes, he said that although he has been treating patients with chronic pain for 19 years, he has never seen a case as severe as Joseph’s.

“He may hold the dubious honor of being the worst one,” he said.

Rhodes is not one to understate the pain felt by victims of CRPS, which he pronounces “Crips.”

“The only way I can explain it is this: You feel as if you’ve been dipped in boiling oil and lit on fire,” he said. “Joseph Martinez is in an even worse situation.

“Normally, CRPS comes from an injury to the hand or a foot, which then extends throughout the body. His came from eating bad (undercooked) chicken. So his started in the stomach and intestinal tract, then spread throughout the body. So he feels like he has drunk boiling oil that has then been lit on fire.”

Though barely a year old, the VECTTOR machine is a refined version of older devices designed by Rhodes. This is the first one he has submitted for FDA approval.

Rhodes said he entered the field of pain management almost by accident in the early 1990s, when treating – with a widely used form of electric stimulation – a patient with foot pain who also happened to have migraines.

“Before her foot pain stopped, her migraine headaches disappeared,” he said. “I had accidentally triggered an acupressure point.”

This prompted him to come up with several theories about pain management “that turned out to be true.” Rhodes began patenting ways to treat a wide range of pain disorders, all of which he says share the same underlying cause: oxidative stress. The VECTTOR machine is his eighth patent.

Rhodes says his device has provided empirical evidence that Joseph is getting better. When Joseph arrived, his fingers and toes were cold and numb from poor circulation. Now, Joseph says he can feel them again, and his circulation has improved.

Among those disappointed with the choice the Martinez family made is a prominent expert in the field, Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer, director of the pediatric pain program at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA.

Back in March, Zeltzer had personally intervened, successfully cajoling the family’s health care provider, THIPA, into allowing his insurance company to cover the costs of sending Joseph to Stanford.

She works closely with the Stanford team, and said Joseph had been making progress. (Members of the Stanford team declined to comment, citing concerns over patient confidentiality.)

“(Stanford) put Joseph ahead of others who had just as much pain because I really pushed,” she said.

She fears that Joseph’s progress to date is the result of a placebo effect that is relatively common.

“I often call it a short honeymoon period,” she said. “It’s something new, that sort of builds on itself. Then everything sort of collapses when you leave.”

The family, meanwhile, was put off by what they felt was the Stanford team’s dismissal of their knowledge about what was best for Joseph. They say the doctors generally wanted to jump into intensive physical therapy without first trying to manage Joseph’s pain.

When Joseph arrived, inactivity had rendered one of his arms useless. After two days at Stanford, the second arm went limp as well.

“I thought they could have learned about how Joseph was first – how fragile he was,” his mother said.

In a six-page letter to Zeltzer – who’d long served as the family’s advocate – the father, Justin, described his frustration. He said Joseph had been sedated on the emergency air ride to Stanford, but awoke in “a tremendous amount of agony.”

“To our surprise there was no real attempt to try to make him comfortable and ease his pain,” he wrote.

“The next day Joseph was woken up by two young female therapists who … according to him were just talking back and forth to each other loudly and laughing and giggling. My wife was asked to leave the room. They began speaking loudly to Joseph, not giving him a chance to respond and refused to hear anything he had to say.”

In a response email from Zeltzer (provided to the Daily Breeze by the family), she implored them to stay the course. She suggested that their overprotective nature may be exacerbating the pain.

The Stanford team, she said, has “done this many, many times before and know what they are doing. Joseph’s pain system is turned on and the `system’ needs to reprogram itself. … The more you and your husband stay away and allow Joseph to feel that he doesn’t need your protection, the more he will develop the confidence to function.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Pain sufferer heads for treatment

Pain sufferer heads for treatment

For Joseph Martinez, life has been a downward spiral for the past six months, dragging the Torrance teen from a state of normalcy into one of constant, inexplicable pain that has robbed him of an entire school year and left him bed-bound since fall.

At Torrance Airport,  Joseph Martinez is loaded onto an air transport for a trip to Stanford University where he will be treated for his chronic pain syndrome, which he has suffered with for over six months. Photo by Brad Graverson
At Torrance Airport, Joseph Martinez is loaded onto an air transport for a trip to Stanford University where he will be treated for his chronic pain syndrome, which he has suffered with for over six months. Photo by Brad Graverson

But on Tuesday, the 14-year-old, whose plight was detailed by the Daily Breeze on March 25, finally caught a break.

Aided by ambulance crews, the former baseball player and student at the St. Catherine Laboure school was loaded by gurney into a medical aircraft, moaning in pain all the while. The plane was headed for Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Stanford, one of a handful of U.S. medical centers equipped to treat children with complex regional pain syndrome, the rare disorder bedevilling him.

Previously, the family’s health-care provider had refused to authorize treatment for Joseph on the grounds that the plan only covered expenses for services rendered within the network, which is limited to the South Bay.

Late last week, however, the health provider – THIPA – had a change of heart. As a result, Joseph and his mother, Susan, boarded the plane Tuesday morning at Torrance Municipal Airport, as five teary-faced members of his family looked on.

“This is the start of the journey he should have been on five months ago,” said his grandmother, Virginia Dilliner.

Dilliner added that just seven months ago, when she came to visit the family from her home in New Mexico, Joseph was well enough to answer the door.

“By January, he couldn’t even walk,” she said. “Everybody misses him so much.”

Afflicting between 200,000 and 1.2 million Americans, complex regional pain syndrome is characterized by severe and relentless pain due to misfiring nerves, which in turn send pain signals to the brain, according to the Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome Association.

So extreme is the misery of the sufferers that the association once used the following slogan to describe the condition, formerly known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy: “If hell were a medical condition, it would look like RSD.” (In 2008, the association changed the slogan to “Take Flight with Hope.”)

In Joseph’s case, doctors within his network were perplexed by his symptoms. Some erroneously suggested it was psychological – pain experts say it is neurological – and others prescribed heavy-duty pain medications such as methadone, which briefly turned him into an addict.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s classmates organized a fundraising drive. Since the March 21 launch, they’ve raised $26,000.

“We are still working to raise more money, because we know how expensive the treatment is,” said Kathleen Gorze, the school’s principal, adding that the treatment is estimated to cost $17,000 a week. “And we know insurance isn’t going to cover it all.”

Gorze said she has been amazed by the public outpouring.

“We’ve had some people walk in off the street with $40 and say, `Sorry I can’t give more,”‘ she said.

Among the donors was a 3-year-old girl who went door to door in her neighborhood with her parents to raise money for the family. The girl recently came to the principal’s office to deliver her yield: $21.50.

As for the medical provider, it reversed course in part due to the wheedling of Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer, director of the pediatric pain program at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. Zeltzer was the 19th doctor the family had visited, and the first to tell Joseph in no uncertain terms that she believed him, the family said.

On Tuesday, Zeltzer said most insurance companies and health-care providers do not understand complex regional pain syndrome.

“They think it’s psychological, not real pain,” she said Tuesday. THIPA, she said, was the same way. “It’s not that they were evil, it’s just that they didn’t understand.”

Fortunately, Zeltzer said, the director of the medical group had previous training in pain management, and so understood the gravity.

“She was an advocate within the system, and explained it to the CEO,” she said. “She needed a lot of documentation from me.”

Zeltzer said that by the time Joseph came into her office in January, he’d gone for too long without proper treatment.

“When I saw him in the waiting room, he was screaming; he kept apologizing between the screams,” she said.

Because Zeltzer’s program doesn’t have an in-patient component, she can’t treat him. She said she regularly sends children with the disorder to the Stanford program, which is headed up by Dr. Elliot Krane.

“I’ve referred many patients to him, and they’ve all gotten better, even though they were train wrecks when they first got there,” she said. “He’s superb.”

Zeltzer said she expects Joseph will stay in Stanford for at least three weeks. There, he will undergo intensive physical therapy, with specialists reteaching him how to walk. Psychologists and psychiatrists will help him with depression and anxiety.

Complex regional pain syndrome tends to be triggered by a traumatic event, such as a car accident or medical procedure. In Joseph’s case, the family believes the catalyst was an episode of food poisoning that left him with flu-like symptoms.

There is no cure for CRPS, but the disease can be slowed, according to PubMed Health, a consumer health website produced by a division of the National Institutes of Health.

The Martinez family is a single-income household, with Susan holding down a job as a project dispatcher at Triumph Aerostructures in Hawthorne. The father, Justin – who himself suffers from a spinal disease – is Joseph’s primary caretaker during the day.

On the airport runway Tuesday, Justin’s three siblings, father and grandmother hugged tearfully as the plane carrying Joseph and Susan roared away.

Matthew, the eldest, said it seems like yesterday when he’d come home from school to find his smiling brother in the living room, playing video games such as “Call of Duty.”

“He’s really good at it,” said Matthew, who will attend California State University, Long Beach, as a freshman in the fall. “Now he’s just moaning and screaming.”

Justin said he has been overwhelmed by the community’s response.

“The economy’s bad, people are jobless are out there,” he said. And yet “we have people out there (who say) `I can’t afford to send much, here’s $20.’ … It’s just amazing. It feels good.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Rare Disease Means Constant Pain

Rare Disease Means Constant Pain

Photo by Brad Graverson
Photo by Brad Graverson

Visiting 14-year-old Joseph Martinez in his home, it’s difficult to believe that, just six months ago, he was a healthy boy who enjoyed Little League baseball, flag football and carousing with friends.

Now, the Torrance teen lies in bed on his stomach 24 hours a day, drugged on methadone, with his head facing the bedroom door but his face obscured by a mop of black hair, moaning and writhing from a pain that touches every region of his body.

(See follow-up story from one year later: Boy’s Pain Eased by Podiatrist’s Treatment)

Joseph is stricken by a mysterious disease called complex regional pain syndrome, characterized by severe and relentless pain due to misfiring nerves, which in turn send pain signals to the brain. It’s a rare condition, afflicting between 200,000 and 1.2 million Americans, but is becoming more prevalent in children, according to the Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome Association.

Joseph chooses to lie on his stomach because, for some reason, lying on his back is unbearable. The pain is such that he cannot put on a shirt or take a shower without screaming.

Joseph Martinez in a fairly recent picture before he began suffering from chronic pain syndrome.
Joseph Martinez in a fairly recent picture before he began suffering from chronic pain syndrome.

He has been in this state, and in this bed, for five months.

In October, he dropped out of school at the K-8 St. Catherine Laboure school in Torrance, where he once thrived and where his family has been a prominent fixture for years.

“He used to weigh 169 pounds,” said his mother, Susan Martinez. “Now he’s bones.”

To their heartbreak, he has even asked them for death.

“He says it, `just kill me,’ I can’t go on,” said his father, Justin Martinez, who for years has volunteered at the school as a basketball coach. “Maybe three times, he’s asked me to hug him, but he can’t ask anymore because it hurts too much.”

His parents are frantically trying to find a treatment. Thus far, their efforts have borne little fruit. They’ve battled their insurance company and listened to flawed advice from doctors unfamiliar with the disorder. Now, the entire family is stressed out and sleep-deprived, due to Joseph’s round-the-clock wailing.

Their primary problem is that few hospitals — as few as three in the United States — are fully equipped to treat the condition, and the family’s insurance coverage prohibits them from seeking help outside their network area in the South Bay.

But they’ve reached their wit’s end, and plan to fly him to what they believe is the best of those hospitals, Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, costs be damned. They plan to pay the $45,000 out of pocket, and that doesn’t include airfare or hotel expenses.

Meanwhile, moved by their friend’s plight, Joseph’s classmates at school have organized a weeklong event in honor of him. All this week, they’ve been wearing blue — Joseph’s favorite color — and holding bake sales.

The original idea was to raise a hundred or so dollars as a gesture of kindness. But Joseph’s story struck a chord with parents, and the money has been pouring in. Already, the school has raised more than $10,000.

Dozens of pain medications that have failed to relieve Joseph Martinez's chronic pain syndrome. Photo by Brad Graverson
Dozens of pain medications that have failed to relieve Joseph Martinez's chronic pain syndrome. Photo by Brad Graverson

“It speaks to the closeness of our school and parish community,” said Mary Dell’Amico, St. Catherine’s vice principal. “Many of our families struggle just to make tuition. To see the kind of donations coming in is just inspiring.”

The third of four children, Joseph’s two older siblings were standout athletes and scholars at St. Catherine, Dell’Amico said. He, too, was a decent athlete and student, and was always well liked by classmates.

“He was quiet but you knew he was there,” she said. “He wasn’t one of the boisterous kids that had to be the center of attention.”

The Martinez family is a single-income household, with Susan holding down a job as a project dispatcher at Triumph Aerostructures in Hawthorne. Justin, who himself suffers from a spinal disease, is Joseph’s primary caretaker during the day, and the home-schooler of their youngest child.

Even in the medical community, not much is known about complex regional pain syndrome. This means doctors are often at a loss about how to treat it.

This was certainly the case for the Martinez family, which dealt with one perplexed doctor after another at Torrance Memorial, Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach, and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. One well-meaning doctor reasoned that the best remedy was to minimize the pain by prescribing a maximum dosage of heavy-duty painkillers, such as morphine and the fentanyl patches that are commonly used on cancer patients.

The powerful drugs left the boy in drowsy, but, to everyone’s surprise, were useless in relieving pain. Instead, they simply turned him into an unwitting addict.

Other doctors concluded that the pain must be entirely psychological. One even asked the parents to leave the boy’s hospital room and then, after they complied, ordered him to get out of bed and walk.

After cycling through 18 doctors, the family in January finally found hope in Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer, the renowned director of the pediatric pain program at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA.

“She was the only one who went to Joseph and said, `You are not faking it,”‘ Susan said.

Zeltzer said the family needed to send the boy to one of the three hospitals. (Zeltzer’s program does not have the in-patient component that he needs. And even if it did, the insurance wouldn’t cover it.)

Zeltzer, whose name appears frequently in national media outlets as a pain expert, said Joseph’s condition has languished so long that it has morphed into “widespread central pain syndrome.”

“I think that many doctors, if they do tests and can’t find anything in their tests, they assume it’s psychology or attention-getting,” she said. “They sort of downplay the amount of suffering.”

Adding to the misery, being bedridden has brought about secondary pain. The incessant moaning and screaming, for instance, has left Joseph with a sore throat. The inactivity has weakened his left arm to the point where he only uses his right. He will have to relearn how to walk.

Still, Zeltzer believes that, if treated correctly, Joseph will again throw a baseball, toss a football, haul his books to class and hang with friends — as early as next year.

When she treated him this winter, Zeltzer’s first order of business was to wean him off the high-octane painkillers without triggering withdrawal. She put him on methadone, which is often prescribed to patients hooked on opioid drugs, as well as recovering heroin addicts. Now, she said, he needs to attend one of the three medical centers. (The other two are in Stanford and Seattle.)

There, a team of specialists in psychiatry, psychology and occupational therapy will help him retrain his brain, which has been re-networked in such a way that the pain receptors refuse to turn off. Physical therapists will get him moving again, strengthening his muscles.

Complex regional pain syndrome tends to be triggered by a traumatic event, such as a car accident or medical procedure. Often, the severity of the pain experienced by the victim exceeds what would be expected. The age of the average sufferer is 42, but experts say it is becoming more and more prevalent in children, usually girls.

In Joseph’s case, the family believes the catalyst was an episode of food poisoning that left him with flu-like symptoms.

Zeltzer said one way to better understand CRPS is to think of the amputees who routinely suffer from what is known as phantom pain. Although the limb is gone, the receptors in the brain associated with it are still there, and oftentimes are still firing.

For amputees, the phantom pain usually subsides after a year, Zeltzer said. But sufferers such as Joseph must retrain their brain. This, she said, requires learning about how emotions and thoughts affect physical pain, and then using that knowledge to change thought patterns.

For instance, she said, signals of distress in the brain often set off a chain reaction that bathes the brain in stress hormones, which may disrupt a person’s sleep schedule, which in turn often leads to a heightened sensory of pain.

“If you don’t get good restorative sleep, your body starts to feel pain in general,” she said. “It’s like a snowball effect.”

To help Joseph, a therapist may ask him to imagine an activity he enjoys, like playing baseball.

“They want them to really be there, to really feel it: the warmth of the sun, all the sensations,” Zeltzer said. Once the muscles are relaxed, once the circuitry calms down, the patient is asked to take a moment to notice his current state of tranquility.

“In a sense, you’re replacing the pain-image circuitry with developing a new circuitry of feeling really good,” she said. “Your brain learns that bodily state of relaxation just like learning how to write the alphabet or ride a bike.”

Last week, without prompting from the family, Zeltzer tried to intervene on Joseph’s behalf. She called the medical director of their health care provider, THIPA, in an effort to get the child admitted to Stanford, with THIPA picking up the tab. They haven’t heard back.

The Martinez family would prefer Cleveland to Stanford. However, they said should the health provider cover a trip to Stanford, they will gladly go. In that event, any unused proceeds from the school fundraiser — which they did not initiate — would be returned.

As for the food poisoning that may have provoked Joseph’s condition, the family believes it was a meal of undercooked chicken in September. All six family members got sick, but for Joseph and his younger brother, the symptoms developed into something akin to the flu.

His younger brother recovered after a month, but the symptoms only worsened for Joseph.

“The virus by now, it’s undetectable,” said Justin, a 39-year-old graduate of North High School in Torrance. “It’s long gone, but the damage is still there.”

How to Help

Anyone interested in contributing to St. Catherine Laboure’s fundraiser for Joseph should call the school at 310-324-8732.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Free-Throwing His Way to College

Free-Throwing His Way to College

Staff Photo by Sean Hiller
Staff Photo by Sean Hiller

The packed gymnasium was silent and the documentary cameras were rolling.

Allan Guei’s first three free throws ricocheted off the rim and fell back to the court. The crowd sighed.

But Allan was no stranger to taking free throws under intense pressure. The captain of Compton High’s basketball team squared up to the basket and sank five of the next eight.

For that performance, he received a $40,000 scholarship to be used at the college of his choice beginning next year.

Allan, who will be the first in his family to attend college, was among eight students at Compton High School who competed Friday in a nerve-racking contest for the scholarship. The event was the culmination of “Free Throw,” a documentary produced by a Culver City advertising firm — Wong, Doody, Crandall, Wiener — whose four owners include Manhattan Beach resident Court Crandall. It was Crandall who came up with the idea.

Staff Photo by Sean Hiller--- Allan Guei, center, is pushed forward by fellow contestants as he is announced to be the winner of the $40,000 college scholarship competition at Compton High School Friday hosted by Manhattan Beach resident Court Crandall. The contest is part of a documentary.
Staff Photo by Sean Hiller--- Allan Guei, center, is pushed forward by fellow contestants as he is announced to be the winner of the $40,000 college scholarship competition at Compton High School Friday hosted by Manhattan Beach resident Court Crandall. The contest is part of a documentary.

“I thought the free throw is a good metaphor in a world where there’s a bunch of lines that are kind of dividing us,” Crandall said afterward. “The focus became, how do we show the world another side of Compton, that’s more positive, beyond the stereotypical guns and crime stuff.”

To take some of the edge off, all eight students knew they’d win a scholarship of at least $1,000. Any senior with a GPA of 3.0 or better was eligible to compete. Of the roughy 500 seniors at the school, only 80 were able to enter the drawing.

The eight finalists included a spunky majorette and art student named Victory Holley, who was raised in a family of a dozen children by a single mother. They also included Omar Guzman, who in June will become the first member of his family to graduate high school, and Efren Arellano, whose immigrant parents work in factories.

In the documentary, which the producers plan to shop around at film festivals such as Sundance, the camera crew follows the students around for a few weeks. They accompanied Victory as she shopped for a prom dress, trailed Donald Dotson to a prayer group and followed Omar on a bus to downtown Los Angeles, where he participated in after-school activities.

“They’ve all been accepted into universities, and they all have no idea how they are going to pay for it,” said Skyler Mattson, a client-services director with the firm.

The students also met with Bob Fisher, who on March 11 set his ninth Guinness World Record for free-throws made in a single minute, draining 49 – on one leg.

Staff Photo by Sean Hiller--- Omar Guzman celebrates after hearing some great news.
Staff Photo by Sean Hiller--- Omar Guzman celebrates after hearing some great news.

“He thinks it’s a total mathematical-physics thing,” Mattson said. “It has nothing to do with athletic ability.”

On Friday afternoon, the players were introduced on the gymnasium floor by a microphone-wielding Principal Jesse Jones, who called out their names in a booming voice. Each student made his or her entrance into the cheering auditorium like boxers running into the ring.

Donald crossed himself. Diana Ramirez appeared petrified. Efren, a dancer, moonwalked his way to center stage. Victory came running in flashing the victory sign with both hands.

Were there an award for most unique shooting style, it surely would have gone to Diana. After shivering at the line for maybe 20 seconds, the young woman, who stands about 5-foot-2, took her first shot – underhanded. It smacked the backboard and dropped to the shiny hardwood. After missing again, the crowd broke into a classic bleacher cheer using feet and hands. “Stomp stomp clap! Stomp stomp clap!” She nailed four out of the next eight.

Staff Photo by Sean Hiller
Staff Photo by Sean Hiller

“I got up to the line, my hands were just shaking and my knees started buckling,” she said afterward. “I couldn’t throw it overhand so I just went with the Rick Barry,” she added, referring to the NBA Hall of Famer known for his trademark underhanded free-throw style.

Compton schools are notoriously underserved. At Compton High School, the dropout rate in 2009-10 was 27 percent, according to the California Department of Education. That’s actually just 5 1/2 points above the state average. But in 2009-10, the number of Compton High students who’d completed the course work necessary for entry into a college at either the University of California or California State University systems was stunningly low: just two students out of the 317 graduates, according to the Department of Education.

Principal Jones said he was grateful for the entire affair.

“The exciting part is not just the $40,000, but to recognize there are individuals out there who are willing to share their resources and their blessings with Compton students,” he said. “Maybe there will be others out there this year, in this economy and (amid) cutbacks, so our students can get a quality education.”

As for Allan, basketball had apparently been opening doors even before the free-throw contest. He said he is soon making recruiter trips to the University of Massachusetts and UNLV.

“Today was an exciting day,” he said. “Last night, me and my parents, we prayed about it. We just left it in God’s hands.”

The contest on Friday ended with a pleasant surprise for the seven runners-up. Jones, using his microphone, delivered the news, starting with Omar, who’d only drained two shots. He’s the one who is about to become the first in his family to graduate high school.

“Omar Guzman, you will not receive a $1,000 scholarship. Instead, you will receive one-year tuition paid at San Diego State University!”

The crowd roared, and Omar’s face registered shock. The other six students also received one year of free tuition at a four-year college.

Efren, the moonwalker, will use his award to attend California State University, Dominguez Hills, in Carson. He will study criminal justice.

“I tried my hardest to hold back the tears,” he said afterward. “They were right here, on the edge of my eyes. I succeeded in holding them back.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Inglewood schools on edge of insolvency

Inglewood Schools on Edge of Insolvency

School districts across California are in dire financial straits, but perhaps none are as bad off as the Inglewood Unified School District, which is teetering on the brink of fiscal insolvency and state takeover.

The K-12 district is in real danger of not being able to make payroll by May. Compounding the crisis, the district’s attempt to take out a $20million short-term loan this month was rejected.

Now Inglewood school officials are struggling to avoid joining the likes of Oakland, Compton, Richmond and others on the short list of California school districts that have lost local control to the state over the years.

Of the 80 school districts across Los Angeles County, only Inglewood has had its budget rejected by the county Education Office, and only Inglewood was assigned a county fiscal adviser to oversee the financial decisions of the school board. Across California, just four other school districts are in the same boat.

“There’s some serious stuff happening,” said Chris Graeber, field representative with the union representing the Inglewood district’s support staff. “The county fiscal adviser told us Inglewood is at the top of the state’s watch list – it is in the worst shape of any school district in the state.”

The biggest torment to the district – aside from the statewide financial duress plaguing all California districts – has been the charter movement. In the past few years, charter schools have sprung up in the area, poaching the district’s students.

The budget office, meanwhile, has understated the resulting drop in projected enrollment. This throws a wrench into the budgeting process because schools are paid by the state based on student attendance.

In 10 years, the district has seen the establishment of three charter schools. The district’s student head count has slid in that time from 22,300 to just shy of 13,000. What’s more, up to four additional charter schools are on the way.

District officials could not be reached for comment last week. Neither Superintendent Gary McHenry, who took the reins in 2009, nor school board President Arnold Butler returned multiple calls last week from the Daily Breeze.

Under the watch of the county adviser, McHenry and the Inglewood school board have begun the process of enacting what promises to be a devastating round of layoffs, even by the current standards of the troubled economy. Last week the district sent preliminary pink slips to 390 of the district’s 650 certificated employees, most of whom are teachers.

By law, school districts in California have until March 15 to notify full-time tenured teachers that their positions are in jeopardy, so as to give them ample time to apply for jobs in other districts. Often, the layoff notices are rescinded and the teachers are called back. But this time, the cuts are expected to go deep.

Oddly, the more vocal union has been the one belonging to clerks, custodians and other support staff. This group, called the California Professional Employees, Local 3425, appears poised to endure fewer layoffs than their teacher counterparts, but they, too, are in line for plenty of cuts.

The classified union has staged several protests outside the district office, but the teachers haven’t organized any rallies themselves.

“Our people, more than anyone else, live here,” said Graeber, the classified union’s spokesman. “Most of our people walk to work. Everyone else other than the school board can move on.”

Peter Somberg, president of the teachers union, said he understands the district’s predicament.

“I think they are trying everything they can,” he said. “I don’t have any enmity towards Mr. McHenry. He didn’t cause all of this.”

Somberg, a kindergarten teacher who did not receive a pink slip, said his topmost concern is still the students.

“We’re trying to create critical thinkers and to help kids of poverty and kids of an urban district attain the same level of critical thinking that everyone else gets,” he said.

The fiscal adviser, Eric Hall, was not available for comment. But in January, the Los Angeles County Office of Education sent the district a strongly worded letter of warning.

“We are very concerned that failure to effectively address the District’s fiscal solvency situation in an expeditious manner may cause the District to become fully insolvent, and require an emergency apportionment,” said the letter, written by Melvin Iizuka, the county Education Office’s director of business advisory services. “An emergency apportionment would require … the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to assume control of the District through an appointed trustee or administrator.”

Such a move would render the school board toothless, relegating it to an advisory body. It would also put McHenry out of a job. In their place would be the appointed trustee, who would act as a one-person school board and superintendent.

The letter, which was based on information available in October, estimated Inglewood’s deficit for the ongoing year to be $10.4 million, or about 8.1 percent of the total $128 million budget. The county projected the deficit to swell to $20 million next year and $26.4 million the year after.

Iizuka said the projected deficits might be smaller in a month, because the board has already made some cuts. But he also said the overall assessment of the district’s fiscal health hasn’t improved since January. He was cagey on the likelihood of a state takeover.

“I couldn’t give you any guess in terms of odds,” he said. “But there is certainly a potential for that.

The turmoil raises questions about how beneficial charter schools are to the students. Nationwide and statewide, the jury is out on whether students in charter schools outperform their peers in the traditional schools. But in Inglewood, the charter schools’ scores have thus far been higher.

One of Inglewood’s charter schools, the K-8 Wilder’s Preparatory Academy, boasts the highest test scores in the district, with an off-the-charts Academic Performance Index of 932. That’s higher than what some elementary schools achieved in the affluent Palos Verdes Peninsula school district.

(More widely known as the API, the index is the state-created benchmark assigns every school a score between 200 and 1,000 based on a series of tests taken by all students in the spring.)

Another charter, Animo Inglewood High, has a more modest API of 758, but the score easily surpasses that of the district’s two comprehensive high schools, Inglewood and Morningside, which clocked in at 594 and 633, respectively.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that the protests of the classified union have paid off. Last week, the school board pulled a vote that would have reduced the length of their day from eight hours to seven. What’s more, the board voted to boost the number of furlough days for administrators, from 10 to 20 days next year for top administrators (except for McHenry) and from five to 15 days for principals.

Still, Graeber said the cuts to administrators have been disproportionately shallow in comparison with those of other school employees.

“If the district truly is shrinking, that needs to be done,” he said. “They need to make comparable cuts.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Redondo teens skid off the university track

High-achieving district seeks change with just 42 percent meeting UC and CSU eligibility rules.

By all accounts, Nick Smith is a stellar student.

The Redondo Union High School senior is on track to graduate with a 3.8 GPA, earning 60 more credits than necessary to walk the stage – with honors. And yet he didn’t have the option to apply to a four-year college in the California State University or UC systems.

College student Megan McCaw is helping Redondo Union High School students in an AVID college-prep class. (Scott Varley, Staff Photographer)
College student Megan McCaw is helping Redondo Union High School students in an AVID college-prep class. (Scott Varley, Staff Photographer)

That’s because he never learned until it was too late that he needed two years of a foreign language to qualify. In many ways, he’s not unlike the majority of Redondo Union High graduates.

Like other schools in relatively affluent areas, Redondo Union has a strong academic reputation, with an unusually high number of students taking Advanced Placement classes.

But it is lagging in one surprising area: Fewer than half of the school’s graduates – just 42 percent – have taken all the necessary courses to qualify for entry into four-year colleges in either of the state’s major university systems.

The statistic is especially striking when compared with other South Bay high schools.

At wealthy Manhattan Beach’s Mira Costa High, the corresponding college-ready rate is 84 percent – double that of Redondo’s. At the two high schools in the Palos Verdes Peninsula school district, it ranges from 70 to 80 percent. In Torrance’s four high schools, the rate hovers between 50 and 60 percent.

Redondo educators can’t be accused of sweeping the issue under the rug. In fact, they’re the ones who went public with the unflattering figure last year, thereby initiating several reform efforts.

More recently, the issue was raised in a more public fashion during the campaign for the March 8 school board election. Namely, newly elected Laura Emdee made it part of her platform, saying the low rate is evidence of a widening gap between the school’s high achievers and the students in the middle.

“A lot of parents ask, `OK, do they have everything they need to graduate high school?”‘ she said. “But that’s not the right question. The right question is: `What do they need to get into college?”‘

The discussions in Redondo Beach come at a time when the federal government is paying closer attention to college completion rates. The United States used to lead the world in the proportion of young people with a college degree. But according to a recent survey by the College Board, the United States now ranks 12th of the 36 countries measured. The Obama administration has set a goal to regain the lead by 2020.

In Redondo, some officials attribute the disappointing college-ready rate to a default mind-set among many students to attend the two-year El Camino College after graduation. But others – such as Emdee – say a lack of awareness among families is equally to blame. During the campaign, she published a piece about the issue in PTA newsletters.

“Your child does not need a foreign language or three years of math to graduate from high school,” she wrote. “However, they do need these courses to be eligible for a UC or Cal State school.”

Underscoring the urgency is the fact that many community college students get lost in the system. By one count in a recent study, a full 70 percent of community college students fail to obtain degrees or transfer to four-year universities within six years, according to the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University, Sacramento.

In the past couple of years, the Redondo Beach Unified School District has launched several initiatives to boost the number.

“We have work to do and it’s not easy work,” said Annette Alpern, the district’s assistant superintendent of instructional services, who has brought the matter to the attention of the school board. “There isn’t an easy fix.”

The efforts include beefed-up programs, such as increased support in algebra and an expanded class geared toward first-generation college-goers. The school is also trying to instill a college-going culture: every Thursday, for instance, the faculty dons shirts emblazoned with college logos.

The school’s principal, Mary Little, often sports a green-and-white shirt advertising her alma mater, Michigan State.

“We’re doing more things like that to keep college sort of in the forefront – sort of like, `You can do this too,”‘ she said.

To be eligible for entrance to the UC and California State University systems, high school students in the Golden State must take the courses that satisfy all of what are known in education-speak as the “A-G requirements.” For instance, students must take four years of college-preparatory English, at least three years of math and two years of a foreign language, to name a few. The CSU system requires a minimum of a C grade in every class; the UC system requires an average GPA of 3.0.

At the private Loyola Marymount University, the A-through-G’s are more of a recommendation, but spokeswoman Celeste Durant said rare is the applicant who hasn’t met them.

As for Nick, the senior at Redondo Union High, he’d initially planned to attend UC Santa Barbara with a friend until he learned this year that he lacked the foreign-language credits to even apply. He’ll instead be attending Santa Monica College in the fall with an eye toward majoring in business.

“They go over it with students, but students don’t always follow through on stuff,” he said. “There needs to be more communication between the (guidance) counselors and parents.”

Among the 42 percent of students on track to meet the requirement is Kelsey Szerlip, the senior class president. But even Szerlip – a model student – came close to falling short.

For her, it came down to learning at the last minute that she needed a visual and performing arts class to qualify. Ironically, she is no stranger to the stage. Szerlip has acted in numerous community plays and, as a freshman and sophomore, took a dance class. For the better part of her high school career she was under the mistaken impression the dance class had satisfied the requirement. She finally learned otherwise last spring, while visiting with a guidance counselor as she signed up for senior classes.

“I was like, `Oh my gosh, you gotta put me in something,”‘ she said. As a result, she’s currently taking advanced drama.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of good news to go around at Redondo Union. Test scores have risen steadily. More impressively, more and more students at the school are taking AP courses, which generally demand college-level work. This year, about 565 students – or about a quarter of the school’s enrollment – are taking at least one Advanced Placement class, with the vast majority passing the tests. That’s up from 400 in 2005-06.

Educators in Redondo have established a goal to raise the proportion of A-through-G-ready students from 42 percent to 70 percent by the end of 2013.

Demographically speaking, Redondo Union is a diverse school. Roughly half of its students are white, about a quarter are Latino, 10 percent are Asian and 7 1/2 percent are black.

Of the efforts under way to raise college awareness, the most visible will be an expansion next fall of a college-readiness program for low-income, minority and other students in the middle.

Called Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), the current program consists of about 30 students in each grade who take a class with the same teacher all through high school. The primary focus of the program is to ensure that the students complete their A-through-G’s. About 90 percent of the students who stick to the program succeed.

At Redondo Union, the AVID instructor is AimieeGauvreau.

“I’m basically like their mother,” said Gauvreau, who is also an English teacher. “For the first two years I nag them, I hound them about getting good grades.”

Most of the students are the first in their families to apply to colleges, and often don’t have someone at home making the same demands.

Next year, the school will launch a second cohort of freshmen, meaning in four years the total number of AVID students will double.

“All our kids at Redondo, they want to do well. It’s just they get caught up with the typical high school world – socializing, having fun,” Gauvreau said. She added, “We have this great junior college close by, which is wonderful, but then at the same time, it’s a bit of a crutch.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Backlash Over Breakfast

Backlash over breakfast

Every morning, Brian Guillen, a skinny second-grader at Zela Davis School in Hawthorne, walks his two younger brothers to school because both of his parents start work at 7 a.m.

So the free breakfast delivered to their classrooms every day courtesy of the Hawthorne School District is a blessing.

But that breakfast program – as well as a similar one in Torrance – could soon come to an end.

Malaika Simpson, second grader at Zela Davis Elementary School in Hawthorne enjoys her school breakfast. Photo by Brad Graverson 3-3-11
Malaika Simpson, second grader at Zela Davis Elementary School in Hawthorne enjoys her school breakfast. Photo by Brad Graverson 3-3-11

School officials say it’s an unfortunate irony: The program that has brought free breakfast to thousands of low-income students in Hawthorne and Torrance is in jeopardy because of a set of proposed federal regulations seeking to enhance the nutritional value of the meals. In Torrance, the new rules could also come at the expense of the lunchtime salad bars, officials say.

Food service directors say that while the intentions driving the proposal are good, the federal funding isn’t there to meet the mandate. This leaves cash-strapped local districts to either pay the difference or drop their programs altogether.

“They are letting perfection be the enemy of the good,” said Anna Apoian, food services director for the Hawthorne School District. “You have this (proposed) ideal meal, but unfortunately students don’t have time to eat it, and we can’t afford it.”

The proposed new rules are the product of a sweeping movement to address the childhood obesity epidemic by forcing schools to serve healthier food to students. Published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January, the recommended regulations generally call for increasing the amount of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and decreasing the amount of sodium and saturated fats served with every school meal.

The proposal isn’t a done deal: the public has until April 13 to submit written comments.

Apoian has launched a grass- roots campaign to protest the proposed changes, which are slated to take effect in the fall of 2012. For the past couple of weeks, she has been meeting with parents, teachers and whoever else will listen, asking them to sign and send pre-written letters of protest to the USDA in Washington, D.C. As of late last week, 1,000 parents, 200 teachers and 150 food-service employees had obliged.

“And I’m not stopping there,” Apoian said, adding that she will send all the letters in a couple of weeks.

The new rules would have a more significant impact on Hawthorne than Torrance because a much higher proportion of Hawthorne’s students – nearly 90 percent – qualify for subsidized meals.

Since the percentage in Hawthorne is so high, the district serves free breakfasts to all 9,000 K-12 students. (The elementary district includes a charter high school.) At 8:30 every morning, they gobble down the 350-calorie meal, which includes one wholegrain bread product, skim milk, a protein and one piece of fruit. The new proposed regulations are essentially calling for double the wholegrain bread and double the fruit.

The federal government would boost funding for the program by 6 cents a meal, but Apoian said her total additional cost will be more like 40 cents. That would cost the Hawthorne district an extra $500,000 a year. The expense, she said, would deal a fatal blow to her 8-year-old breakfast program.

Hawthorne has been especially hard hit by the down economy. As of January, its unemployment rate stood at 16.4 percent, the worst in the South Bay.

School officials say many of the students go to bed hungry. Paradoxically, Hawthorne’s schools are also plagued with unusually high rates of childhood obesity; 30 percent of them are overweight, district officials say.

“For these kids, breakfast for free is not a perk, it’s a need,” said Hawthorne school board member Cristina Chiappe. “A hungry kid is not going to be able to learn the way a kid with a full tummy would.”

In Torrance, about 10 of the district’s 17 elementary schools offer breakfast in the cafeteria. Roughly a third of the students at those schools eat it, said Lynette Rock, the district’s director of food and nutrition services.

This program, too, would likely face elimination if the proposed regulations come to pass, she said.

“I think the rules are good; the problem is, it’s an unfunded mandate,” Rock said. “Our proposal is, pilot it in a few districts and see if it works before you take it nationwide.”

Rock’s bigger concern is that the new rules could – again, ironically – lead to the elimination of her lunchtime salad bars. That’s because the new regulations boost the amount of fruits and vegetables students must put on their plates. If schools don’t comply, they can’t be reimbursed by the federal government for the meals.

As is, the salad bars in Torrance schools allow students to pick and choose their fruits and vegetables. The problem, Rock said, is that most students don’t voluntarily take enough produce to meet the proposed minimum for lunch. (Half a cup of fruit or three-

quarters’ cup of vegetables.) This means that instead of allowing students to choose what they take, cafeteria workers will have to pile fruits and vegetables on their plates. This would defeat the purpose of the salad bars.

“Children will eat it if they choose it,” she said. “If you just put it on their plate, most of them are going to just choose not to eat it.”

Rock said she intends to meet with some of California’s congressional members to explain the impact to students in Torrance.

Not all South Bay school districts are up in arms about the proposed regulations.

In Redondo Beach, Stephanie Tovar, the K-12 district’s director of purchasing and child nutrition, said the district is already in compliance.

“Our community is pretty health conscious,” she said.

She added that the district’s breakfast program is very small, because few students in Redondo qualify for subsidized meals.

In the Lawndale School District, Food Services Director Arturo Nuno said he believes he can make it work. But he also said the recommendations are flawed.

“I think it’s well-intentioned,” he said. “But you can only give a kindergartner so much food. You can give them two apples; that doesn’t mean they are going to eat them.”