Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Home school no longer just for the deeply religious, enters mainstream

Home school no longer just for the deeply religious, enters mainstream

Published Sept. 27, 2013


When he was a toddler, Joseph Biner of Westchester was shy and withdrawn. And yet he couldn’t sit still in a chair for any length of time.

His mother, Patty Biner, began to dread the prospect of sending him off to kindergarten.

“I wanted to find a more constructive way to teach him,” she said. “I didn’t want to just throw him to the wolves.”

Kids might bully him. Counselors might label him.

“I’m sure they would want to say he has ADHD and put him on medication,” she said. “I think most ADHDs are just boys being boys.”

Patty and her husband, George, decided to home-school their child. In doing so, they joined a rapidly expanding movement.

Once primarily the domain of the Christian right or the far left, home schooling is increasingly appealing to families that don’t consider themselves deeply religious or ideological.

The practice instead appears to be entering a new phase of mainstream attention, attracting greater numbers of people who are most concerned about subjecting their kids to the pitfalls of the traditional school environment: standardized testing, peer pressure, bullying and even violence.

Related story: Home-schooling families take play seriously

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released its five-year report on home schooling. Among its findings: the number of home-schooled students ages 5 to 17 in the United States has jumped 17 percent since the last study in 2007 — to a record 1.77 million students. That represents about 3.4 percent of all the nation’s K-12 students.

Meanwhile, the proportion of K-12 students who are attending private schools has shrunk in a decade, from 12 percent to 10 percent.

Pam Sorooshian, who co-founded a group for home-schoolers in Long Beach called Dragon Tree, said the home-schooling option is no longer perceived as bizarre in the way it was when she was home-schooling her three daughters, now all in their 20s. (Two are college graduates and the third is a senior at Cal State Northridge.)

“When we first started home schooling, people would kind of look at us blankly,” said Sorooshian, an economics professor at Cypress College in Orange County. “They’d say, ‘What? Can you do that?’ Now, they say, ‘Oh yes, my niece home-schools,’ or ‘my nephew home-schools.’ Everybody knows somebody who does it.”

As home schooling enters the mainstream, it is also becoming more secular, according to the survey.

Every five years, the Department of Education asks respondents to cite the most important reason driving their decision to home-school. In 2007, the one cited by the highest proportion of parents — more than a third — was “a desire to provide religious or moral instruction.” But the share of those parents has shrunk since then, from 36 percent to 21 percent.

Now, the plurality belongs to the 25 percent who say their chief reason for home schooling is a concern about the traditional school environment, specifically as it relates to “safety, drugs and negative peer pressure.”

To be sure, a large share of families still home-school for religious or moral reasons. By the study’s count, nearly two-thirds of the families included “a desire to provide religious instruction” among their three top reasons for home schooling. But even here, that figure is eclipsed by the 91 percent of families who selected “school environment” among their top three reasons.

By the survey’s reckoning, the growth of the home-school movement has been meteoric, doubling since 1999.

Joseph Murphy, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee — and a leading expert on home schooling — believes the growth will soon level off.

“Most home-schooled households have a mom who stays at home,” he said. “There are only so many people in the country that can afford to take a breadwinner out of the box.”

Data hard to track

In any case, reliable statistics on home schooling can be difficult to find.

The U.S. Department of Education’s figures must be viewed with a careful eye because the methodology changed from conducting random surveys by land-line telephone — which fewer and fewer people have — to sending them out randomly via mail.

In California, the statistics are even fuzzier. That’s because, technically, there is no such thing as home schooling in California. Here, it is done in several ways. Families that go it alone must establish what amounts to a miniature private school. They can hire a credentialed teacher to tutor their child. Or they can home-school through an independent study or online program sponsored by a public school.

While the California Department of Education keeps a tally of private schools in the state, it omits from the count any private school with fewer than six students — and in so doing neglects to track the number of home-schoolers.

As is required of private-school operators, home-school families that opt to become mini private schools need only fill out an online form every October. This is called a “private school affidavit,” and amounts to a notification to the state that the school exists. The affidavit includes a verbal pledge, agreed to under penalty of perjury, to offer the same general branches of instruction that students get in traditional public schools.

“You can’t be teaching basketball all day, or dance,” Sorooshian said. “To be honest, there is nobody who is authorized to check on that. We don’t report to anybody. We have a lot of freedom to do things the way we want to.”

Though K-12 home schooling is becoming more mainstream, it isn’t being treated as such by all four-year universities.

Some advocates single out the University of California as especially unfriendly to the home-school movement.

“I have people who talk to me about getting into college after high school, and I always have to warn them about UC,” said Wes Beach, a home-school advocate in Santa Cruz County who serves as a kind of guidance counselor for home-schoolers. “There just isn’t a way unless you get really high test scores.”

Beach said he’s worked with only one home-schooled student who went straight to a UC campus (Santa Cruz) as a freshman.

The reason: The UC system has strict guidelines on the coursework that must be completed before students are eligible to apply. Those courses — known in education circles as the “A through G requirements” — in essence need UC’s stamp of approval.

Conversely, home-schoolers often don’t draw a bright line between subject areas, instead favoring an approach that allows the interests of the child to drive instruction.

Julian Sharisi, who grew up in Long Beach but is now a student at the private Sarah Lawrence College in New York, remembers a typical school day during his high school years. He would wake up between 9 and 11 a.m., eat breakfast and then read whatever interested him. Class for that day might include a private piano or cello lesson, a dance or acting class, or a trip to a museum or play.

“I never really liked math or algebra; I didn’t see the point — I wasn’t particularly good at it,” Sharisi said. Then he got into music theory and computer science. “Suddenly, I have a passion for math and physics,” he said.

Beach says the one exception to the UC system’s impenetrability is UC Riverside. About five years ago at that campus, a group of professors whose children were home-schooled lobbied the administration to create a separate set of guidelines for such students. To this day, the campus has a committee of professors — many of them current or former home-school parents — that vets home-school applicants.

Many home-schoolers skirt the point-of-entry challenge by taking two years’ worth of community college credits, thereby rendering their high school transcript moot — and enabling them to transfer into four-year universities as juniors.

That’s what Sorooshian’s daughters did. All three went to Cal State schools. One is working as an adjunct professor at Cal State Long Beach.

Sorooshian isn’t really among the wave of more mainstream families. A statistician by trade, she’s a self-described hippie at heart.

Sorooshian subscribes to a form of home schooling called “un-schooling,” which some view to be radical, though she believes the method is widely misunderstood. The idea is to let the child’s interests or real-world applications drive instruction, rather than textbooks and curriculum.

When one of her daughters was 5, for instance, rather than make her fill out worksheets that teach the concept of counting money and making change, Sorooshian might instead have taken her to a bakery, given her a $20 bill to purchase a cookie, and then asked her how much money she should expect to get back.

The Biners, meanwhile, lean toward the libertarian end of the political spectrum. Their concerns had less to do with countering the establishment and more to do with the school environment. In a sense, their trail was blazed by Patty Biner’s brother, who pulled his son out of school long before Patty’s eldest child was of school age. The reason? The boy had been held at knife-point in a middle-school bathroom.

“The principal did nothing,” she said. “The teachers did nothing.”

Patty’s oldest son, Joseph, is 14, and now attends Da Vinci Science charter high school, which has no home-school component.

“He tested very well,” said Biner, a stay-at-home mom with a master’s degree in engineering. (Her husband is an engineer.) “His advisory teacher was shocked to find out he was home schooling his whole life.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Schools Rein in Valedictorian Race


Schools Rein in Valedictorian Race

Hypercompetition has led some to scrap title or give it to all with a 4.0.

June 5, 2011


There was a time when selecting a high school valedictorian was a straightforward affair: He or she with the top GPA in the class was appropriately crowned, and tasked with delivering the Big Speech.

But these are hypercompetitive times, and while many high schools in the South Bay and beyond still abide by the old tradition, more and more are taking another approach.

At El Segundo High, for instance, administrators this year officially scrapped the valedictorian title, although a student will still give a valedictory address. Other schools – such as Palos Verdes Peninsula High, Palos Verdes High and Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach – confer the title on anyone with a 4.0 or better. At these schools – which have actually stuck by this policy for years – there will be 30, 32 and 11 valedictorians , respectively. That’s 73 valedictorians for three schools.

The race to the top of the class sometimes breeds a bottom-line approach to learning, with students emphasizing GPA over educational enrichment. The cutthroat competition can damage friendships, provoke back-biting and even lead to lawsuits.

Jim Garza, the longtime principal at El Segundo High, said it got to the point at his school where the valedictorian selection process was doing more harm than good. Students were edging each other out by one-one-thousandth of a point, and being strategic about which classes they took, often forgoing electives for classes that maximized GPA.

“Last year, there were students who stopped speaking to each other,” he said. “It hurt some feelings and created some disharmony. That’s not what this is supposed to be.”

Occasionally, it gets even more serious. Last year, the No. 2 student at a high school in Rio Grande City, Texas, sued the school district over the way in which the GPAs were calculated. (She later withdrew the lawsuit.) Several years ago in New Jersey, a valedictorian sued after the high school tried to take away her sole honors amid complaints that she’d benefited from accommodations as a special education student. She won.

The competition for the title isn’t just about bragging rights – real resources are at stake. At UCLA, although earning the valedictorian title is not an official criterion in the admissions process, “evidence of achievement” is. And what is the valedictorian title if not evidence of achievement?

“I would say that it looks good,” said Rosa Pimentel, associate director of admissions at UCLA. But she added that the school takes a holistic approach to admissions, and being valedictorian is just one of many signs that a student is driven and successful. “We do turn down valedictorians , because there are so many.”

El Segundo High isn’t the only South Bay school to change its valedictorian policy in recent years.

Bishop Montgomery, a Catholic high school in Torrance, broke with tradition four years ago, bestowing the top title to all students who earn a weighted GPA of 4.5 or higher. (A weighted GPA is one that can go above a 4.0 because of exemplary performance in advanced courses.) This year, the school has 11 valedictorians .

Doug Mitchell, Bishop’s head guidance counselor, said the old way created an environment in which many high-achievers were afraid to experiment with courses that weren’t part of the advanced curriculum, for fear of tarnishing their flawless GPAs. For example, getting an A in art – which has no advanced placement component – could actually have the effect of dragging down a weighted GPA, perhaps from a 4.8 to a 4.7, he said.

“A’s weren’t good enough for some of these kids, and we don’t want that,” Mitchell said. “We don’t want kids to damage their educational experience just to compete for a prize.”

This year, Narbonne High in Harbor City eliminated the single- valedictorian tradition in favor of naming five valedictorians – one for each of Narbonne’s schools-within-a-school, also known as small learning communities. Before, the award invariably went to the top student in one of those communities: the math-science magnet. Top students in other communities – such as performing arts, health care studies and business – weren’t as celebrated.

“We thought this would give us a chance to diversify the type of student who gets the recognition,” said Bo Mee Kim, Narbonne’s college counselor.

At El Segundo High, all students who achieved a GPA of 4.0 or above could audition to give the speech. But officially, there is no valedictorian .

(In another sign of the times, the number of students with a 4.0 or better at El Segundo High has doubled in eight years, to around 40 – or 13 percent of the class, Garza said.)

Of the seven students who tried out, the winner – Cara de Freitas Bart – has many of the hallmarks of a valedictorian . She’s well spoken and driven, with an academic GPA of 4.7. (Officially, it’s 4.6897, she said.) Next year, Cara will attend Princeton, where she plans to major in math.

She learned she won the audition via email, while staying in the dorms at Stanford University, where she was visiting. She screamed for joy.

“Then the whole hall comes in and says, ‘Congratulations,”‘ she said. “It led into a discussion about how, at Stanford, half the students are valedictorians and the other half are salutatorians.”

At the age of 12, Cara ran her first marathon. Since then, she’s run 10 more, plus 11 half-marathons. As a freshman, Cara, like all students at El Segundo High, wrote herself a letter that she finally received a couple weeks ago. In hers, the younger Cara predicted that her older self, by the time she read the letter, would be valedictorian , and preparing to head to an Ivy League school.

Cara said she generally agrees with the new rules, noting how she herself got dinged for taking extracurricular activities like marching band. But she said there is at least one drawback: In prior years, the school’s marquee listed the names of the top 10 students. Now it bears only her name.

“I would like my fellow classmates who have worked similarly hard to be recognized,” she said.

Other local schools have hewed to the tradition of awarding the title to the top-ranked student. Among them is North High School in Torrance.

This year’s winner, Sarah Baik, said striving to maintain that top spot was a good motivator to keep up the intensity. But she said it has its down sides.

“It was kind of uncomfortable for me,” said Sarah, a chipper student who excels in science but also likes to write short stories. “After a while I just became a number. … It’s like I’m not a person anymore, just a robot.”

But even at North, the valedictory address is not necessarily delivered by the valedictorian . Instead, students audition for the honor. Sarah, who plans to study biochemistry at USC, gave it a shot, but lost out to the same student she edged out for the valedictorian title.

“It’s hard standing up and seeing all those people – I keep stuttering over my words,” said Sarah, who finished her high school career with a 4.72 GPA.

“My rival, he got it. Ahh!” she said, with a laugh.

rob. kuznia

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Active-shooter drills on the rise at K-12 schools in the wake of Sandy Hook massacre

Active-shooter drills on the rise at K-12 schools in the wake of Sandy Hook massacre

June 8, 2013


One morning in early April, on the grounds of Richard Gahr High School in Cerritos, the crack of at least 100 gunshots pierced the calm. A few explosions shook the ground.

A few weeks later, at a K-12 charter school in rural Oregon, two masked gunmen burst into a gathering of teachers during a staff-development day. They took aim at the unsuspecting faculty members and opened fire. Bam! Bam! Bam! The shots went off like firecrackers.

In both situations, the bullets were blanks, and the gunmen were law enforcement officers or volunteers conducting a drill.

Had they occurred on the prior side of Dec. 14, 2012, these events might have seemed excessive. It’s easy to imagine how the drill in Cerritos might have raised some eyebrows — the media spectacle involved, the use of not only simulated rounds and flash grenades, but also hundreds of people, including clergy members, local business leaders, community safety volunteers and even students drenched in fake blood. And it’s difficult to imagine that the Oregon drill — a complete surprise attack that left teachers terrified — would have happened at all.

But the landscape has shifted since those five awful minutes at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, when a heavily armed gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, rampaged through the halls, killing 20 students and six adults at point-blank range before turning a gun on himself.

Adding to the sense of heightened alert was Friday’s deadly school shooting at Santa Monica College, the latest scene of an all-too-familiar tableau: police running to and fro with guns, dazed students being interviewed, emergency vehicles racing around with lights flashing.

The news cycle after these bloody outbursts tends to go from hot to cold on short order, but their imprint on the way communities approach school safety has been steadily rippling outward — especially since the Sandy Hook tragedy six months ago.

That horrific piece of American history has cast a spotlight on a certain type of school-safety exercise that, until now, most K-12 schools didn’t really have the stomach to adopt: the active-shooter drill.

“It’s a hard thing because teachers are teachers — they want to teach,” said Kit Bobko, mayor of Hermosa Beach, where the Police Department may soon begin active-shooter drills in the schools. “They don’t want to have to think about, ‘Oh my gosh, if a guy with a shotgun comes into my room, what am I going to do?’ … But we need to have some sort of plan in place.”

Though colleges had been more apt to conduct elaborate versions of the shooter drills before Sandy Hook, the unthinkable carnage in Connecticut has spurred many K-12 schools in the Los Angeles Basin and beyond to follow suit.

Sandy Hook has given rise to other safety measures, too — such as doubling down on counselor hours, installing more cameras on campus or prohibiting parents and the general public from walking onto the premises. But the active-shooter drill could prove to be the tragedy’s most visible legacy.

Active-shooter drills — or intruder-on-campus exercises, as some officials prefer to call them — are similar to the lockdown drills that many schools have long practiced, wherein students and teachers hunker down in the classroom with the doors locked and blinds drawn.

The active-shooter drill is a variation on the theme, but with the creepy factor kicked up a notch.

To be sure, most K-12 schools don’t favor the showy version of the drill showcased this spring at Gahr High. But they often do incorporate the impersonation of a bad guy. Usually, this is a member of law enforcement who roams around campus, jiggling door handles and peering into windows.

Essentially, this new focus marks a shift in mindset, from keeping intruders off campus to dealing with an undesirable who is on campus.

Largely because state law doesn’t require such exercises — as is, schools are required only to conduct earthquake and fire drills — the methods of preparing for the nightmare scenario vary by district.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, administrators this summer will, for the first time, be required to attend training on how to handle an active-shooter situation. Heretofore, the training has been geared toward lockdowns, said Steve Zipperman, chief of the LAUSD police department.

“If an active shooter is on campus, perhaps a lockdown isn’t the best option,” he said, adding that the appropriate response “may involve quick relocations to different locations, either on or off campus.”

LAUSD also has beefed up security. In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, the district allocated $4.2 million to hire 1,000-plus safety aides to guard elementary schools.

In Long Beach Unified, where all 90 schools are required to conduct a lockdown drill every fall, the tragedy prompted the district to compel each school to have another go at it. This time, though, law enforcement officials and administrators wandered the campuses, clipboards in hand, turning the door latches and checking the windows.

In Torrance Unified, schools this spring introduced new elements to the lockdown drills they’d long been practicing. For one, schools there now use the term “intruder on campus.” Also, the drills have introduced the novel concept of taking flight when necessary.

At the K-8 Hermosa Beach school district, officers may soon storm elementary school campuses toting guns loaded with paint-ball munitions, revealing who has been “shot.” The student body wouldn’t be involved in the paint-ball drills, which could begin this summer, but teachers might be, as well as selected students — perhaps members of a Boy Scout troop, Bobko said.

In addition, the city and school district could begin conducting age-appropriate, active-shooter drills for the entire student body in 2014.

At Cal State Northridge, the campus police department has been practicing active-shooter drills for nearly a decade, said Anne Glavin, the university’s chief of police.

The campus actually hosted a drill just a week after Sandy Hook, but it had been planned for months. The participating students were deaf — Cal State Northridge has a robust program for this population — which gave officers a sense of how to handle the potential curve ball of directing students who can’t communicate verbally.

Glavin also teaches a workplace violence program on campus that, among other things, instructs staff and faculty on how to spot potentially violent students.

“When we’re talking about red flags, one sign alone might not be a problem, but when you start getting two, three and four, that’s a concern,” she said.

Warning signs could include a person who has a fascination with weapons, or a student whose papers often involve murder and mayhem, she said.

Some officials believe public schools in California are way behind the curve when it comes to preparing for campus violence.

Manhattan Beach police Officer Stephanie Martin points out that while schools are required by law to conduct fire drills, the number of school-fire fatalities over the past 50 years is zero. (The last deadly school fire happened on Dec. 1, 1958, when a massive blaze claimed the lives of 92 students and three nuns at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago.)

“In California, schools aren’t mandated to do lockdown drills and that’s a travesty,” she said. “Fires aren’t killing our kids; violence is killing our kids.”

Indeed, Sandy Hook wasn’t the only school shooting in 2012. There were at least three others in the United States, as well as 13 other mass shootings. In all last year, 88 people died in the 16 shootings.

State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Redondo Beach, has long been sounding the alarm on school-safety plans, noting that as late as 2009, roughly a third of all middle schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District didn’t even have one.

For years, he’s been trying to pass a bill to crack down on the inaction. Since 2007, he has introduced it four times, never successfully, Lieu’s aides say. The reasons? Too expensive. Too onerous.

In a sign that times have truly changed, Lieu introduced the bill for a fifth time after the Sandy Hook shooting, and it appears to be sailing through. Senate Bill 49 was unanimously approved in the Senate on May 29, and now must go before the Assembly.

The bill puts the California Department of Education in charge of ensuring that all schools have a safety plan. It also requires the plans themselves to include procedures related to active-shooter and terrorist events.

Some procedures for dealing with an armed lunatic on campus might sound obvious, but are easy to forget in the heat of a crisis, Lieu said.

“Say you have an active-shooter situation and you’re trying to keep your classroom quiet,” Lieu said. “With all the adrenaline pumping, you might not think to turn off the volume on your cellphone. Maybe you think to lock the door, but not to barricade it shut with your desk.”

School safety experts also recommend that, should an intruder barge in, office personnel get on the school intercom and use direct — even blunt — language about what is happening.

“Use simple language — no coded language,” said Susan Chaides, who, as the project director over the safe-schools division of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, trains school administrators on school safety. “Say: ‘There is an intruder — an armed intruder.’ It doesn’t matter if they (the intruder) can hear.”

(During the Sandy Hook massacre, a quick-thinking employee in the office flipped on the loudspeakers, capturing the horror but likely saving many lives.)

Also blurry is the line that separates adequate preparation on the part of school districts and hysteria.

The month after the Sandy Hook shooting, a school board in Montpelier, Ohio, approved a plan to arm the custodial staff with handguns. In April, a school district in Minnesota purchased bulletproof whiteboards that could be used as a shield to protect teachers.

Chris Bentley, the former president of the Hesperia Unified school board, the High Desert’s largest school district with 21,000 students, is skeptical of heavily armed school police forces and the now-popular, active-shooter drills.

Bentley cited the U.S. Secret Service’s 2002 Safe Schools Initiative report prepared in response to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. (

“There’s 10 key findings that they have,” he said. Among them: ” ‘Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.’ ”

Bentley, a father of four school-age children and a former Marine, would rather have school faculty and staff trained on how to deal with these emergencies.

“When push comes to shove, I want somebody to have a cool head in the classroom, as we hear all the hero stories coming out of Sandy Hook and wherever,” he said. “Yes, the cavalry’s going to get there, but it’s going to take time.”

Fontana Unified made national headlines in January when the district bought 14 military-style rifles to arm the district’s police force. Bentley believes that was likely an expensive waste of their time.

“If you’re going to buy high-powered rifles, you need to be trained on them, on a pretty regular basis,” said Bentley, a former Marine. “It’s not just like your sidearm.”

The suspect in the Santa Monica shootings was ultimately confronted by two Santa Monica police officers, and one officer from Santa Monica College, who exchanged gunfire with him in the campus library, ultimately killing him.

Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said the officers used their training, which had in part been developed through studying other mass shootings.

“The Santa Monica Police Department co-trains with the Santa Monica Community College Police Department and we engage in rapid response training, which is consistent with the lessons learned from many of these other mass shootings — unfortunately those that have happened both in college settings and elsewhere,” Seabrooks said. “That training was clearly utilized by the three responding officers who neutralized that suspect, as one would expect.”

One disconcerting aspect of not only Sandy Hook but also the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton Colo., is that both schools were actually pretty secure.

Columbine employed an armed guard, who exchanged gunfire with the killers. At Sandy Hook, Lanza was greeted by a locked glass door. He took aim with a rifle and shot through it.

“They had cameras everywhere, and buzzer systems,” said Mary Sue, superintendent of the ABC Unified School District in Cerritos. “Their staffs were pretty well prepared in lockdown systems.”

Sue noted that the very same day law enforcement officials were performing the dramatic practice raid at Gahr High, she was at a school leadership conference featuring the two district superintendents who were in charge during the Sandy Hook and Columbine tragedies. Interestingly, those leaders stressed a different kind of preparedness: making sure mental-health services are available for children who need it.

In keeping with this advice, the ABC district has — in addition to installing more security features on its campuses, such as cameras, better lighting and emergency call buttons — boosted its mental health programs. The district recently partnered with the USC School of Social Work to assign to every school social work interns who get to know the students on a personal level.

In Hermosa, the district increased its counselor hours after Sandy Hook, and expanded a program — called MindUP — that teaches students how to better manage their emotions.

“It’s teaching kids about how your brain works — how decision-making works,” said Patricia Escalante, the district’s superintendent. “You can choose to be an optimist. And you can control your feelings.”

In Redondo Beach, educators are trying to keep an eye out for kids who might feel marginalized.

Frank DeSena, assistant superintendent of student services in the Redondo Beach Unified School District, said, sometimes, the simple act of a principal saying hello to a wayward student by name can make a big difference.

“Let’s look at the type of person who has been a shooter,” he said. “The common thread (among school shooters) is most of the time they were the outlier type of young people. They weren’t connected to their school or their community.”

Making them feel more connected, he added, can start with a simple hello.

Staff writer Beau Yarbrough contributed to this report.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

California ranks 49 nationally in per-pupil spending, but tide is poised to change

California ranks 49 nationally in per-pupil spending, but tide is poised to change

July 27, 2013

Teacher Mark Duvall's Torrance High classrom is packed with 43 students in this 2010 file photo. (Robert Casillas/Daily Breeze)
Teacher Mark Duvall’s Torrance High classrom is packed with 43 students in this 2010 file photo. (Robert Casillas/Daily Breeze)

It’s difficult to believe now, but there was a time — through the eras of flower children, bell bottoms and disco — when the Golden State was widely seen as the gold standard on education spending.

Class sizes were low. Schools were well maintained. Textbooks and other instructional materials were new.

Back then, California ranked in the top 10 nationwide in per pupil education spending.

The abundance made an impression on Michael Kirst, now the president of the California State Board of Education, when he moved to California from Virginia in 1969.

“There was free summer school for every kid that wanted it,” he said. “I’d never heard of such a thing.”

A multitude of factors has caused California’s relative standing in school spending to sink like a gold coin in a swimming pool.

The state now ranks 35th in per pupil spending, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Factor in cost-of-living considerations and California’s place in the pecking order among all 50 states and the District of Columbia is a dismal 49. That’s ahead of only Nevada and Utah, according to a widely cited annual January report by Education Week. (Per-pupil spending figures from Education Week include state and local funds, but not federal money, or funds for capital improvements. Census figures include federal dollars but also exclude capital outlay.)

However, the needle is poised to begin moving in the other direction, thanks to two big game-changers. One is the November passage of Proposition 30, the temporary tax hike that will primarily benefit public education. The other, which was signed into law in late June, is the Local Control Funding Formula — Gov. Jerry Brown’s successful attempt to revolutionize the way school dollars are distributed.

The first wave of replenishment will hit the coffers of local school districts this fall, mostly in modest fashion. The infusion is expected to increase year by year for a time, but specific numbers are tough to come by.

The Governor’s Office has projected that, by 2016-17, California will boost its per-pupil spending by $2,800 over the 2011-12 amount, bringing it to somewhere near the current national average in raw dollars. That would be quite a bump, but that projection is questioned in some education circles.

In any event, the approaching relief raises an intriguing question: to what extent — if at all — will more money lead to better academic performance? It’s a question that the brightest minds in education have been debating for years.

“Some would argue there is very little correlation,” said Maggie Weston, a research fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. “Others would say we probably should be spending more money, but it’s about wise investment. So, just spending more money in exactly the same way probably won’t lead to better student outcome.”

As it happens, California’s level of its funding lines up pretty neatly with the performance of its students.

Much as it ranks 49th on cost-adjusted per-pupil spending, its nationwide standing in academic performance on math and English tests among fourth- and eighth-graders ranges from 46th to 49th, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the most authoritative source of interstate comparison on academic performance.

Similarly, Vermont, which occupies the No. 1 spot nationwide on per-pupil spending by Education Week’s measure, ranks an impressive 6th in fourth-grade mathematics.

But on the other hand, test scores in California have risen steadily over the past half-decade, even though that stretch of time marks one of the worst five-year periods for school finance in state history.

“If you take the negative angle, you could say ‘so money doesn’t matter,’ ” said Peter Birdsall, executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. “Public school educators in California did a wonderful job. … The problem is, people can only keep up that level of exertion for so long.”

And then there is the puzzle of Texas.

Per pupil spending in the Lone Star State is in the neighborhood of California’s, clocking in at 44th nationwide by the measure of Education Week. And yet, students in California are vastly outperformed by their peers in Texas — the nation’s second-largest state, whose demographics closely mirror those of California. (In both states, for instance, Latino students have recently become a majority population in the schools.)

Eighth-graders in Texas rank 10th nationally in mathematics; their counterparts in California are at the bottom of the heap, just above Mississippi and Alabama, at 49th.

In his book, “The Money Myth,” Norton Grubb, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, makes the case that money’s ability to boost performance in schools is often overstated.

Grubb is quick to clarify this thesis.

“I would never say money doesn’t make a difference; money does make a difference,” he said.

It’s just that some expenditures are more effective than others, Grubb said. Raising teacher salaries, for instance, correlates to better test scores, graduation rates and credits earned, he said. Investing in school counselors tends to reap similar results. Conversely, some spending has produced little in the way of measurable academic benefits. Falling into this category, according to Grubb, are the class-size reduction efforts of recent years and intervention programs for lagging students.

Grubb has even found a relationship between some forms of spending and worse performance. The biggie here, Grubb says, is traditional vocational arts classes such as automotive and shop class.

As for California’s low national standing on school spending, it doesn’t extend to teacher pay. At $68,500, the salary of the average teacher in California during the 2011-12 school year ranked fifth nationwide, according to the National Education Association.

Conversely, California schools have the fewest number of adults in contact with children. This includes not only teachers, but administrators, librarians and counselors.

“We are dead last,” Kirst said. “That is really compelling. More interesting even than class size. We have less of everything — even janitors.”

The history of California’s funding decline is complex, but a couple of momentous events are widely seen as change agents.

The first was a landmark lawsuit in the early 1970s — Serrano v. Priest — that sought to correct an inequity: school districts in wealthy areas had way more money than their counterparts in poor areas. The courts agreed with the plaintiff, John Serrano — a parent of a student in the Los Angeles Unified School District — that the funding formula violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Limits were placed on per-pupil expenditures.

The second was the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 — an epic shake-up in government that provided tax relief to homeowners but shifted the burden of education funding from the local level to the state.

Why did this cause a drop-off? Experts aren’t certain. One theory, put forth in a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, suggests that before the initiative, the property taxes paid by commercial interests subsidized schools to a greater degree.

Another theory — expressed by Sacramento Bee journalist and author Peter Schrag — attributes the backslide to white voters’ increasing reluctance to support an education system that benefits a higher and higher percentage of nonwhite students.

In any case, by many accounts, Proposition 13 generally marks the point at which California’s national standing on per pupil funding began to dip below the national average.

All the while, a massive wave of immigration has led to a demographic sea change leaving schools in a much needier position. (Latinos, who make up one of the most disadvantaged demographics in education, made up just 12 percent of the state’s population in 1970, and now constitute 38 percent of all Californians.)

Approved in June by the state Legislature, Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula popularly grants school districts much more local control in deciding how to spend their dollars. The controversial part is how it also dedicates significantly more money to the districts serving disadvantaged students.

Many school leaders in the suburbs fear the formula will give their districts short shrift.

Among them is George Mannon, superintendent of the Torrance Unified School District, who believes the numbers are based too much on intuition, and not enough on hard facts. He contends it would have been better to wait a year and use that time to carefully study how much more money is truly needed to educate disadvantaged students.

“We’re making decisions without basing them on research,” he said.

Legislatively, it has been surprisingly popular. The funding model was approved by not only a majority of Democrats in both the state Senate and Assembly, but of Republicans, who relish the return of local control.

“The current system was collapsing and had no defenders,” said Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford who is widely considered the father of the state’s brand-new formula.

(Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula was based on “Getting Beyond the Facts,” a 2008 report co-authored by Kirst, former California Secretary of Education Alan Bersin and now-state Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu.)

Grubb sees Proposition 30 and the Local Control Funding Formula as the one-two punch needed for progress: more money, and smarter use of it.

But he cautions that it could be a long time before improvements are measurable. “California has spent about 35 years making these problems,” he said. “It’s going to take another 35 to get us out of the problems.”

THE HARD TRUTH about education funding

No link: Funding and academic performance aren’t necessarily linked. (Texas is funded at a similar level to California, yet its students perform quite a bit better.)
A little-known fact: Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula played surprisingly well among Republicans. (It passed with Republican majorities in both chambers.)
Pay day: California’s teachers are the fifth highest paid in the nation, according to the National Education Association.
Ratio: California’s schools are dead last on the ratio of adults to students in schools.
Tumble: Back in the 1960s, California’s per-pupil spending ranked in the top 10 nationwide.
Source: LANG research

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Future Uncertain for Students Caught in Palos Verdes High Grade Scandal

Future Uncertain for Students Caught in Palos Verdes High Grade Scandal

Feb. 3, 2012


Teachers and administrators at Palos Verdes High School were aware of the rumors swirling through the halls: a group of students were selling test answers to their peers.

But the breakthrough came when a teacher noticed that a normally strong student bombed a final, getting just a quarter of the answers correct.

Closer examination revealed that the answers the student bubbled in were an exact match for an exam that had been administered the prior year. The student had obtained the answers, and erroneously assumed that the teacher would use the same test two years in a row.

A police investigation then led to last week’s arrest of three 16-year-old boys accused of breaking into the school, hacking into their teachers’ computers and changing their grades. A little more than a week after the arrest, new details are emerging.

The case – along with a developing story in Torrance that is strikingly similar – is a sign of the times, underscoring the impressive level of technical prowess possessed by some of today’s teenagers, and how the knowledge they have can be used for ill.

It also raises interesting questions about the college prospects for students smart enough to hack into computers but dishonest enough to use that knowledge for the purpose of cheating.

The three juniors at Palos Verdes High all had GPAs at or above the 4.0 mark – although that was before they were docked for allegedly cheating.

“These kids had very bright futures,” P.V. High Principal Nick Stephany said. “At this point, who knows what’s going to happen.”

Authorities say the crime began with an old-fashioned break-in: The three boys allegedly picked the lock to a janitors’ office late at night when school was closed. They pocketed a master key, sneaked into classrooms, snatched hard copies of tests from teachers’ drawers and tampered with the computers, authorities say.

Police say the students later sold the tests and their answers to their peers for $50 apiece and offered to change grades for $300. It appears they had about eight or nine takers.

Now the three students soon could earn a dubious distinction: becoming the first high school students expelled from the school – and indeed the entire district – in years. Stephany is recommending expulsion for all three, and their first administrative hearing on the matter is scheduled for next week.

In the past three years, only one student has been expelled from the high-performing Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District: a middle schooler who brandished a knife on a school bus, Stephany said.

Stephany speculated that the crime may have closed a few collegiate doors for the students. But it isn’t clear how badly this will mess up their chances at getting into good schools.

Officials at UCLA were vague on whether getting expelled hurts an otherwise strong student’s chances of getting accepted. For instance, UCLA admissions applications do not ask students whether they’ve been expelled, said UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez.

However: “If the expulsion is noted in the student’s final transcript, admission officers may look into the reasons for the expulsion, even if the student has already been admitted. They also have flexibility in terms of what, if anything, they would do in these situations.”

Vazquez added that the university rarely sees cases in which a student has been expelled.

In any event, the students not only have an academic problem. Now they each face being charged with two felonies, one for burglary and one for the computer crimes, Palos Verdes Estates police Sgt. Steve Barber said.

“I’ve been working at (the Palos Verdes Estates department) for 16 years and I have never seen anything like this – it was a pretty intense case,” he said. “It was pretty incredible what they had accomplished before they got caught.”

To be sure, if the students are convicted, their records would be cleared once they turn 18, Barber said. (Crimes usually need to be violent to stick on a minor’s record.)

But the students – whose next trial date is set for April – are sure to find themselves saddled with the stress of navigating the juvenile justice system at a time when they are trying to get their academic lives back in order.

The issue surfaced about a month ago in the form of vague hallway chatter, Stephany said. Mindful of the rumors, teachers checked their grade books and noticed discrepancies.

Police and school officials later found easy-to-miss devices attached to USB ports on the computers. These were “keyloggers,” or spy software that makes a record of everything a person types on a computer, thereby enabling the students to obtain information such as the teachers’ passwords.

Barber said the students failed to realize a key detail: Many teachers at Palos Verdes High also keep written accounts of grades – a practice he recommends for all schools.

“So when the teachers are noticing discrepancies online, the red flags start to go up,” he said.

Stephany said although the alleged culprits were good students, they tended to keep to themselves.

“They really weren’t involved with a whole lot of athletics or extracurricular activities,” he said, adding that while he knows most of his students by name, he only knew one of the three alleged culprits, and only vaguely. “There were some minor discipline issues in the past, but nothing major – nothing like this.”

As for the nine students who received tests or had their grades altered, most if not all were suspended. Stephany said seven of those students came forward voluntarily, after learning that the consequences would be far less dire for them if they did so.

He said his ultimate goal is to do what it takes to maintain the academic integrity of the school.

“I’m concerned about doing what’s right and letting the cards fall where they will,” he said.

Follow Rob Kuznia on Twitter at

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Culinary classes explode in popularity thanks to TV chefs — but where are the jobs?

Culinary programs at community colleges explode in popularity thanks to TV chefs
published April 15, 2013

Pizza-making station at Los Angeles Harbor College's Culinary Arts program. Foreground, L to R are: Chazy Parra and Ayden Davis. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)
Pizza-making station at Los Angeles Harbor College’s Culinary Arts program. Foreground, L to R are: Chazy Parra and Ayden Davis. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

It was 2006 when the pilot episode of “Top Chef” aired.

At the time, the now-overcrowded culinary arts program at Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington didn’t exist. The three-story, $40 million culinary arts complex at Los Angeles Mission College in the San Fernando Valley was but a blueprint. Nationwide enrollment at a group of 17 for-profit culinary schools owned by the company Career Education Corp. had yet to explode.

Is there a link between the blazing-hot popularity of food TV – led by “Top Chef” – and the booming market for culinary arts classes? Students and instructors alike say without a doubt.

Related story: Degree from expensive Pasadena culinary arts school no guarantee of a job

“It brought a business and industry to light that was pretty much behind the kitchen door,” said Steve Kasmar, chairman of the culinary and baking program at Los Angeles Trade Tech, home to the oldest continuously running culinary arts program in the nation. “They did glorify it. ”

Regardless, in just three years, the annual student load of the culinary curriculum at Los Angeles Mission College has more than doubled, from 250 to 600. And that’s not just because of the fancy new facility, which boasts seven spacious kitchens, each of them equipped with cutting-edge video technology a la the cooking shows. The surge is also happening at Trade Tech in downtown Los Angeles and Harbor College – the two other schools with culinary programs in the Los Angeles Community College District.

Both of those schools have multimillion-dollar kitchen remodels in the pipeline, largely to accommodate the onrush.

“I’m packed with more than 60 kids per class – the cap is supposed to be 25,” said Giovanni Delrosario, who runs the 5-year-old program at Harbor College. “We have 90 more students on the waiting list. It’s phenomenal; I’ve never seen anything like it. ”

Although the stampede for these classes is no doubt largely the product of an intangible trend – the term “gourmet” is becoming so ubiquitous it can even apply to ketchup – the food entertainment craze is a clear contributor. The popularity of TV cooking shows began heating up in the mid-2000s and reached a boiling point in 2012. (Soon after hitting an all-time high, ratings for the Food Network cooled slightly in the fourth quarter of the year.)

“It’s more glamorous now – we look at chefs like rock stars,” said Julie Valenta Kiritani,who recently finished a program at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena.

The problem is, the shine of the kitchens on TV seldom matches the grime of the ones in reality. While the culinary schools churn out a torrent of graduates, the job market into which they are released is far from flashy – or lucrative.

20130413__SGT-L-ONLINEIMAGEEXPORT~p1Job market limits

In 2010, cooks across the nation earned about $20,000 a year on average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Food prep workers took home about $19,000 on average. For the kings of the kitchen – chefs and head cooks – yearly pay averaged $40,000, a livable wage, but hardly glamorous. What’s more, the bureau projects that job prospects for chefs and head cooks will contract by 1 percent in the next decade, even as the rest of the economy expands by 14 percent.

“Employment growth will be tempered as many restaurants, in an effort to lower costs, use lower-level cooks to perform the work normally done by chefs and head cooks,” the report concludes. “Workers with a combination of business skills, previous work experience, and creativity will have the best job prospects. ”

Kasmar of Los Angeles Trade Tech conceded that the past couple of years have been an employers’ market.

“They’ve been picking by hand who they want,” he said. “You go work for nothing and they see if they like you. ”

That certainly rings true to employer Ed Kasky, executive director of USC’s University Club that caters to faculty and staff. Kasky recently posted a job online for a sous chef and got 50 applicants.

“I can tell you that 75 percent of the people who applied were severely overqualified to be a sous chef,” he said.

Still, Los Angeles is generally considered one of the foodie capitals of the world, and instructors of the community college programs insist their students are heavily recruited. (None could provide job placement statistics for recent grads, though.)

“When Wolfgang Puck (catering service) wants to do an event for 15,000 people for the Oscars or the Grammys … they actually come and recruit at the school,” Kasmar said.

Delrosario, the instructor at Harbor College, says his graduates have been landing jobs all over the place – and not just in Los Angeles restaurants.

“I can’t crank out enough grads to fulfill all the needs,” he said.

Some of his students have gone to work in the homes of wealthy families on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, for instance.

Even more unique is the partnership Harbor College has forged with a group of restaurants in Australia, whose economy is booming. Since August, at least a dozen of the college’s students have taken jobs Down Under, where starting salaries run as high as $45,000.

One of Delrosario’s students, 23-year-old Minor De Leon of Gardena, even lucked into the Playboy Mansion, where he works as a junior chef making dishes for Hugh Hefner and his playmates.

“When I wake up in morning, I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m on my way to the Playboy Mansion,'” said De Leon, who was drawn to the profession by cooking shows such as “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and “Emeril Live.” “How many people get to say that every day? ”

Louis Zandalasini, chairman of professional studies at Mission College (and a chef), said it isn’t uncommon for corporate chefs to take home $80,000 to $100,000, though not all students can expect to reach that level. However, students can realistically expect to make $40,000 to $60,000, he said.

“When you’re making that kind of money, you’ve usually been in that particular job as executive chef for 10, 12 or 15 years,” he said.

For the vast majority of entry-level cooks, though, the starting pay ranges from $10 to $12 an hour.

The good news for the tidal wave of chefs-in-training is that Food TV also has had a zeitgeist effect on the consumer. Hence, the explosion of affordable restaurants (and food trucks) offering all manner of cosmopolitan cuisine: French delicacies, premium gelato, spicy seafood dips, wood-grilled this or that, center-of-the-plate desserts.

“There are so many more food and wine festivals, where the food is now the star,” Kiritani said. “It used to be you’d go and see a band play, and that was more exciting than the food. Now it has completely shifted. ”

Kasmar of Los Angeles Trade Tech is thankful for the enrollment boost they’ve inspired. After all, it has fueled future plans for a $36 million renovation to his facility, whose new incarnation is scheduled to open in 2016. But there’s been a downside.

“They glorified what we do, and what we do is really not glorious,” he said. “It’s hard friggin’ work. “

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Trapped in ESL: Some students wind up in English-learner programs even though they only speak English

Trapped in ESL: Some students wind up in English-learner programs even though they only speak English

Nov. 24, 2012

Julian Ruiz of Torrance has been classified as an English learner even though he doesn t speak Spanish, or any other language besides English. His mother, Millie Ruiz, has unsuccessfully been trying to get him redesignated as fluent in English. (Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer)
Julian Ruiz of Torrance has been classified as an English learner even though he doesn t speak Spanish, or any other language besides English. His mother, Millie Ruiz, has unsuccessfully been trying to get him redesignated as fluent in English. (Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer)

Julian Ruiz is an English speaker who doesn’t know a word of Spanish or any other foreign language.

Yet when the 7-year-old entered kindergarten in Torrance three years ago, he was classified as an English learner – a student not fluent in English.

This shunted him into a category that his mother, Millie Ruiz, says he shouldn’t be in, and triggered a dispute with the school’s administration.

Ruiz says her son is trapped in the school district’s English Language Development program, giving him a label he doesn’t deserve.

“There comes a point where we need to introduce some common sense into the whole scheme of things,” Ruiz said.

Related story: California’s English language learners getting stuck in schools’ remedial programs

In California, about 23 percent of K-12 students are English learners. Some believe the number is too high.

A 2011 UC Berkeley study concluded that California districts are misidentifying large numbers of kindergarten students as English learners, in part because the test that determines whether they deserve the label is too difficult.

The result: Scarce resources earmarked for the purpose of helping nonfluent students are being spent inefficiently.

“There is that unfortunate opportunity for these kids to be identified as English-language learners and be locked into a program that’s not appropriate for them. I guess the criteria needs to be changed,” said Gil Navarro, a member of the San Bernardino County school board.

Some English-learner advocates see it differently.

Dan Fichtner, president of a nonprofit support group for teachers of English learners, said it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“We believe that it is better to err on the side of being conservative than to make a mistake and lose those first formative years,” Fichtner said.

As for Julian – a second-grader because he was held back in kindergarten – he must keep the designation until at least third grade, like all students in the program.

In California, it all begins with a language survey, filled out by every parent sending a child to kindergarten at a public school. It includes four questions:

* What language did the student use when first learning to speak?

* What language does the student use most frequently at home?

* What language does the parent speak when talking with the student?

* What language is most often spoken by adults in the home?

Ruiz answered the first three questions with “English.” But her fourth answer – “English/Spanish” – triggered the language test requirement.

Like about 90 percent of state kindergartners who take the test, Julian failed to score high enough to avoid the English learner label.

Jose Collazo, 22, of Pomona came to the United States with his family when he was little more than a year old. He remained in ESL classes throughout elementary and high school in Pomona Unified.

Collazo took the English-fluency exam four times, and although he was under the impression he had passed, he was never taken out of the ESL program.

That became a problem in high school, he said.

“I didn’t understand why my other friends were taking college prep and I didn’t,” Collazo said.

After speaking to a guidance counselor, he was able to take college preparation classes, but was still required to take ESL courses.As a result, Collazo said, he was unable to take some of the college preparation classes he needed.

In the summer of 2011, Ruiz decided – after two years in the program – she didn’t want to participate any longer. She refused to take time off work to bring her son to the district office to take his mandatory annual California English Language Development Test.

The school sent her a letter that Ruiz took as a threat. It said, in all caps: “Please note that your child will not be put on a class list in September if he/she does not complete this testing process prior to school starting in the fall.”

Ruiz did not have him tested that summer. That fall, the school pulled Julian out of class to take the assessment.

The results came back a few months later: “No change for this school year.”

Staff writers Rebecca Kimitch and Beau Yarbrough contributed to this report.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Why do foreign-born ESL students become fluent more quickly than native-born English learners?

Why do foreign-born ESL students become fluent more quickly than native-born English learners?

Feb. 9, 2013


Actually, she knew one phrase — “thank you” — as well as the 26 letters of the alphabet. But other than that, the Arabic speaker was surrounded by thousands of students with whom she couldn’t communicate.

“It’s like you’re just in your own world,” she said of those first few months. “You cannot understand anything.”

Late last month, the high school senior celebrated a milestone: She accepted a certificate showing that she has officially met the requirements to exit the school’s program for students who are still learning English. Put simply, she is now considered fluent.

Meanwhile, Stephanie, another senior at San Pedro High, remains stuck in the school’s remedial programs for English learners, even though she was born in the United States, and has been labeled an English learner since kindergarten. (The Daily Breeze is withholding her last name of the Spanish speaker at the request of her teacher.)

Gabriel Luna of Mexico, left, Cristian Garcia of Columbia, Eevan Nooh of Iraq, Leonardo Perez of Mexico and Yingjun Xie of China are among those receiving their certificates of completion in the ESL program at San Pedro High during a Jan. 30, 2013 ceremony. (LANG Staff Photo by Sean Hiller)
Gabriel Luna of Mexico, left, Cristian Garcia of Columbia, Eevan Nooh of Iraq, Leonardo Perez of Mexico and Yingjun Xie of China are among those receiving their certificates of completion in the ESL program at San Pedro High during a Jan. 30, 2013 ceremony. (LANG Staff Photo by Sean Hiller)

The difference between Eevan and Stephanie underscores a little-known paradox that has long been at play at San Pedro High and likely beyond: Foreign-born students who come to America as teenagers knowing nary a word of English consistently test out of the English-learner program before high school students who have been stuck in the program since kindergarten. In fact, the comparison isn’t even close.

In the last three years at San Pedro High, a full 100 percent of the foreign-born English learners — about 10 pupils a year — have exited the program before graduation, compared to just 15 percent of their U.S.-born peers, said Laura Rodriguez, the school’s English Language Development coordinator.

Although broader statistics on the distinction between native- and foreign-born English-learners are scarce – neither the California Department of Education nor the Los Angeles Unified School District keep such tallies – the issue is worth examining.

The phenomenon at San Pedro High jibes with a nationwide study released this fall by John Hopkins University concluding that immigrant children tend to academically outperform their second- and third-generation native-born peers.

The trend was on display on Jan. 30, during a little-after-school ceremony at San Pedro High for students who have met all the requirements for being redesignated as fluent. Eevan was among 11 students so awarded. Eight of them were like her in that they had recently emigrated from other countries. Amazingly, this crew represented as many countries as students: El Salvador, Colombia, Tanzania, China, Peru, Ukrania, Iran and, of course, Iraq. Just three of the students were born in the United States.

The eight students getting redesignated were among 35 foreign-born English-learners at the school. The three U.S.– born students — known in education parlance as “long-term English learners” — came from a pool of 136. Sixteen of those U.S.-born students are seniors and in acute danger of not achieving fluency before graduation.

Karla Glover is the teacher of the foreign-born students, whose program is known as English as a Second Language.

“To see my students reclassify when they are in ESL when there is 136 that cannot do it in 9 to 12 years … it’s a lot of honor for me,” she said at the ceremony.

Comparing the success rate of foreign-born English-learners with their U.S.-born peers may offer insight into how to tackle one of the state’s most pressing educational problems. Making up nearly a quarter of all of California’s K-12 students, English learners have the worst high school dropout rate of any demographic group in the state.

Jill Aguilar, an associate professor of education at California State University, Dominguez Hills, believes the paradox demonstrates an oft-overlooked reality: Second-generation U.S. students whose parents speak another language at home often fail to gain a mastery of their supposed native tongue.

That is, many students who enter kindergarten speaking primarily, say, Spanish never really learn to read in Spanish, or even attain oral proficiency. This means they’re trying to learn a new language even as they are learning how to read.

“It delays their progress in Spanish and it delays their progress in English at the same time,” she said. “It ends up almost like a created learning disability.”

By comparison, students who arrive to the United States from other countries as a teenagers have often mastered their own native language.

“All they are doing is replacing words in their own language with English – it’s a vocabulary problem, really,” she said.

Aguilar believes bi-lingual education is the answer; she calls the 1998 decision by California voters to eliminate it a tragedy.

Rodriguez — the ELD coordinator at San Pedro High — disagrees. She believes the crux of the problem has more to do with motivation.

“The foreign-born students are more motivated because they are here for a better life,” she said. “Whereas the ones who have been here don’t see that. They feel more entitled.”

Eevan Noah certainly had good reason to appreciate her lot in life when she arrived at San Pedro High with her two siblings. Their Christian family was driven out of Iraq by Islamic militants irate that their father worked as a truck driver delivering goods to U.S. military forces, said Eevan’s older sister, Evett, who attended the Jan. 30 event to snap a few pictures of her sister.

“They gave us a paper saying you betrayed the country, and if you don’t get out of this country, we’re going to kill all of your kids,” Evett said. “The next day we got out of the country.”

Like Eevan, Evett went through the school’s ESL program, as did their brother, Andro. All three siblings are or were honor students at San Pedro High.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

API school test scores expected to vanish in California for 2 years — maybe forever

API school test scores expected to vanish in California for 2 years — maybe forever

Jan. 24, 2014


Real estate agents use them to tout the desirability of neighborhoods. Parents monitor them to choose schools. Principals live and die by them.

But Academic Performance Index scores, the cornerstone of the state’s accountability system in K-12 education, are expected to take a two-year sabbatical beginning this year. And when the API scores return — assuming they do — they’ll be a markedly different beast. What form they will take is a big unknown.

Fourth graders at Pennekamp Elem. in Manhattan Beach take standardized tests. Foreground ID is Sloane Harp. Photo by Brad Graverson/Thursday, Jan 24, 2014/The Daily Breeze
Fourth graders at Pennekamp Elem. in Manhattan Beach take standardized tests. Foreground ID is Sloane Harp. Photo by Brad Graverson/Thursday, Jan 24, 2014/The Daily Breeze

This could come as a rude awakening to the California public, which has become almost as familiar with the term “API” as Americans have long been with acronyms like GPA and P.E.

“The general public and parents and even the Realtors — they have no idea,” said Bill Lucia, executive director of the education advocacy group EdVoice. “People are going to be very confused.”

The change also promises to be challenging for educators.

“I’m really leaning on my department chairs to make sure instruction continues to be challenging,” said Mitzi Cress, principal of the high-performing Palos Verdes Peninsula High. “But the fear is not knowing. It’s a bit like being blind — you’re moving forward and you think you’re doing well … but you never know until those test scores come out and now we don’t have that.”

Assigned to schools every fall (usually in late August) based on the performance of students on a handful of springtime tests, the API boils the academic performance of entire schools to a number ranging from 200 to 1,000. In a sense, it’s the equivalent of an A through F letter grade for any given school, inviting easy comparisons between and among schools, with the state-set goal of 800 amounting to a B, and anything above 900 in elite territory.

That’s about to change.

“The whole rating system based on performance of the California Standards Tests, and the scaling system based on 800 — that is history,” said Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford University and the president of the California State Board of Education. “So the real estate agents will have to get into some new concepts.”

Kirst acknowledges that it isn’t yet known what the API will look like — or even if there will be an API — on the other side of the two-year break.

Why the murkiness? Put simply, the California public school system is awash in historic reforms — from the curricula that must be taught and tested to the way schools are funded — and state policymakers haven’t gotten around to deciding whether the API in its current (or any) iteration should remain the benchmark for success.

“The whole world has just changed,” Kirst said. “Figuring out accountability with this is something that the board has to do by 2015.”

He added that the changes in education are so vast that it is impossible for the board to address them all simultaneously.

“There’s just so much new policy it’s mind-boggling,” he said. “You have to approach it one conceptual domain at a time.”

Valid or not, arguments about complexity do little to mollify the advocacy groups who view the lack of data as a way to keep the public in the dark about the performance of its own schools.

“What it says to me is the state is just not interested in letting parents be a part of this process,” said Gabe Rose, deputy director at Parent Revolution. “How can we be a part of school improvement if we’re not getting any information about how schools are doing?”

Chief among the landmark education reforms underway is an approaching tidal wave: new content standards, which amount to a description of what students are expected to learn at each grade level.

Come fall of 2014, the California content standards — the guidepost for K-12 instruction in the Golden State since the late 1990s, will be fully replaced by Common Core — a nationwide set of content standards that aim to put a premium on critical-thinking skills over rote memorization.

Replacing the standards also means overhauling the system of assessments. Until now, students every spring have been sharpening their pencils for the STAR tests (for Standardized Testing and Reporting), which measure their grasp of the state standards.

In their place will be a system called Smarter Balance, (also referred to as Measurement of Academic Performance and Progress, or MAPP) which will swap out the old pencil-in-the-bubble exams for math and English with computerized tests. Students in grades 3-8 and 11 will take the tests this year on a trial basis. (For parents, the switch means that, for the first time in years, the state will not mail them the individual results of their children’s performance on the springtime exams.)

API changes

To smooth the transition of this huge undertaking, state lawmakers last fall passed Assembly Bill 484, which ends the STAR tests. AB 484 also provides the authority to the state Board of Education to suspend API scores for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years — a decision expected to be made at its March meeting.

This is a big disappointment to Kimberly Vawter, an assistant principal at Valor Academy Charter School in the San Fernando Valley, who teaches a middle-school class that encourages students to look at API scores when selecting a high school.

“We are very big right now in (the Los Angeles Unified School District) on school choice,” she said. “Now I feel like we are giving them a choice without giving them any information.”

If the API continues to exist — and most education watchers believe it will — the qualities it measures will be markedly less based on testing, at least in the high schools.

Under a little-known law passed in 2012, the test-score quotient of the API for high schools can be no more than 60 percent by 2016-17. To date, the API — though the product of a complex formula — has been derived 100 percent from the performance of students on tests.

Soon, in the high schools, 40 percent of the API must be based on other metrics. The specifics have yet to be hashed out, but the new components are likely to include graduation rates, dropout rates and college-and-career readiness benchmarks.

The bill’s author, Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, hails it as a major step toward moving beyond an era that tempts instructors to teach to the test.

“The API to me is not an end, it’s a means to an end,” he said. “We’re trying to create a jolt to the system that leads to curriculum being taught in ways that are both rigorous and relevant to what people might want to do with their lives.”

His bill actually has a supporter in Parent Revolution, which believes it strikes the right balance between one extreme (over-reliance on test scores) and the other (no information at all).

“Some people think test scores are the only thing that matter — we fought against that regime,” said Rose of Parent Revolution, a group best known for its advocacy of the parent-trigger law allowing parents to convert underperforming public schools into charter schools. “But we also believe they need to be a piece of the puzzle.”

Some aren’t so certain that diluting the influence of test scores on the API is a step in the right direction. Paul Warren, a research associate with the Public Policy Institute of California, says that on the one hand, it’s a more holistic way of measuring a school’s performance. On the other, he said, it leads to more ambiguity.

“When these other things are incorporated, you don’t exactly know what it means when scores are high or low,” Warren said. “It gets more complicated.”

Lucia of EdVoice puts it more bluntly.

“It’s a muddled mess right now,” he said. “It’s like mixing a bunch of colors — you’re just going to get brown.”

Further diluting focus on test scores is an obscure provision of a new school funding formula approved this past summer by the state Legislature. The overhaul — a brainchild of Gov. Jerry Brown known as the Local Control Funding Formula — not only shifts more money to school districts with high numbers of disadvantaged students, it also grants local school districts more autonomy in spending.

Somewhat paradoxically, in order to earn this local control, all school districts are required by the state to create a “local control accountability plan” that demonstrates how their schools will meet expectations in eight priority areas set by the state.

API scores in and of themselves don’t even make up one of these eight areas. Instead, they’ve been relegated to one of several bullet points under the priority titled Student Achievement. Other priorities include Student Engagement, Parental Involvement, Course Access and Implementation of Common Core.

State educators point out that the accountability plans pertain to a new, local layer of accountability, not the statewide one long associated with STAR testing. But even local school administrators are confused about what role it will play, not to mention a little annoyed at the fuzzy plan for its rollout.

Tim Stowe, chief academic officer of the Torrance Unified School District, notes that while the deadline for local districts to submit their local-control plans is July, the state won’t release the rubric for how those plans will be evaluated until October 2015.

“These timelines are out of whack,” he said. “It’s ludicrous.”

If school administrators are confused about what is around the corner, the general public isn’t even aware major change is afoot.

“When I talk about this to friends of mine who have kids … they are hearing about it for the first time,” said John Lee, executive director of the advocacy group Teach Plus. “To them, it doesn’t pass the smell test that we’re moving into this phase where, for three years, there is not going to be any accountability system in place.”

But Kirst believes the end result of a more holistic picture will be worth the growing pains.

“Schools are complex and have many dimensions,” he said. “To have everything hinge on a single test taken on a single day is too narrow.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Common Core standards put focus back on critical thinking

Common Core standards put focus back on critical thinking

Torrance Unified School District is implementing new Common Core curriculum that aims to take a more critical thinking path to education. West Torrance High English teacher Jim Evans talks to freshmen class. 20130917 - Torrance, CA -- Photo by : Robert Casillas / DAILY BREEZE
Torrance Unified School District is implementing new Common Core curriculum that aims to take a more critical thinking path to education. West Torrance High English teacher Jim Evans talks to freshmen class. 20130917 – Torrance, CA — Photo by : Robert Casillas / DAILY BREEZE

In Julie Shankle’s English class at North High in Torrance, the Macbeth unit is no longer just the study of a 17th century play about a man who commits murder in a bid to become king and maintain power.

Now, her 12th-grade lesson has an added element: Students must mine data to produce an essay based on the prompt, “Is killing ever justified?” This means making a compelling case and citing credible sources — perhaps a news article on euthanasia, or a TED Talks video of a professor expounding on the death penalty.

The adjustment typifies an oncoming sea change in education known as the Common Core standards, which have been gradually creeping into the classroom and are to be fully implemented in California by next fall. The idea is to emphasize real-world relevancy and critical-thinking skills over rote memorization, with an eye toward preparing students for college and jobs.

In some respects, it is a kind of backlash against the culture of testing that has intensified over the past decade.

“I can now say I’ve been in the profession long enough to see things come full circle,” Shankle said. “It’s bringing back the focus on critical thinking that sort of disappeared in the aftermath of No Child Left Behind. Now, we’re trying to blend critical-thinking skills with testing, testing, testing.”

Unlike previous education reforms, Common Core is not a mere tweaking of teaching methodology; it is a sweeping revamp that will touch every K-12 classroom of all 45 states that have adopted the standards.

In devising the standards, the creators started by determining what students needed to know to be successful as freshmen in college, and worked backward, step by step, all the way to kindergarten.

Tim Stowe, chief academic officer of Torrance Unified, said he expects Common Core to underscore an important concept in education: the textbook is not the class. In an age where any fact is but a few keyboard clicks away, students will be required to synthesize information using a variety of sources besides the textbook — including the Internet.

“For history, that will really tie into the use of primary sources,” Stowe said. “For science, it gets into ‘What does the latest research say?’ ”

The changes will be significant, and some are already in effect.

For instance, elementary school students in the South Bay and beyond are already reading more informational texts — about geography, say, or planets — and fewer stories featuring old standbys such as “Clifford the Big Red Dog” or “Beezus and Ramona.” The change is in keeping with the Common Core recommendation to split fiction and nonfiction 50/50.

In math, deriving the right answer won’t be good enough; students will be expected to understand the underlying concepts. Middle schoolers may ponder the question, “What is multiplication?” (Answer: repeated addition.) High school students may ask, “What does the word ‘number’ mean?”

In English, a key aim is to improve the ability of students to formulate a well-thought-out, well-written argument.

“I don’t care if they are for or against, or whether it jibes with what I think,” Shankle said. “I care about: ‘Do they have a thesis, do they support the thesis, and do they bring in credible sources.’ ”

Much like the No Child Left Behind Act — which was co-sponsored by President George W. Bush and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy — Common Core is in theory a bipartisan initiative, endorsed by both the Obama administration and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

But in practice, controversy — while slow to materialize nationwide — has been percolating among many conservatives, who believe the movement to be a pretext for a takeover on the part of the federal government. Not unlike what happened with health-care reform, several states have put up resistance. Indiana, for instance, has cut off funding for the initiative. Similar fights have broken out in Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

However, the pushback is largely missing in California, even among some of the more conservative districts.

Some say this is because California’s first standards, established in the late 1990s, were among the most ambitious in the nation. The new Common Core is not seen as a radical shift.

“We’re used to the idea of having standards that we have to teach toward,” said Gerardo Loera, who heads the curriculum office of the Los Angeles Unified School District. “We’re not questioning the philosophical ‘why,’ just the practical ‘how.’ ”

To be sure, there are critics in California. Among them is Bill Lama, a Palos Verdes Estates resident who spearheads a grass-roots group that is trying to persuade the school board of the high-performing Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District to opt out of the Common Core program.

“P.V. has a very good school district,” said Lama, who adds that his group, Concerned PV Parents, has at least 100 members. “The kids graduating from high school go on to the best colleges in the country, then go on to grad school, become professional people and do well. So what is the problem we are trying to fix?”

Kathy Santarosa, a science teacher at Miraleste Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes, doesn’t see it that way.

“Are we going to wait until we fall behind everybody else?” she said. “Why not stay ahead? Why not stay at the forefront? That’s where we want to be in P.V.”

Santarosa, who is president of the Palos Verdes Faculty Association, added that Common Core is the product of an industry that, by necessity, is always changing.

“We are always trying to master how to disseminate information to our students,” she said. “How do we get through to our students? How are we connecting their world to the information they need to know? That is truly what Common Core is about.”

Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, believes Common Core is viewed by many teachers in California as a breath of fresh air, in part because it is “more realistic and smarter” than the state’s 1997 standards, which are often criticized as a mile wide and an inch deep.

It also recognizes the educator as the expert, he added.

“From our point of view, this is a powerful antidote to the increasingly obtrusive, top down, ‘this is what you have to do’ view of reform,” Vogel said.

At Torrance Unified, teachers are trained by other teachers. One teacher trainer is Jim Evans, who spends half his day working with teachers and the other half in his ninth-grade English classroom at West High School.

On a recent day, he geared his students up for a lesson that would culminate with them writing a letter to the Torrance school board. They started not with a page from a textbook, but a video on YouTube, of a high school student respectfully criticizing the Alhambra school board.

As teacher, Evans’ role was less about telling them what to do than helping them find a focus. Adopting a practice known as the Socratic Method, he posed open-ended questions to the class: What is the purpose of school? What role does online education play? What is right with Torrance schools? What is wrong with Torrance schools?

“We’re moving away from a value on recall, and more toward the skill of synthesizing ideas,” Evans said after the class. “In the old days, I might have done a quiz on your reading last night: ‘Let me catch you on what you didn’t read.’ ”

Now, he said, the class might study how author Ray Bradbury creates suspense, and then might try to emulate his methods in their own narrative writing.

Stowe of Torrance Unified said teachers will be encouraged to spend less time dwelling on details.

“We don’t want English teachers, for example, to go through and grade every punctuation mark and every spelling error,” Stowe said. “When kids get that piece of paper back, they’re not thinking, ‘Oh man, I missed that period. That should have been a comma.’ ”

He added: “Not that it’s not important; it absolutely is. We need to find ways to make sure students are learning those skills, but in the context of this more challenging, higher-level critical thinking work.”

Pat Wingert of The Hechinger Report contributed to this article.