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Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Home-schooling families take play seriously

Home-schooling families take play seriously

A dozen or so parents — mostly moms — sit in a wide circle on the grass at El Dorado Park in Long Beach.

As the adults chat, their kids do whatever the spirit moves them to do.

This could be flipping through one of a handful of educational books in the center of the circle. More likely, it’ll be an improvised activity of some sort, perhaps working together to produce an impromptu play. Or playing a game of touch football — an all-ages, low-stakes game in which, at some point, an older kid might carry a younger kid clutching the ball across the goal line.

Related: Home-schooling enters mainstream

It’s a typical Wednesday afternoon for the Dragon Tree Home Learners, a group of home-school families who meet once a week so their children can socialize and play.

Mind you, this isn’t recess; Dragon Tree takes playtime much more seriously than that. To them, playing in the park for as many as five hours or more at a time is an important part of school.

“Those long hours of uninterrupted play — nobody ringing bells and telling them to stop right in the middle of something — lets them develop very elaborate things to do,” said Pam Sorooshian, a founder of the 18-year-old group who shows up every Wednesday even though her own three daughters are now college-educated young adults.

Sorooshian herself subscribes to a form of home schooling known as “un-schooling,” which rejects the highly structured approach taken by public schools and many private ones. She argues that the public school system has actually become more cookie-cutter than ever, which in turn is driving record numbers of people to educate their children at home.

“Back in the ’80s, you had whole language, constructive math, multiple intelligences,” she said. “With the advent of things like (the federal) No Child Left Behind, that all went out the window. Now it’s all about being ready for standardized tests.”

The Dragon Tree group is definitely a nontraditional crowd. Some of the boys in the group wear their hair long. Every summer, the group celebrates the birthday of Harry Potter with a potluck and wand-making party.

But in the years since the group’s 1995 inception, most of the students have wound up attending four-year colleges and obtaining their bachelor’s degree, Sorooshian said.

Why home schooling

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, several parents at the park shared their reasons for home-schooling their kids.

Laura Jane, a yoga therapist from Long Beach, said traditional schools can have a way of squeezing the passion out of learning.

“I love the idea of my kids just loving learning,” she said. “To come out of it loving writing, loving reading, loving math. It’s a really exciting idea. Perhaps that can happen more easily if it wasn’t something that was forced or structured or judged or evaluated.”

Jane herself has a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State and a master’s in psychology from Pepperdine University. Although she all but disavows it.

“Now I can see how that system got me off track,” she said. “I spent another 10 years trying to figure out what really was my way.”

Angie Williams, a hairstylist in her late 30s who colors her own tresses pink, didn’t like high school until she was allowed to complete a year at home through independent studies.

“I didn’t like learning from books,” she said. “I didn’t like being cooped up in a classroom. I didn’t like being told what to learn and when to learn it.”

It was then that she decided she would like her own children to learn at home someday. Now they do. Williams says she plans to home-school her 10- and 6-year-olds all the way through high school, unless they request otherwise.

“My son knows that he has that choice, and he is not curious about school at all,” she said.

In part, that’s because his friends who do attend traditional school have all that homework.

“He gets perplexed by the idea that they can’t come out to play until 5 or 6,” she said. “He’s like, ‘My gosh, they go to school all day and have to come home and do more school?’ I’m like, ‘Yep.’ ”

Some home-schooling parents opt for more structure than others. A parent named Melinda — who declined to provide her last name — said she and her two children don’t divvy up the day by subject area.

“When we’re home schooling, we’re not really focused on whether it’s math or history or social studies,” she said, noting that the kids do occasionally attend classes for home-schoolers. “But they get math and history and reading and language — it could be all coming from one source. They like to watch YouTube videos. They like to play video games. They don’t know it, but they really do like math and logic. Puzzles and games.”

Conversely, another parent, an anthropologist from Sweden who declined to share her name, joined an independent charter school called Sky Mountain that provides some curriculum. Every 20 days, an education specialist from the charter school pays a visit to ensure the students are on track.

“We like to start off with that, to make sure we are not completely losing our way,” she said.

The Dragon Tree parents tend not to fret much about college.

Melinda said that because her son wants to be a pilot, a four-year school might not be necessary.

“We kind of live in a day and age where college may not be as important as maybe going to a tech school,” she said.

Her husband, she adds, is a successful network engineer who never finished college.

Jane feels the same way, although she said her 12-year-old daughter has already expressed a strong desire to go.

“Not because she thinks she should or has to and won’t be a success if she doesn’t, but just because it sounds fun,” she said. “Which is kind of the way we like to live.”

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Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Lennox teacher lauded for starting reading club for boys

Lennox teacher lauded for starting reading club for boys

Diego's Dudes lunchtime reading club at Felton Elementary School in Lennox. Fourth grade teacher Alex Carrera brings her Chihuahua Diego to class as a mascot to help boys improve reading skills. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)
Diego’s Dudes lunchtime reading club at Felton Elementary School in Lennox. Fourth grade teacher Alex Carrera brings her Chihuahua Diego to class as a mascot to help boys improve reading skills. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

Not long ago, Alex Carrera was killing time at a yard sale when she spied a book that caught her attention: “The Trouble With Boys. ”

The fourth-grade teacher at Felton Elementary School in Lennox fished a dollar out of her purse and made the purchase.

The message of the book by Peg Tyre jibed with Carrera’s classroom experience: Girls are outperforming boys in academics, and the gap is growing.

Inspired, Carrera came up with the idea for “Diego’s Dudes,” a reading club that involves her, a handful of boys who struggle with reading and Diego, the mascot of the club and the calmest of Carrera’s three Chihuahuas.

This fall, the small group began meeting three days a week, sitting on the floor of the empty classroom while the rest of the boys and girls romp outside during recess. For 15 minutes, the four boys read out loud passages from books of their own choosing while Carrera moderates. (Then they join their classmates for the second half of recess.) As for Diego, well, he tends to just lay on the floor and blink.

“He’s a good listener, and he doesn’t judge,” Carrera said. “He just wants to hear a good story. ”

The voluntary club is merely a drop of medicine in an ocean of need, but it sure made an impression on the SoCal Honda Dealers Association. Recently, the organization selected Carrera among five teachers in Southern California to be honored for Teachers Appreciation Week.

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Carrera was nominated for the award by her principal, Scott Wilcox.

“It’s boys, and it’s Hispanic boys and minority boys, who are dropping out of high school,” he said. “You stop kids from dropping out of high school by intervening with something out of the box like this in the early grades. ”

Felton Elementary serves a high-risk population. Nearly 95 percent of the students are Latino; about 70 percent of the students are native Spanish speakers who are still learning English.

One of them is Edgar Vera, a member of the club. At the beginning of the year, Edgar not only felt shy about reading, but he also refused to speak English. Now he’s an eager participant during reading time.

“This club made me think that reading is fun for me,” he told a reporter during a visit. “I learned words and now I like a lot of reading. ”

Another student in the club, Charles Allen, said the group has helped with his comprehension of certain words, like “embarrassed. ”

“I used to say ’embraced,’ ” he said.

The gender gap in reading is a phenomenon that transcends ethnicity. A 2010 study by the Center on Education Policy found that boys lag behind girls in reading in all 50 states.

Males also are increasingly outnumbered by females on college campuses. It is widely reported that women in the United States now earn 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of all master’s degrees and more than half of all doctoral degrees.

Taking a page out of “The Trouble With Boys,” Carrera decided that the key to getting boys excited about reading – especially those who are “reluctant readers” – is to let them choose the materials.

With this in mind, Carrera was careful to recruit one of her most rambunctious boys, Miguel Tuznoh, to select the books for the group.

“He’s had trouble in the past with behavior,” she said. “He’s considered a leader. I picked up on that, and so rather than using his leadership skills in a negative way, I decided, ‘OK this is going to be my ringleader.’ ”

Miguel shared his criteria for book selection: anything “Gooey, disgusting, worms, sports … ”

“Boy stuff,” Carrera chimed in.

The reading list thus includes books like “How to Eat Fried Worms,” “Tales from the Crypt: Diary of a Stinky Dead Kid” and “The ‘Air’ Apparent: Kobe.”

The group is currently reading a book by Ellen Potter called “Slob,” about a fat kid who is a genius inventor but gets picked on. Carrera suggested that because she is female, she might have been subconsciously out of touch with the kind of selections more appealing to the male gender.

“They want to read biographies, irreverent humor, comic books,” she said. “Girls want to read about superstars. Right now Taylor Swift is big in my class. ”

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The boys not only selected the books, but they also came up with the three rules of Diego’s Dudes.

“The only thing I say is ‘Give me three rules that have to do with character,’ ” Carrera said. And so they did.

Rule No. 1: Treat the books and mascot with care.

Rule No. 2: Come to the club meetings on time.

Rule No. 3: Respect our friends when they’re reading out loud.

“Mind you, they came up with that,” Carrera said. “We can’t laugh, we can’t make fun. And you see, they are helping each other out. ”

Next year, Carrera wants to add an element to the program in which male role models come to the class to read out loud to the boys.

“A lot of boys who struggle with reading don’t really have a male role model who they see reading,” she said. “I want to include male role models to come in and say, ‘This is my favorite book. Check it out.’ “

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Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Libraries in Torrance Unified’s elementary schools run by PTA

It takes a village to run Torrance elementary school libraries

All of the libraries in the Torrance Unified School District's 17 elementary schools are run by parent volunteers. Parent volunteers Cathy Shinozaki, right, and Laura Hamano, back left, check out books to students at Lincoln Elementary School. (Sean Hiller / Staff Photographer)
All of the libraries in the Torrance Unified School District’s 17 elementary schools are run by parent volunteers. Parent volunteers Cathy Shinozaki, right, and Laura Hamano, back left, check out books to students at Lincoln Elementary School. (Sean Hiller / Staff Photographer)

In an instant, the library at Lincoln Elementary in Torrance went from calm to semi-chaotic as the students of a first-grade class spilled in for their weekly visit.

In a 30-minute flurry of activity, the kids sought help from the three women in the library to locate, check out and return books – as well as to settle up on any nickel-a-day late fees they might have owed.

At one point, a little boy looking for a book about grasshoppers grabbed the hand of a library lady named Amy Ota as she was helping another student.

“Hi Mom,” he said.

She turned around and smiled.

“Hi sweet pea. ”

20130506__TDB-L-LIBRARIES~p2_300In the Torrance Unified School District, it takes a village to run an elementary school library.

For decades, all of the libraries in the district’s 17 grammar schools have been entirely operated by parent volunteers.

It’s a unique setup. Although tough economic times have left most area school districts bereft of the full-on certificated librarians who operate on the same plane as classroom teachers, the vast majority in the South Bay still employ technicians or special-projects teachers to run their elementary school libraries. (Library technicians also run the show in the middle and high schools of Torrance Unified.)

Contrary to what most might think, the grass-roots library system in Torrance’s elementary schools isn’t the product of the latest statewide budget crisis. Rather, it’s a tradition that began more than 20 years ago in Torrance, when the libraries of most elementary schools in the district were boarded up – victims, perhaps, of that era’s great recession.

At the time, Torrance school board member Terry Ragins was a PTA member at Yukon Elementary. She was among the first group of parents to breathe life back into the mothballed libraries.

“This was an area where (the PTA) saw a dire need and came forth and said, ‘This is a void that we can fill,’ ” she said. “They’ve filled it so ably over the last 20 years that we’ve never revisited it. ”

Perhaps because the libraries were closed, the district was able to get around a law prohibiting paid employees from being supplanted by volunteers. If the jobs didn’t exist at the time the volunteers started doing the work, then paid employees were not technically replaced.

It’s a distinction that makes Mario Di Leva, executive director of the Torrance teachers union, a little uneasy.

“We totally value volunteers, parent volunteers and community volunteers, and only want that to continue,” he said. “However, we need to define those roles when it crosses into the gray zone of doing unit work. ”

He added: “If all of a sudden you have all the neighborhood dads mowing (school) lawns on Saturdays, it would put some people out of work, and there would be no guarantee the lawns will be mowed. ”

It is perhaps for this reason that many of the elementary school libraries in the Los Angeles Unified School District are unmanned. There, the last wave of budget cuts swept away the technicians in all but a fraction of the elementary schools, said LAUSD spokeswoman Gayle Pollard-Terry.

She added that the law precluding volunteers from supplanting those jobs prohibits parent volunteers from assuming those duties. Rather, that work is performed by the classroom teachers who take their classes to the library.

In Manhattan Beach Unified, the district has been blessed to have a mighty fundraising arm in the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation, which provides funding for paid media specialists to serve in school libraries. Those specialists also manage small crews of volunteers.

District spokeswoman Carolyn Seaton said there are educational benefits to having a paid staff member who can give the children a kind of customized library experience. She specifically mentioned such a specialist in Manhattan Beach who makes a point to know the main interests and reading levels of each child, so as to better pair them with a book accordingly.

“When students develop love affairs with particular genres or authors, it influences their ability to read and write,” she said.

At Lincoln Elementary in Torrance, parents even did much of the grunt work involved with a library renovation a couple of years ago. (The project was bankrolled largely by the school’s corporate partner, Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center.)

Ota said she climbed a ladder and helped repaint the walls, which were once a bleak brown and are now a sunny yellow. She also went around town comparing notes on pricing for carpet. The school eventually went with a vendor who lived down the block. “It wasn’t very inviting,” she said of the old library. “It was really kind of dirty and neglected.”

Ota says she was happy to do the work, inspired in no small part by a principal she admires.

“She makes you want to do more for the school,” Ota said of Katherine Castleberry.

Some library volunteers wouldn’t stop coming if you paid them to. Laura Hamano’s three children all are in their 20s, but she still shows up to the Lincoln Elementary library every day to perform her duties.

“It’s fun, and I get to know the kids,” she said after the students had left on a recent morning, while checking in a stack of the books they’d left behind: “Cinderella,” “Aladdin,” “Monster Trucks,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid. ”

She also enjoys watching them grow up, through their elementary years and well after, seeing as how she occasionally bumps into a former student in a grocery store or other public place.

“Sometimes they come over and say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Hamano – you remember me?’ ” she said, “and they look totally different, since they are in high school. “

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Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

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

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

While a student at Animo Leadership High School in Lennox, Diana Rivera was accepted to several CSU schools. But she decided to go to chef school with the idea that she could get a job within a year. The Hawthorne resident enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. Rivera's original debt for the yearlong program was 50,000, but over time it has swelled out of control to 80,000. Now, she has a part-time job as a cooking instructor at the South Bay School of Cooking. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)
While a student at Animo Leadership High School in Lennox, Diana Rivera was accepted to several CSU schools. But she decided to go to chef school with the idea that she could get a job within a year. The Hawthorne resident enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. Rivera’s original debt for the yearlong program was 50,000, but over time it has swelled out of control to 80,000. Now, she has a part-time job as a cooking instructor at the South Bay School of Cooking. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)

After graduating with honors from Animo Leadership Charter High School in Inglewood, Diana Rivera had no shortage of options.

That spring, congratulatory acceptance packets from three California State University campuses had landed in her mailbox.

Related story: Culinary programs at community colleges explode in popularity thanks to TV chefs

But Rivera – who is now 25 – decided to go another route.

Inspired by cooking shows starring celebrity chefs such as Jacques Pepin and Julia Child, Rivera enrolled in a Pasadena school then known as California School of Culinary Arts, now called Le Cordon Bleu.

“I’d always enjoyed cooking, and thought it was kind of like an artistic outlet,” she said. “I wanted to explore it more. ”

She took out a $50,000 loan, which was co-signed by her stepfather, who works as a mechanic. Over the course of the next two years, that debt would balloon to $82,000. Despite the associate of occupational studies degree she’d earned at the college, finding a job that paid more than $10 to $12 an hour proved elusive.

Soon enough, a not-so-congratulatory kind of letter started landing in her stepfather’s mailbox.

“They sent letters saying they are going to put him in jail, because the loan is in his name,” she said.

Rivera is among 1,300 former students who in 2008 sued the for-profit school, claiming it essentially tricked them into paying sky-high tuition – as much as $42,000 for the 21-month associate degree program – by touting misleading job placement statistics.

“We believe the school tried to convince people it made good, sound economic sense to go to that school, and we believe that the school knew it wasn’t true,” said Ray Gallo, one of the two attorneys representing the students at Le Cordon Bleu.

The case against Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena is ongoing, and the school has had some vindication. About a year ago, a judge denied Gallo’s attempt to obtain class-action status, a school spokesman pointed out.

“The decision shows the allegations of some former students should not be considered representative of the experience of all students, the majority of whom we believe are satisfied with their education,” said Mark Spencer, the parent company’s director of corporate communications.

But the suit illustrates how lofty expectations in the culinary arts world often clash with harsh reality.

Gallo lays much of the blame on the table of the TV cooking shows.

“It glamorizes the profession – cooking is a manual job that doesn’t pay well,” he said. “Some people may get to be managers, and, depending on the size of the company, may be highly compensated, but that is not the majority of people who have anything to do with food preparation for a living.”

As for the for-profit school, it has taken a beating in the courts and in the press over the years.

Le Cordon Bleu is actually a limb of Career Education Corp., which runs a nationwide chain of 17 culinary academies whose collective enrollment nearly doubled from 2008 to 2010.

A class-action suit against the same company’s San Francisco location ended in 2011 with a $40 million settlement from the school. (Gallo represented the students in that case, too. ) In that suit, about 8,500 students received reimbursement payments of up to $20,000 each.

And the company’s Portland locale – Western Culinary Institute – was the target of a class-action suit in 2009 that, like the Pasadena case, is ongoing.

In the past couple of years, Career Education Corp.’s culinary programs have dialed it back on tuition, by about 10 percent. (At $37,850, the school’s 21-month associate degree program is still about 10 times as expensive as those offered at the community colleges.)

Meanwhile, enrollment has gravitated back to earth, to 8,500 from a peak two years ago of 13,000.

That’s not to say the school doesn’t have satisfied graduates. One is Julie Valenta Kiritani, a student in her 40s who has long worked in restaurants.

“My knife skills are way, way better than they were,” said Kiritani, who is chasing a dream to open a fast-casual restaurant that would specialize in pancakes and sushi. “I learned about sauces, baking, pastries, buffet service, catering services, and different cuisines from all over the world.”

Spencer, the company spokesman, noted that the quality of the school’s instruction is not in question.

“As with any school, the instruction we provide affords opportunity, but is no guarantee of personal success,” he said.

Rivera maintains that that isn’t the message representatives from the school told her stepfather before he co-signed her loan.

“They said, ‘She can be a personal chef, she can work in a high-end restaurant,’ ” Rivera remembers. “In reality, only the chef gets good pay, and there’s only one chef per corporation. “

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Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Torrance vocational program among 72 in state facing closure

Torrance vocational program among 72 in state facing closure

The Southern California Regional Occupational Center or SCROC is facing state budget cutbacks. SCROC is one of the most robust vocational training facilities in Southern California. Sayah El-Habbal takes blood pressure of fellow student Jiyeon Park during Principals of Biomedical Science class. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)
The Southern California Regional Occupational Center or SCROC is facing state budget cutbacks. SCROC is one of the most robust vocational training facilities in Southern California. Sayah El-Habbal takes blood pressure of fellow student Jiyeon Park during Principals of Biomedical Science class. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)

Mollie Penny is an aspiring hairdresser who, come June, will not only graduate from Torrance High, but also complete the 1,600 hours of hands-on-hair experience necessary for obtaining her California cosmetology license.

Jessie Gonzalez does not have the option to take art or video production classes at City Honors School in Inglewood, yet the high school senior has been offered an internship at Northrop Grumman because of his developing skills in 3-D imaging.

Both are among the 9,000 South Bay students who annually attend the Southern California Regional Occupational Center in Torrance – a hulking hub of vocational education activity whose official shorthand moniker is SoCal ROC, but which is better known by its earlier acronym: SCROC.

At a time when career-tech education has become increasingly scarce in public high schools, the 46-year-old center remains one of California’s most thriving vocational campuses.

But now its very existence is in jeopardy.

SoCal ROC and other regional occupational programs across the state appear to be in danger of having to completely close come July – a potential consequence of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed school-funding overhaul, coined by the governor himself as the “local control funding formula.”

“That would be a travesty to the South Bay,” said Christine Hoffman, SoCal ROC’s superintendent, adding that the center has educated half a million residents since its inception in 1967. “SCROC is an icon here.”

Hoffman believes the problem she discovered – namely, that SoCal ROC is slated to receive zero dollars next school year under the governor’s proposal – is a fixable oversight. But she isn’t taking any chances.

She has written letters, traveled to Sacramento and appealed to sympathetic state legislators such as Sen. Ted Lieu and newly elected Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, both of Torrance. She discovered the problem in January, but her efforts to get the word out have been picking up.

Muratsuchi, in particular, is in a position to help. Despite his newcomer status, the former Torrance school board member landed a spot on the Assembly’s five-member subcommittee on education financing.

“I have a hard time believing that the governor intentionally wants to eliminate such a successful career-tech education program,” said Muratsuchi, who was elected to the post in November. “But I’m fighting to make sure we save SCROC.”

To that end, he has written and plans to soon introduce a bill, AB 1214, that would spare the program. He also plans to broach the topic at the next subcommittee meeting on Tuesday.

With its cluster of large, boxy buildings set back from Crenshaw Boulevard near Wilson Park, SoCal ROC almost resembles the campus of a community college, but one whose primary customers are high-schoolers.

Campus serves 6 area school districts

While it is among 72 regional occupational programs across the state, SoCal ROC operates under a model so unusual there is only one other like it in California.

Unlike the other programs, which offer courses on the campuses of existing high schools, SoCal ROC exists as a campus unto its own, serving ninth- through 12th-graders from the six school districts in its joint powers agreement: Torrance, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, El Segundo, Inglewood and Palos Verdes Peninsula.

(The other one with its own separate campus, Metropolitan Education District in Santa Clara County, also serves six school districts.)

For decades, SoCal ROC has bused in and educated – free of charge – high school students from those six districts. (The Centinela Valley high school district serving students in Lawndale and Hawthorne was once a part of the consortium, but pulled out in 2011-12.)

The students typically come to SoCal ROC after their regular school day to take career-oriented courses not on the menu at their high school campuses. They receive high school credit for the courses, some of which satisfy requirements for the state’s two major university systems.

But the main attraction is the eclectic offerings themselves, which include plumbing, banking, auto shop, nursing, dental assisting, engineering, welding, fashion design, video-game design and even pet health and grooming, to name a few.

Adults can attend for a modest tuition, and high school students from districts outside the consortium can enroll free of charge, provided there is space and they can find their own transportation.

Classes are typically taught by industry professionals. Bob Schuchman, who teaches 3-D character design and animation, has an impressive portfolio of high-profile logos that includes Smirnoff vodka, Vintage Chevrolet Club of America and the Rug Doctor carpet-cleaning machine. He said SoCal ROC can be a great fit for the student who is ambivalent about the traditional high school setting.

“We don’t have a sports team, we don’t have to worry about the big man on campus,” he said. “None of that exists here.”

Unpleasant surprise in budget

And yet, a rising number of college-bound students are enrolling in SoCal ROC from the affluent corners of the consortium, including places such as the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

“Those students you normally wouldn’t expect to see taking career-technical education, they are seeing the value of getting that head start,” Hoffman said.

As for the scare over funding, Hoffman said she discovered the issue at the beginning of the year. For decades, the state budget has included a line item for the state’s 72 regional occupation programs. Normally the annual allocation falls somewhere between $400 million and $500 million, about $7 million of which goes to SoCal ROC.

But in January, Hoffman was stunned when she saw, in Gov. Brown’s proposed budget, the amount assigned to regional occupational programs this year: zero.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that that’s a problem,” she said.

So does the goose egg mean SoCal ROC will be no more come next school year?

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the California Department of Finance, was noncommittal.

“We recognize there are some unique situations, such as this joint powers agreement,” he told the Daily Breeze. “We are willing to have further discussions with them as this process moves forward.”

The zeroed-out budget is the result of the governor’s attempt to simplify the state’s Byzantine school-funding formula by bringing more local control to individual school districts.

What’s changed?

Historically, about 30 cents of every dollar that has gone from the state government to local school districts has come with strings attached to a long list of mandated programs, such as school safety, gifted and talented education (known as GATE), summer school, special education, and, of course, regional occupational programs.

Brown contends that the model – with its layers of bureaucracy, mazes of regulation and deference to test scores – is wasteful and wrongheaded, as well as overly top-down.

“The higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance to local school districts, but always respect their primary jurisdiction and the dignity and freedom of teachers and students,” Brown said in his State of the State Address in January.

His proposal to cut the strings attached to certain programs – known in education speak as “categorical programs” – means individual school districts will receive larger lump sums to spend as they see fit.

Brown’s proposal actually builds on an earlier move by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008-09 to temporarily remove the spending requirements on many of those categorical programs. Brown’s plan does two things: adds more spending flexibility by stripping away even more categorical programs, and seeks to make permanent the terms of Schwarzenegger’s initiative, which was set to expire in 2014-15.

In response to SoCal ROC’s Hoffman, Palmer pointed out that the strings attached to the regional occupational programs had already been snipped by Schwarzenegger back in 2008-09.

“In other words, there’s no change,” he said.

But Hoffman disagrees. In every year prior to this one, she said, the budget has included a line-item for regional occupational programs to the tune of about $450 million. This is the first time it has actually been zeroed out.

In previous years, school districts and county offices of education across California continued to run most of their regional occupational programs, even though they had the option not to.

“Flexibility for the ROCP (regional occupational centers/programs) was in name only,” she said. “What is different now is that there is no money budgeted in the state pot for ROCPs. That is a huge difference.”


Alternatives for students

To make up for this potential cut to career-tech education, the governor’s proposal does include a request to give individual school districts a boost – to the tune of $215 per high school student. But Hoffman says even if all six school districts in the South Bay consortium opted to hand over their entire allocation to SoCal ROC, the center would find its annual budget nearly chopped in half. In other words, it would still need to close.

This would mean that hair stylist students like Penny would have to find another way of earning her hours of experience. That can be completed at many private schools, but tuition runs upwards of $17,000 a year.

Sarah Muller, a senior at South High in Torrance, has been taking medical-assisting and other classes oriented in health care at SoCal ROC. She now knows that she wants to be a pediatric nurse, and she will take courses to that end next year at California State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson.

“I wouldn’t have gotten all this hands-on experience at my high school,” she said. “The teachers all work in this field, so they know what they are doing.”

rob.kuznia@dailybreeze.com

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Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

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

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

Melanie Perez wishes she could have played the saxophone. Octavio Reyes would have liked to take a computer science class.

Both students at San Pedro High School say they can’t sign up for these electives because, at some point in their school careers, they were stuck having to take remedial classes for English learners – even though both speak English fluently and have performed reasonably well on English tests.

“I actually feel retarded when (the teacher) says, `What is this (word)?’ and it’s a carrot,” Octavio said. “It’s pointless. I already know it, and I don’t think it helps me.”

Their complaints highlight a wider problem that, although little known, could be among the state’s most pressing educational challenges: Students stuck for years in the state’s remedial programs for English learners are often denied the opportunity to take enriching electives or the more rigorous courses required for getting into college.

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

It’s a problem that has been attracting more attention of late, leading to a raft of reforms that some say could make California a leader in the field – which would be fitting, considering a third of the nation’s English learners attend California public schools.

But as is, the state is failing many of these students.

Low odds for success

Numbering 1.4 million, English learners make up nearly a quarter of all K-12 students in the state – and nearly 40 percent of all California’s kindergartners. One in four quits school – the worst dropout rate of any demographic group in California. Only 60 percent graduate high school within four years.

Several pieces of legislation addressing this mammoth bloc of at-risk students were signed in late September by Gov. Jerry Brown. All take effect Jan. 1.

One, authored by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-Bell, seeks to prevent English learners from languishing in the system for years by compelling the state Department of Education to reveal the number of “long-term English learners” at each school district.

Another, by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, will force the state to come up with more consistent guidelines for deeming kids fluent. The implication here is that many students are unnecessarily stuck in remedial classes when their command of the English language is sufficient.

A third bill, also by Padilla, takes school districts to task for banking state money earmarked for getting these students on track.

School officials chafe at some of these characterizations, in particular that last one, especially at a time when schools are suffering from historic shortages of state funding.

Meanwhile, advocates of English learners say large numbers of them – for whatever reason – get stuck in the system, and that, at some point, their very status as English learners seems to inhibit their chances for success.

“If kids haven’t been reclassified (as fluent) by fifth grade, they have pretty much been tracked, and are not going to be able to go to college,” said Oscar Cruz, the head of Families in Schools, a nonprofit advocate for parents of low-income and minority families. “They’re on a path where they’re just taking remedial classes.”

Lara’s AB 2193 would create a consistent definition for long-term English learners and force school districts to not only keep track of such students, but also students at risk of earning the distinction.

Studies show that some 60 percent of English learners in grades 6-12 are considered long term, meaning they’ve carried the label for at least six years.

Padilla’s SB 1108 – co-authored by Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton – aims to create a more consistent set of requirements for deeming students academically fluent. As is, the state provides minimum guidelines, but allows school districts to tack on additional stipulations, arguably creating more barriers to reclassification.

“The criteria are just all over the map,” Padilla said, adding that he would prefer to see districts err on the side of removing the label.

Padilla’s other bill, SB 754, is a transparency measure that seeks to pressure individual school districts out of the practice of stashing the extra money they receive to provide services for English learners. Specifically, it would compel them to prominently post online their budgets and carryovers in these accounts, as well as explain why the money hasn’t been spent.

School districts generally receive $300 to $500 a year in state dollars for every English learner they designate, but they don’t spend it all. (This amount doesn’t include the additional funds they receive from the federal government.)

In 2010-11, the state gave California’s school districts a total of $915 million for helping English learners and low-income students. Known as the “Economic Impact Aid” fund, it lumps the two allocations together. By year’s end, the school districts’ combined ending balance from this fund amounted to $382 million – or 42 percent of the annual apportionment.

The 2011 carryover for LAUSD alone was $61.5 million, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office.

That money, Padilla said, “should be spent; it should not be hoarded.”

Octavio and Melanie

Octavio is a good example of a student who could be fluent by state standards, but isn’t due to an unique additional local requirement.

A senior at San Pedro High, Octavio still bears the “English learner” label even though he cleared the state-set hurdles for fluency. These include passage of an exam taken annually by English learners until they pass, and demonstrating a basic level of proficiency on standardized tests.

But the Los Angeles Unified School District also has another requirement for shedding the label: Students must maintain at least a C average in their English classes. That has been Octavio’s hang-up.

“It was mostly because I didn’t try,” said Octavio, who has been an English learner since emigrating from Mexico at age 10. “I would get bored.”

Other districts have their own tack-on requirements. The K-8 Hawthorne School District requires its English learners to pass a written exam. In Torrance, English learners must score higher on standardized English tests than what the state requires.

As for Melanie, who is a freshman at San Pedro High, she has been successfully reclassified as fluent but says the year and a half spent taking remedial English classes at Dana Middle School in San Pedro denied her the ability to take desired electives, such as band. While she was born in the United States, many other students were immigrants.

“There were times that I didn’t care to do my work,” she said. “I was like, `Why am I in this class if I know English?”‘

New master plan

Even as several pieces of English-learner legislation have become law statewide, LAUSD has its own new initiative.

The nation’s second-largest school system has more English learners than any other district – nearly 31 percent of its 650,000 students. Officials estimate that nearly 40 percent of those are considered long term, unable to attain proficiency after five years in a program.

LAUSD’s strategy for teaching English to these students is detailed in its 150-page master plan, which was overhauled last year after a federal civil rights investigation found that English learners weren’t getting the same quality education as other students in the district.

Under the new plan, the district is more closely monitoring the progress of its English learners, with tutoring and other forms of intervention available to those struggling with either language or academic lessons.

“The goal is to increase proficiency in elementary grades, before students get to middle and high school and get mired in the long-term category,” said Hilda Maldonado, director of LAUSD’s Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department.

“We’re using more of the district’s data system to be able to monitor the progress and achievement of our students.”

The district also wants to remove the roadblocks impeding students who can’t test out of the English-learner programs despite their obvious fluency. Beginning next year, Maldonado said, teachers will be assessing middle and high school students with the goal of getting students reclassified even if they can’t hit the academic benchmarks on report cards.

The disconnect

Statewide, there is an apparent disconnect between the number of English learners who demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests and the number of students who matriculate out of the English learner program.

In 2010-11, nearly 40 percent of California’s English learners made the grade in English on standardized tests, but only 11 percent were reclassified as fluent, according to the California Department of Education.

A South Bay district with a lower-than-average reclassification rate is the K-8 Hawthorne School District. Here, just 8 percent of English learners were deemed fluent in 2010-11, even though nearly 50 percent scored proficient or better on standardized English tests.

Hawthorne schools Superintendent Helen Morgan – whose schools are generally strong performers given their high rates of low-income families – makes no apologies for setting the bar high for reclassification.

“In our instance, the writing component is more of a hurdle, but we want to make sure they are good writers before we drop all the support,” she said.

Torrance schools

Torrance Unified seems to do a better-than-average job of getting students out of the program in a timely fashion.

For instance, in 2010-11, the latest data available, while just 11 percent of English learners in California were reclassified as fluent, in Torrance the figure was 14.4 percent.

Kati Krumpe, the district’s director of state and federal programs, says reclassified students in Torrance tend to outperform many of their peers who were never in the English learner program.

“I think that shows that the program is working,” she said.

As for the 39-year-old Padilla, he himself was an English learner as an elementary school student in the Los Angeles Unified School District. That was before California voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998, thereby ending mandatory bilingual education.

“My textbooks in first grade were 100 percent in Spanish,” he said.

He is the rare example of an English learner who thrived, eventually earning a mechanical engineering degree from MIT.

Taking a step back, Padilla says the crux of the problem is a lack of urgency on this topic.

“English learners are a segment of the population that continues to grow,” he said. “If the trend is on the way up, and the educational attainment level of English learners continues to stagnate, I think we have a perfect storm for a crisis. And many would say the crisis is already here.”

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Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Teacher cheating leads to test-score disqualifications

Two South Bay schools face penalties for alleged cheating by teachers on standardized tests

After conducting self-implicating investigations, two schools in the South Bay are facing state penalties for alleged cheating by teachers on standardized tests.

At Adams Middle School in Redondo Beach, a math teacher allegedly dropped frequent hints and even gave outright answers to the class while administering the test. At ICEF Inglewood Elementary – a charter school – a teacher is accused of creating a study guide using actual questions from a standardized test, which schools typically receive a couple of weeks in advance of the exam date. Both were fired or encouraged to resign.

The improprieties came to light last week, with the state’s annual release of the Academic Performance Index – California’s most closely watched batch of test scores. For those two schools, there were blanks where a three-digit number should have been.

As a consequence to the so-called testing irregularities, the schools – both of them relatively strong performers – will not receive an API score for two years. They are also ineligible to receive statewide recognitions, such as the highly prized distinguished school award.

On the one hand, the events leading to the disqualifications underscore the high-stakes nature of California’s testing culture, which impels a small fraction of teachers to take shortcuts.

But they also reflect the state’s quirky method of uncovering suspect or negligent practices: In California, schools and local school districts are basically expected to police themselves. This means the ones who act diligently, wind up getting punished by the state (and, yes, the press) for their honesty.

“There’s an incentive to say nothing,” said Parker Hudnut, CEO of ICEF Public Schools, a nonprofit network of 14 charter schools in the South Los Angeles area. “But we wanted to do what was right, not what was convenient.”

Of the state’s roughly 10,000 public schools, 118 – including Adams and ICEF – were dinged for testing irregularities. All of the cases were self-reported. Last year witnessed 123 cases.

Administrators with the California Department of Education stress that many of the irregularities are the product not of cheating, but of honest mistakes, such as forgetting to remove a chart of multiplication tables from a bulletin board during the test.

But if the behavior or oversight creates the possibility of an unfair advantage for at least 5 percent of a school’s students, the state determines that an “adult regularity” has occurred.

“In most instances … it isn’t intentional or malicious,” said John Boivin, administrator for the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program. “The only time we use the word `cheating’ is for student cheating.”

In both South Bay incidents, however, it’s safe to say the teachers are accused of cheating.

At Adams Middle School, the case began with a tip from a parent who made an anonymous phone call to the school district.

The parent reported that the teacher, while administering a standardized math exam, gave the entire class of 35 eighth-graders the answer to a question, according to a state “irregularity report form” obtained by the Daily Breeze.

This triggered an investigation by district headquarters at Redondo Unified. Administrators went to the school and interviewed the teacher and some students. The officials concluded that the teacher was coaching students in the following ways:

Discussing the questions with individual students.

Reading the question aloud to the class and telling them to read the fine print.

Returning answer documents to students and encouraging them to check their answers.

At ICEF Inglewood, the investigation began with the discovery of a suspicious-looking sheet of paper accidentally left on a copy machine, Hudnut said. The document was taken to the office of the new principal, Shuron Owens-Lincoln, who suddenly faced a stark choice: conduct an investigation and risk schoolwide penalties during her first year on the job, or look the other way.

Ten students were interviewed in the ensuing investigation. The conclusion: The teacher created a study guide using specific test questions on the state’s fifth-grade standardized science test.

Hudnut, who spoke on behalf of the school, said he is proud of the leadership the new principal showed.

“It would have been far easier for her to sweep it under the rug,” he said. “It can be embarrassing, but we need to own it and we need to move on. … The bitter irony is, when you exclude the class, the (school’s) API went up significantly.”

For parents at Adams Middle School, the incident is old news, as the school district sent them a letter in July. The letter stated that although the school would lose its overall API score for two years, the students will still receive individual results.

It also stated that the irregularity increases the likelihood that Adams will become a Program Improvement school under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. This essentially means parents would receive letters informing them of their right to send their children to another school.

“We are sure you share our disappointment,” said the letter.

Deepening the wound for some is the fact that the teacher was popular.

“I liked her,” said a parent who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I can’t say anything bad about her. … She was very well-organized.”

He added, “A lot of students complained that she is pretty strict. But these days, kids don’t want to learn like they did in my day.”

Redondo Beach Superintendent Steven Keller tried to put the matter into perspective.

“This is an isolated incident, and does not represent the thousands of hardworking and dedicated South Bay teachers working for the betterment of our youth,” he said.

Last year, Animo Leadership charter high school in Inglewood was similarly penalized after students told administrators that some of the answers on their test booklets had been changed. An investigation discovered an unusually high number of erasure marks on the test in question, indicating that the teacher had made changes to boost the class’s performance.

Statewide, although all of this year’s cases were self-reported, a small number of districts – about 130 – were audited at random by the California Department of Education, officials there said. The audits turned up no instances of irregularities. But this year’s effort marked a return to conducting state audits, which ended for three years starting in 2009 due to budget cuts.

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Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Should Schools Offer Incentives to Students to Try Harder on Standardized Tests?

Should Schools Offer Incentives to Students to Try Harder on Standardized Tests?

Students at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale were filing into a classroom one day this week to find their principal standing before them.

Ryan Smith held a cardboard box and greeted them with a smile; this was a good-news visit.

Andrea Tinajero, 10th grader, holds ipod she recieved for maintaining her advanced CST test scores at Leuzinger High School. The program awards students who show improvement in the standardized test all high schoolers take. Photo by Brad Graverson 4-25-12
Andrea Tinajero, 10th grader, holds ipod she recieved for maintaining her advanced CST test scores at Leuzinger High School. The program awards students who show improvement in the standardized test all high schoolers take. Photo by Brad Graverson 4-25-12

After the bell rang, Smith issued an announcement: A student in the class had made amazing progress on the California Standards Tests, improving in all four subjects tested.

“Can you give a big round of applause to … ,” Smith said, pausing for effect, “Tommy Mai.”

As the class clapped, a surprised Tommy Mai stood up and, at Smith’s urging, came to the front of the room to claim his prize inside the box. It was a portable Nintendo DS, as well as a game to go with it, Mario Kart 7.

When it comes to standardized testing in California public schools, a paradox has long been at play: schools live and die by students’ performance on a battery of exams taken every spring, and yet the students themselves have zero incentive to perform well. That’s beginning to change.

In the South Bay and beyond, more and more schools are trying to motivate students to care about those tests, which, at K-12 schools across California, are being taken next week.

The rewards take the form of electronic gadgets, kayaking trips, gift cards and extra credit, among other things.

Ceara Readeux, 10th grade, chooses a pink ipod from Leuzinger HS Principal Ryan Smith for improving her CST test scores. Photo by Brad Graverson 4-25-12
Ceara Readeux, 10th grade, chooses a pink ipod from Leuzinger HS Principal Ryan Smith for improving her CST test scores. Photo by Brad Graverson 4-25-12

It isn’t difficult to understand why the trend is occurring. Students’ results on the tests – which include math, English, science and history – form the basis of every public school’s Academic Performance Index (API) scores. (The high school exit exam also plays a major role.) The scores boil down to a single number for the entire school, between 200 and 1,000, with 800 as the state-set goal. Over the years, that number has embedded itself in the fabric of public school culture in California, to the point of near-obsession among parents, teachers, administrators, real estate agents and, yes, the media.

In other words, it’s a fixation among virtually everybody but the students themselves – especially the older ones – who, naturally, tend to be more concerned with what comes next for them.

The rewards programs have proliferated over the past couple of years.

At Leuzinger, the raffled prizes include not only the Nintendo, but also iPod Nanos, gift cards, Xbox game consoles and an iPad. At Gardena High – which has long carried the dubious distinction of being the South Bay’s lowest performing high school – students receive gift certificates from Starbucks, Target or Jamba Juice just for showing up on test day. On the more affluent end of the spectrum, at Palos Verdes High School, the incentive is academic. In some classes, students who ace the exams can gain extra credit, and therefore boost their grades.

In each case, the incentives are a new thing, and in each case, API scores have skyrocketed.

But is this a fair practice, when all schools are judged by the same tests but not all schools offer rewards? For example, the four high schools in Torrance don’t offer much in the way of incentives.

Kate Esposito, an assistant professor of education at California State University, Dominguez Hills, in Carson, isn’t a fan of testing incentives. But her concerns have less to do with fairness among competing schools than with something more internal within each individual student. Esposito believes that offering students external rewards for strong performance on standardized tests can mess with their intrinsic motivation to learn.

“If you give students a reward for something they were already motivated to do, the next time you don’t offer a reward they won’t be as motivated,” she said.

But what if students weren’t motivated in the first place? Esposito said she doesn’t fault the principals for trying to sweeten the deal; rather, she blames the tests themselves, which she believes are far too generic.

“What does it say about the task itself? It’s so onerous that we have to bribe you to do it,” she said.

But the principals who engage in the practice say it simply taps into a human drive that carries over into adulthood.

“Students need to be acknowledged for their achievements, just like adults,” said Nicole Wesley, principal of Redondo Union High School, which this year launched its own testing incentive program. “I like to be acknowledged – everyone does.”

At Redondo Union High, students who boost their scores on any test by a certain amount – or hit the advanced range – will be entitled to a handful of perks. These include free entry into certain athletic events, invitation to a barbecue and early dismissal to lunch a few times a year. The same students also will enter a raffle for an iPad.

What’s striking is the extent to which the practice seems to work.

After initiating the gift-card program last year, Gardena High’s scores jumped higher than those of any other high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Rudy Mendoza, the school’s principal.

“The participation rates started to just soar when we added the incentives,” he said.

This year, the school is doubling the amount of gift cards it is raffling out. Another new feature: Students who score “proficient” or “advanced” in any subject will enter a drawing for a kayaking trip.

It also seems to work in more affluent areas. Last year, Palos Verdes High’s test scores fell off a cliff and the school found itself under the microscope of the school board and administration.

Educators at the school rounded up kids at random and held focus-group discussions on what might better motivate them to give it their all.

“They said: `If it matters in our college admissions, then it’s going to make a difference,”‘ said Palos Verdes High Principal Nick Stephany. Sure enough, the school offered a few points of extra credit to high performers – thereby allowing them to boost their grade from, say, a C to a B – and the school’s API shot up by nearly 50 points, to 898. That vaulted the school into a tie with its crosstown rival Peninsula High, which didn’t offer the incentives.

Stephany said that while the extra credit was just one of about 10 initiatives taken to boost the scores, he believes it definitely made a difference. And he makes no apologies.

“We were in a position last year where we’d been backed into a corner, and we had to get the scores up,” he said. “And we did.”

At Leuzinger – whose score has jumped an astonishing 67 points over the past two years, to 643 – Smith doesn’t just hand out prizes. He also goes into classrooms and leads a discussion that at first can seem a little uncomfortable.

“I tell them, look, as improved as we are, in the grand scheme of things, we have plenty of schools in the area that are outperforming us,” he said. “And we kind of have an interesting debate about: Is it fair to compare us to Mira Costa?”

That’s Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, right across the San Diego (405) Freeway, whose API score, at 911, is among the top 2 percent of all public high schools in California. (No incentives are offered there.)

“The kids usually start with, `No,’ and then we talk about why,” Smith continued. “And then there’s always a few kids who go, `Well, wait a minute, they are kids just like we are. We can do that.’ And then it always goes to a good place.”

Last year, Leuzinger – long the laggard of the three high schools in the Centinela Valley school district – set a goal to surpass Hawthorne High. It worked. Now, he said, the school has its sights on Lawndale High, the district’s perennial top performer.

Not all principals in the South Bay are comfortable with the intensified focus on API scores. Mitzi Cress, principal at Palos Verdes Peninsula High – one of the highest-scoring schools in the South Bay – said she believes the entire education system places far too much emphasis on the scores.

“It’s a one-day snapshot – one test, one day,” she said. “A school’s API score doesn’t really tell us much about what’s going on in each individual school. The accountability piece has to be much broader. … The pressure to perform on that number has become an obsession.”

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Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Group Tries to Narrow College Gender Gap

CSUDH group looks to counter lagging male higher education success rate

At colleges across the nation, women are leaving men behind, especially Latino and black men, and California State University, Dominguez Hills, is no exception.

But this year, a growing effort is under way on the Carson campus to narrow the gap.

Called the Male Success Alliance, the organization aims to combat some of the cultural forces working against men of color, such as a lack of male role models in their lives and the notion that studying isn’t masculine.

At California State University Dominguez Hills, a group is ramping up its efforts to improve the academic performance of African American and Latino men. Called the Male Success Alliance, it aims to combat some of the cultural forces working against men of color. Two students are primarily responsible for this year's efforts: CSUDH student body president Mardell Baldwin, right, and David Lopez, president of the Male Success Alliance.   Daily Breeze Photo: Robert Casillas
At California State University Dominguez Hills, a group is ramping up its efforts to improve the academic performance of African American and Latino men. Called the Male Success Alliance, it aims to combat some of the cultural forces working against men of color. Two students are primarily responsible for this year's efforts: CSUDH student body president Mardell Baldwin, right, and David Lopez, president of the Male Success Alliance. Daily Breeze Photo: Robert Casillas

“I think women are a little more focused than us, I hate to say it,” said Mardel Baldwin, student body president at Dominguez Hills, and himself an African American. “Maybe it’s because they had their mothers, and kind of had that positive role model in their lives.”

Whatever the reason, the disparity is striking. Nationwide, women earned 57 percent of all bachelor degrees in the decade that ended in 2010, according to the American Council on Education, a research organization.

At CSU-Dominguez Hills, there are literally two girls for every boy, but the lopsided enrollment in itself isn’t a surprise: two signature majors at the school are education and nursing – professions dominated by women. More worrisome is the gender gap in their respective rates of success. At Dominguez Hills, 38 percent of female freshmen graduate within six years, while the corresponding figure for men is just 27 percent.

The organization at Dominguez Hills was launched in fall 2010 by the administration. But it wasn’t until Baldwin took an interest in it that the group has begun to really come to life.

Baldwin was concerned about the issue of lagging male success even before he knew about the Male Success Alliance, so much so that, shortly after his election to the post, he penned a letter to the administration expressing his dissatisfaction with the lack of minority men graduating from college.

“I really wanted to bring that to people’s attention: We’re coming but we’re not leaving with that degree,” he said.

Baldwin was immediately put in touch with the administrator in charge of the group, and helped expand the organization into something that was more student driven.

Now, the roughly 30 members of the group’s new student-club component hold regular meetings, gather to study together in the library, schedule workshops and reach out to other organizations on campus, such as fraternities. The members even dress spiffy every other Monday: burgundy ties, white dress shirts, black sport coats.

(The group just launched a tie drive on campus for men who don’t own one.)

In an effort to preach what they are trying to practice, the group also plans to put on an ambitious summit this spring for high school males from across the region. To eliminate the transportation excuse, they plan to send school buses to the high schools to pick up the young men.

The broad idea is to create for each other what many of their families have failed to provide for them: a support network.

David Lopez, the president of the new student club, knows about this firsthand. The senior was raised without a father figure in a hardscrabble Watts neighborhood.

“I used to wake up for school and my dad was already gone,” he said. “By the time my dad came back, I was asleep. The only time I saw him was every other Sunday. It got to the point where he moved on to live with some other lady.”

Lopez nonetheless persevered in high school. But when he got to college, the hand of fate tried several times to knock him off his path.

Once, his financial aid failed to kick in, and he was nearly forced to drop all of his classes. Another time, his home life intervened.

It was the day of finals two years ago, and Lopez was earning B’s or better in his classes. Then came a family emergency: His brother – who, unlike Lopez was an illegal immigrant – had been arrested and was in danger of being deported. He needed Lopez to testify for him in court. Lopez skipped his finals to do so and flunked most of his classes.

“I just felt like my family really needed my assistance,” he said.

His brother was ultimately deported, but Lopez bounced back, and is now a senior majoring in marketing. He has an internship with an investment company under his belt. The future is looking brighter.

Baldwin, meanwhile, was lucky enough to grow up in a stable family, with a father who’d gone to college and works as an engineer. Many of his friends in his native Long Beach weren’t so lucky. While some of them got caught up with drugs and gangs, he never felt the pull.

“My father and mother were really on me,” he said. “Plus I’m not the kind of guy who just follows people because it’s cool.”

Still, Baldwin admits his academic discipline in high school was lacking. He went to Long Beach City College, where he remained somewhat uninspired but still managed to obtain an associate’s degree in business management. The jolt of reality came when he started looking for jobs. He didn’t even apply to very many, so unqualified was he.

“I couldn’t even put my name in the drawing because I didn’t have the qualifications,” he said. “That was an eye-opener for me.”

He took a job at UPS and pondered his future, ultimately opting to transfer to Dominguez Hills.

While evidence for the gender gap is plentiful, research on the reasons behind it is lacking.

But William Franklin, associate vice president for student success at Dominguez Hills, has a few theories.

“We can go all the way back to K-12 education,” he said. “Right now over 80 percent of the teachers are female.”

(Indeed, males also lag in K-12 education. In California, girls outperform boys in English, though the genders have long been neck-and-neck in math.)

Media messages also are to blame, added Franklin, who launched the Male Success Alliance last school year at the behest of Dominguez Hills President Mildred Garcia.

“How many times have you seen a TV program where African American and Latino males are sitting at a desk and studying together?” he said.

For his part, Lopez has a hypothesis that involves an unintended consequence of positive social change.

“When women gained equal rights, men lost their role,” he said. “When they got that sense of empowerment, males felt like they didn’t need to be as responsible as they used to.”

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Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Single-Sex Classes Gain Favor, Despite Study

Classes separated by gender gain favor in South Bay schools

Emmaly Johnson, left, and Alexis Johnson watch the flight of a gummy bear shot from their catapult design in their gender-separated science class at Manhattan Beach Middle School. Photo by Brad Graverson
Emmaly Johnson, left, and Alexis Johnson watch the flight of a gummy bear shot from their catapult design in their gender-separated science class at Manhattan Beach Middle School. Photo by Brad Graverson

In one classroom, 30 middle school girls work in pairs to design and build catapults made of Popsicle sticks and a plastic spoon that will launch gummy bears. In a separate room down the hall, 30 boys work on the same project.

It might sound like a day in the life of a Catholic school, but the setting is Manhattan Beach Middle School.

Once the primary province of private schools, single-sex classrooms have become increasingly common in the public sphere, including the math- and science- based elective splitting the genders at Manhattan Beach Middle and an algebra class that does the same at Adams Middle School in Redondo Beach.

But a new report has concluded that single-sex education does more harm than good, arguing that it fails to improve academic outcomes, reinforces gender stereotypes and legitimizes institutional sexism.

Published Friday in Science, a leading academic journal, the article — titled “The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling” — made a nationwide media splash last week. Aside from challenging the popular notion that boys and girls learn differently, it questions the wisdom of a 2006 law making it easier to separate genders in public schools.

Largely as a result, the number of public schools offering at least some single-sex instruction has skyrocketed in a decade, from just a handful to about 500, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Instruction.

Diane Halpern, the paper’s lead author and a psychology chair at Claremont McKenna College, said that despite some anecdotal success, broad research shows the practice is misguided.

“Any time you divide people into groups, they develop stereotypes and prejudice,” she told the Daily Breeze. “They come to like their own group better and avoid interacting with the members of the other group.”

Halpern added that the findings apply to all forms of single-sex education, from entire schools to the optional classes that are found in the beach cities.

But local educators say their programs have been successful.

Girls have fun in class with a calculator in their gender-separated science class at Manhattan Beach Middle School. Photo by Brad Graverson
Girls have fun in class with a calculator in their gender-separated science class at Manhattan Beach Middle School. Photo by Brad Graverson

The girls-only class at Manhattan Beach Middle School, made possible by a $250,000 grant from Chevron to last three years, was launched in the fall of 2010 to generate female interest in the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and math, often collectively referred to as STEM.

Last year, the girls-only class took third place in a national contest put on by NASA, in which students were instructed to design a game for astronauts in orbit demonstrating Newton’s laws of motion. As a reward, the Manhattan Beach girls will soon watch a video of real astronauts in the International Space Station playing their game, which involves tossing Q-tips through floating paper rings.

This year, Manhattan Beach administrators came back to Chevron with a successful request for $100,000 to start an equivalent class for boys, which began this fall.

Carolyn Seaton, spokeswoman for the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, said the elective class is not meant to boost the school’s already stratospheric test scores. Rather, the idea was initially to promote interest and excitement in the STEM fields to an under-represented group – girls – and later to extend the same opportunity to the boys. But she said she is open to learning from any new research.

“I’m not convinced the research shows us we need to stop doing what we are doing, but I do think it is something we should take a look at,” she said.

On the other side of the coin, Seaton cited a 2005 study finding that middle-school girls – and in particular gifted girls – are often afraid to speak up in class, because of how they might be perceived by peers.

“They didn’t want the boys to perceive them as being a brainiac, and therefore not being cute or pretty,” she said. “They would either not comment at all or pretend to not know things they actually knew. It’s just another reason to offer this opportunity (at Manhattan Beach Middle), where there isn’t that awkwardness that can come sometimes with that age group.”

In Redondo Beach, Adams Middle School is three years into a program for algebra in which girls and boys have the option of taking a class that is either coed or gender-separated. All three courses are equally popular, enrolling 26 to 28 students.

According to the latest available data provided by the district, the differences in performance have been minimal, with the girls-only class edging out the mixed class on the 2010 California Standards Test in algebra, and the boys finishing a close third. (The three groups stacked up in the same order for overall performance in the class.)

More noteworthy, though, were the results of a two-part survey distributed first in the fall and then in June. In general, girls seemed to respond better to the gender separation than boys. For instance, the proportion of students in the girls-only class who believed they could better concentrate in a single-gender class rose from 65 percent in the fall to 90 percent in late spring of 2010. Meanwhile, the corresponding figure from the boys-only class actually went down – from 50 percent to 41 percent.

Also remarkable was the large jump in the percentage of girls who reported that the gender split “caused (them) to enjoy math more” – from 20 percent in October to 58 percent in June. Conversely, the separation seemed to have no significant effect on boys’ enjoyment levels, which went from 15 percent in the fall to 16 percent in late spring.

Redondo Beach educators generally were unavailable for comment this week, in part because the school’s principal when the class was started at Adams – Nicole Wesley – has since taken the top job at Redondo Union High School. She referred questions to the teacher of the class, Michelle Fader, who in turn deferred to the principal, Anthony Taranto, who is new this year.

“I support the idea,” he said. “I think we owe it to all of our students to give them the experience, or multiple options to be successful in the classroom.”

As for the report in Science, it argues that separating the genders tends to reinforce gender stereotypes, such as that boys respond better to aggressive teachers and girls prefer a softer approach.

The differences found in many classrooms, though not necessarily the ones locally, range from the setting of the thermostat – boys-only rooms tend to be colder – to the style of instruction, Halpern said. For instance, girls tend to spend more time in small discussion groups while boys will sometimes pass a ball around the room to signal that they have the floor.

“I think plenty of girls would love to throw balls to each other when it’s their turn to talk, and plenty of boys would certainly benefit from having more small class discussion,” she said.

Perhaps more to the point in Manhattan Beach, Halpern said there are other ways to foster female interest in the STEM fields, such as exposing girls to women who have succeeded in math and science.

Still, teachers of the class in Manhattan Beach say separating the genders can prevent certain stereotypes from manifesting themselves.

For instance, “It prevents the girl (in a group) from always doing the write-up because her handwriting is neater,” said James Locke, teacher of the boys STEM elective.

On a recent day at Manhattan Beach Middle School, the girls and boys groups both reached a point about halfway through the period when it was time to test their products. As both genders came together outside to measure the length of their gummy-bear launches, a spirit of friendly competition was palpable. (The longest fling on that day was 90 feet, achieved by a pair of boys, Bennett Yee and Nico Brunstein.)

While working with her partner, seventh-grader Alexa Underwood said separating the genders has its benefits.

“It’s easier to pair girls to girls because sometimes guys want their idea and they influence everyone to have the idea, instead of going with the girl’s idea,” she said.

Student Lucas Neao said he has noticed some gender differences in styles of learning.

“Guys usually just go head on and do” the project at hand, he said. “Girls do more planning.”