Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Torrance students shine amid cutbacks

Torrance students shine amid cutbacks

Torrance schools are experiencing historic cuts — probably the worst in the South Bay — but you’d never know it from the performance of the students.

As the budget situation gets bleaker, their measurable results seem to soar only higher.

Earlier this month, West High School achieved an impressive three-peat, winning its third consecutive academic decathlon, besting 54 other teams for the Los Angeles County title. Two other Torrance high schools placed in the top eight.

And that’s not all. API and SAT scores in Torrance are also defying the laws of economics, rising higher and higher as class sizes grow bigger and bigger. The success even extends to nationally televised game shows. On a teen episode of “Wheel of Fortune” that aired last week, two girls from Torrance High won $52,000. The runner-up team took home $3,000.


But Torrance educators are worried the day of reckoning is coming.

“The problem we have is I can’t predict when the financial situation will have an effect upon us, but it will have an effect upon us,” Superintendent George Mannon said. “There is a tipping point. We’re just not sure when we will experience it.”

In the past few years, the district’s annual budget has shrunk from $200 million to $150 million. Due to an outdated funding formula, Torrance receives less state money per student than most school districts.

Programs like summer school and the district orchestra are no more. High school English and math class sizes have surged past 40, at times reaching 45 or higher.

And yet, year after year in Torrance, test scores go up. The district’s API – a score from 200 to 1,000 based on student test scores – has risen steadily from 810 to 853. The state average is 767.

Torrance high-schoolers also are acing the SAT test, a college entry exam. While the average score in the state and nation hovers just above 1,500, in Torrance it’s 1,624, up from 1,613 the year before.

Demographics undoubtedly play a major role. A third of the 25,000 students in the district are Asian and another third are white, the two populations that score highest on test scores. In Torrance, 35 percent of the parents have college degrees, compared with just under 20 percent statewide.

But there are other factors. For one thing, test scores are rising all across California. Also, teachers in Torrance say they are burning the candle at both ends.

“We are dropping a lot of the extras and going straight with what we see on the tests,” Torrance teachers union President Julie Shankle said. “It’s no longer about teaching the kid. It’s about producing the test score.”

She said the pressure is beginning to take a physical and mental toll. Teachers are taking extended absences due to stress, for instance.

“I’ve had more than a few teachers come up to me and say, ‘I hate my job now,”‘ she said. “The joy has just been sucked out of it.”

Meanwhile, the students are under increasing pressure to master the material as the college application process gets more competitive.

Take Aaron Cheng, captain of West High’s academic decathlon team. One could argue that the easiest part of his day occurs during regular school hours. After that, he adjourns to the library to study with his academic decathlon teammates. In the two months before a meet, practice runs from 3 to 9 p.m.

Then he goes home, where he gets cracking on his real homework. He goes to bed sometime around 2 a.m. Every day in the shower, he practices impromptu speeches – a major facet of decathlon.

“The biggest challenge is learning how to survive with the stress,” said Cheng, who has been accepted to USC, and is waiting for a response from Harvard, MIT and Duke.

District favorite

As for the academic decathlon, it’s clearly a darling in the Torrance district. Despite all the budget cuts, the district has not only continued to support the program, but also gone above and beyond by allowing students to take decathlon as a class during the regular school day.

As a result, Torrance schools often rank among the best in not only the county, but also the state. Last year, West High took sixth. It could be said West High ranks among the top teams in United States, since the California champion in recent years has almost always taken the national trophy.

All told, the Torrance district spends a total of $40,000 to $50,000 on the program, or roughly $11,250 per school. The nonprofit Torrance Education Foundation chips in $2,500 per school to purchase study materials. The teams also raise funds for travel money.

Ann Cortina, the coach at West High, said she’s grateful for the support.

“Some districts don’t even have a coach stipend,” she said, adding that, in Torrance, whenever someone asks high-level administrators if the program is in danger, “they look at you like you’re crazy to suggest it.”

Bone-deep cuts

Meanwhile, educators in Torrance and across the state are fearful of an impending budget catastrophe.

Torrance administrators say that if Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to ask California voters to extend temporary tax hikes doesn’t come to pass in June, the district will have to cut an additional $14 million from its $150 million budget.

“I don’t know where you are going to get that kind of money,” said Mario Di Leva, executive director of the Torrance teachers union. “Classrooms don’t physically hold 100 students. They can’t handle 50. We have 40 and they were built for 30.”

One remarkable aspect of the district’s financial woes is how it hasn’t yet had the effect of stoking tensions between the teachers and the administrators. At least not publicly.

Di Leva cited a recent study by the California Department of Education concluding that Torrance is among the most administratively lean districts in California.

“Everyone is waiting for this situation to turn a corner, and it’s not going to happen,” he said. “This may be our new reality. … We are running this vehicle on the redline and on fumes. And there’s a lot at stake.”