Author: Claire Diggins & Lauren Siverly
The movie “Stand and Deliver” earned Edward James Olmos an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) math teacher Jaime Escalante. The film portrays Escalante’s real-life effort to take the reins of the math department at Garfield High School, an institution suffering from severe apathy of teachers and students.
Looking to discipline instead of teach, faculty show little respect to their students and receive little in return. Classes are taught to the level of the lowest performing students, and there are few options for anyone looking to achieve more.
Escalante steps into the setting and demands more from his students. He challenges and teaches them about the futures they could have if they believed in themselves and maintained a stronger work ethic. As a result of Escalante’s dedication, his students, even the ones who used to struggle in algebra, take the Advanced Placement calculus test. After that, the AP calculus program continues to grow until he has more than 70 students passing the exam each year.
“Stand and Deliver,” of course, is just a movie, and it contains typical Hollywood embellishments. The story of Jaime Escalante and Garfield High School, an indifferent administration and underserved students, however, is a reality in many schools in the underfunded Los Angeles Unified School District.
Lack of sufficient funding and unequal disbursement of resources have been issues in the district for years. Oftentimes, underachieving students are neglected by indifferent staff in schools.
At the same time, other LAUSD schools have adequate funding and excellent teachers who hold their students to high academic standards.
Issues within LAUSD schools are well-known: severe overcrowding, unclean facilities, no arts programs, high drop out rates and the like.
LAUSD is one of the largest school districts in the country, second only to New York City in student enrollment. Due to California’s recent budget crisis, it is also one of the most underfunded. Although California already ranks 46th nationwide in per pupil spending, in June 2009, L.A. News reported that Los Angeles approved over $1.6 billion in major cutbacks and layoffs in LAUSD to take place over a three-year period.
At the time of the budget announcement, hundreds of district workers traveled to Sacramento to protest the cuts in front of the State Capitol, but many still lost their jobs.
In 2010, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and several other collaborating civil rights groups sued the school district for teacher layoffs and budget cuts at three highly under-performing middle schools.
The lawyers claimed these particular layoffs violated the legal rights of students to a fair and equal education because they specifically targeted low-income schools and removed too many of their teachers. California state law mandates that districts lay teachers off based on seniority, and these particular schools were disproportionately affected because of their high number of new teachers, an effect of strenuous working conditions.
According to an article on NBC Los Angeles, one of the three schools under scrutiny, Liechty Middle School in Westlake, experienced a 72 percent staff reduction.
The lawsuit was settled in Oct. 2010 when LAUSD agreed to establish caps for layoffs per school. Still, many LAUSD schoolteachers, aids and custodians remain uncertain of their jobs, and average student-teacher ratios in the state of California remain the second highest in the country.
Even though Governor Brown’s new budget (which includes $12.5 billion in cuts in multiple areas) attempts to protect education, the LAUSD budget faces a $268 million deficit for 2011-12 and an $891.1 million deficit for 2012-13.
According to a statement issued on Jan. 10 by LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines, the governor will go to voters in June and encourage them support a vehicle and income tax increase to alleviate the overall deficit. If voters reject this proposal, the State will cut $2.2 billion from public education across the state, with LAUSD’s portion anywhere from 10 to 20 percent ($220 to $440 million).
When the district opted for earlier budget cuts in 2009, the school board proposed a parcel tax to help supplement the education budget to prevent further decline. According to the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund, the parcel tax would have allowed schools to levy a $100 per year tax on every parcel of taxable property that receives a separate tax bill within the District. Voters ultimately rejected the tax, which would have specifically supported the arts programs and preserved custodial positions.
Within LAUSD, there is an incredible disparity with regard to income distribution and the distribution of resources among schools. Considering the size of the District, it is inevitable that there will exist a wide range of incomes within it. However, in Los Angeles, the income distribution is starkly geographically divided.
The contrast in median incomes between neighborhoods on the Westside and the Eastside is startling. According to professor of Urban and Environmental Policy Susan Steckler and Adam Garcia’s publication “Affordability Matters,” the median household income in the Bel Air community is $139,885, while the median income in Westlake is $14,054. Schools inevitably reflect their community’s resources.
LAUSD students have the right to attend better schools within the district, but this isn’t feasible for every student and doesn’t address the problem.
Some of the biggest disparities in the school system exist between the 104 charter schools and the non-charter schools. According to the L.A. Times, “Charter schools are independently managed and families can enroll free of charge.” Charter schools around the area generally only differ from traditional public schools in their freedom to budget their money whichever way they please. Traditional public schools lack this ability; the school board and the state government dictate allocation of funds.
The top five LAUSD schools determined by Great Schools, an online resource that uses test scores and user reviews to grade schools nationwide, are either charter schools, magnet schools or schools located on the affluent Westside.
Several students at Occidental have graduated from local LAUSD high schools, both charter and non-charter.
Morgan Mhors (first-year) is a graduate of Granada Hills Charter High School, located in the San Fernando Valley. She expressed frustration at the way her school spent its money. Instead of hiring new teachers to better assist a growing student population of 4,200, Mhors said that they “bought houses.”
A graduate of Palisades Charter High School, Tyler Brewington (sophomore) acknowledged that students at her school had plenty of access to current technology and other assets. “Charter schools have more extracurriculars and definitely have a lot more resources in general than public schools,” she said.
Both Mhors and Brewington explained that at such large schools (Palisades has around 3,000 students), students could go through classes where the teachers wouldn’t know their names after nine months of class. Mhors said that “the school felt like a factory” intent on turning out students as quickly as possible without attempting to get to know them personally.
Brewington and Mhors were quick to add that if the parents got involved with the teachers, or if a student was a troublemaker, the teachers and administration would remember their name. And teachers were much more likely to want to teach the highly motivated students in Advanced Placement and Honors classes.
But in regular classes, Brewington said many instructors were inadequate. “I liked most teachers, but some were there just to get a paycheck,” she said. Even AP classes rarely included discussion. “The teachers taught to the test,” Brewington said.< /p>
Admission into charter schools is dictated by a lottery system and a student’s residence in the school’s “home district.” The first criterion assumes that the students who attend these schools are motivated enough to take the initiative to enter these lotteries. The second tends to give preference to students who live in the generally wealthier areas where many of the charters are located.
This is especially true for Palisades Charter High School. Located in Pacific Palisades, many students come from either that neighborhood or Brentwood, two of the wealthiest areas of the Westside. In fact, according to the L.A. Times, the median household income of Pacific Palisades is over $168,000.
Some parents and educators preach the power of charter schools to give their children a better education. Others decry these claims and accuse school districts of handing over their students to private corporations and prohibiting teachers from forming unions.
Charter or not, schools of LAUSD are crowded across the board. Belmont High School in Westlake used to be the largest school in the entire United States before undergoing drastic segmentation over the past five years. Former Belmont student Julia Flores (first-year) explained the positive impact that the segmenting had. By the time she attended Belmont, “classes were pretty small compared to neighboring schools.”
According to Roberto Soriano (sophomore), most of his classes at Wilson High School in El Soreno had anywhere between 35 and 40 students. But the high school offered students additional resources to counteract large class sizes. “In honors classes,” Soriano said, “teachers would assign Saturday tutorials to help students with AP tests and college preparation.”
In some other LAUSD schools, students are split up into smaller learning academies in an effort to curb the large class sizes and over-enrollment.
Schools like Wilson have other programs to help students achieve at a higher level. Upward Bound, which brings local high school students to Occidental for the summer to take college-level courses, encourages the pursuit of higher education. For Soriano, Upward Bound was the catalyst that first informed him and his sister of Occidental and, eventually, led them to attend the school.
Another Occidental-based effort to reach out to the community, the Neighborhood Partnership Program (NPP), began on campus in 1997 as a tutoring program for local high school students.
“The goal of the program is to prepare students for some kind of life after high school and expose them to the realm of higher education,” NPP Director Jesus Maldonado said.
Fourteen years later, NPP employs 94 Occidental students as tutors at more than 100 classrooms at Eagle Rock High School, Franklin High School in Highland Park, Lincoln High School in Lincoln Heights and Helen Bernstein High School in Hollywood. Between the locations, the NPP serves up to 2,400 students each week.
For many high school students, NPP helps them in ways that LAUSD’s limited resources often cannot.
“Many of them have decided to apply to four-year programs and are waiting to hear back. The NPP tutors help the students with college selection and application process and are currently guiding them through the financial aid process,” Maldonado said.
All students interviewed said their schools had workshops and counselors to help them with the college application process, from writing admission essays to seeking financial aid. Each student also stressed the importance of personal motivation to overcome the challenges of under-funding and teacher apathy.
The debate between charter and non-charter schools is one that will continue for a long time. Studies will be conducted, test scores compared and students questioned, but what must really be addressed are the conduct of the administration and teachers, the budgeting of what little funds are available and the upholding of higher education standards for the students.
The current situation at LAUSD is cause for concern, but should call our attention to the wealth of resources available to us here at Occidental. At Occidental, we enjoy small student teacher ratios, state-of-the-art facilities, internationally recognized speakers, an adequate number highly specialized and respected professors, clean bathrooms, beautiful grounds, access to laboratories, computers, AV and film equipment, funding to conduct international research, printing services, radio equipment, free concerts and much more.
Considering that Occidental is a private higher-level institution, many may argue that comparison between the college and LAUSD is inappropriate. It is important, however, to be aware of the disparity that exists between our immediate Occidental community and the larger community around us, namely the other schools in our neighborhood.
Greater awareness of the disparity and the college’s programs to address it, such as Upward Bound and the Neighborhood Partnership Program, may generate a sense of appreciation for all that is made available to us at Occidental and potentially a desire to contribute more to the schools in our community.
Maldonada sums up the troubles at the schools NPP helps in familiar terms: “The biggest problem in these schools is a lack of resources. Class sizes are constantly increasing. Many schools have one college counselor for thousands of students. It is hard to serve them properly when dealing with so many students.”
While LAUSD rides out the California budget crisis and the district continues to suffer from the perennial problems depicted in “Stand in Deliver,” Maldonada said the NPP is putting Occidental’s resources to use in the community the best way it knows.
“Our tutors go directly into the classroom. They are an extra set of hands for students who are struggling, helping them to understand the material as they are learning it.”
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