ROMER SUGGESTS LAUSD THINK SMALL BREAKING UP SCHOOLS MAY HELP RETENTION.
Los Angeles Unified has embarked on an ambitious program to provide more personalized instruction to middle and high school students by opening new schools and retooling old ones into small learning communities.
But the price tag comes high: up to $4 million per existing campus.
Superintendent Roy Romer said Friday that breaking up large schools into academylike units of 300 to 500 students - along with other instructional changes - is critical to spurring academic achievement and boosting graduation rates.
``The bottom line is to successfully move youngsters through high school,'' Romer said. ``One of the biggest problems of society is the isolation of not being known. If (students) get someone who believes in (them), then youngsters will really reach much higher.''
During a meeting last week, the district's chief operating officer, Tim Buresh, provided the School Construction Bond Citizens' Oversight Committee with rough cost estimates of $2 million to $4 million per high school, with the caveat the program might not encompass all 49 existing high schools. He said middle schools would require fewer physical modifications.
Romer said the program would be phased in as the district's budget and other factors allow.
``It can't be too costly, or we can't do it,'' Romer said.
If retention rates can be boosted from about 50 percent to at least 80 percent, the investment would be returned in more graduates, at a lower cost per graduate.
Romer said he's been focused on the small learning community concept for a couple of months. He recently went with other district officials to New York City to look at models, a trip underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
``We definitely are going to do our version of small schools. I'm very focused on it. We're gearing up on it,'' Romer said.
New high schools, he said, should be opened with the small learning communities in place, while existing schools could be modified - painting hallways, moving walls, providing separate dining areas, for instance - to make the transition feasible.
Reaction to the proposal was generally enthusiastic, though concerns were raised about implementation, from costs and time frame, to accountability.
``It's sensational,'' said Richard Riordan, who as mayor launched small primary centers. ``You can't manage a school that's more than about 600 kids. Big schools have layers of bureaucracy, no decisions get made, no one is in charge. It's a total disaster.''
Riordan questioned how much authority would be vested in the small schools' leadership.
``They better have all the power of a principal, or it won't work,'' he said. ``They need some real power ... so they can be held accountable.''
Romer said the leadership structure has yet to be worked out, but that each small learning community would have at least an ``instruction leader.'' Romer said some elements, such as class schedules, would need to be negotiated.
``We want to bring teachers and the union along on it,'' he said.
United Teachers Los Angeles President John Perez said teachers are generally ``big supporters'' of small learning centers, but they fear they will be implemented hurriedly, with insufficient planning, training, and funding.
``It's not the what, it's the how,'' teachers are concerned with, Perez said.
``One of the intricacies of this is you get a group of teachers together and they stay with the kids. It's like a marriage. If it's a shotgun marriage, it's not going to work.''
Perez said Romer has talked to the union, and that the superintendent said he understands the program can't be started all at once, nor imposed uniformly at every school.
``Hopefully, he'll stick to what he told us,'' Perez said. ``If you shove something down people's throats, even if it's a good thing, people won't do it.''
Perez said the district initially might ask schools to volunteer for pilot programs to show how small learning communities can work.
And it will take time, he said, to address all the details, including how administrators and teachers will be assigned.
``It's planning,'' Perez said. ``You can't take something off the top of your head and say, 'We're going to do this.'''
Romer said the district would move gradually, with some existing schools converted during summer months, while year-round schools might have to be adapted a building, or wing at a time.
David Abel, chairman of New Schools Better Neighborhoods, a nonprofit agency that promotes small, neighborhood-centered schools, said he supports LAUSD's efforts.
``At first the district, because of the immense responsibility to find seats, had little time to think beyond the triage of putting roofs over kids heads,'' Abel said.
Now, he said LAUSD has a responsibility to do more than house children.
``Clearly smaller classrooms and environments where teachers and students can have a focus and engagement of their minds is relevant to outcomes.''
Buresh, the district's chief operating officer, said students in smaller schools typically fare better.
``There is no magic pill, but a key factor (in retention) is the size of the learning community,'' Buresh told the bond oversight committee.
Board President Caprice Young - who was on last month's tour of New York City schools - praised the concept.
``The advantage to smallness is that you get a higher level of personalization,'' Young said. ``All the kids are known to all the adults. It is a much more intimate way of learning.''
Young said the learning communities would be akin to existing magnets or academies where students take a core curriculum, but also explore areas of interest. There currently is a 30,000-student waiting list for magnets, she said.
``There's an enormous customer demand for small schools. Personalization treats our kids as the individuals they area. Small learning centers get students excited about learning.''
The district has hired architects HMC for $139,787 to look at a variety of school models, and the small learning communities are anticipated to be part of the scope, district officials said.
In January, a study by district Instructional Support Services personnel said the district's large comprehensive high schools need to be divided into the smaller learning communities.
``Based on what we know and understand today about youths' needs and the conditions of high-performance learning organizations, the district needs to transform its secondary schools from large industrial-like factories into small communities of learning,'' the report said.
Jim Delker, LAUSD's consulting deputy chief facilities executive, said many of the details are yet to be fleshed out, including how many schools would be converted.
``I'm not to the point where I know what the ripple effect would be,'' Delker said.
Bond oversight committee members generally gave the small learning community concept high marks but had some reservations about cost and implementation.
``I'm always happy to see LAUSD thinking outside the box,'' said committee chairman Robert Garcia.
The committee's consultant Tom Rubin called the concept, ``very interesting,'' but said as always, ``the fiscal impact will be key.''
Committee member Connie Rice said moving to smaller learning communities is the right idea to keep kids from getting lost in high schools of several thousand students.
``It's a good idea. It will take a lot to implement it.''