Monday, June 06, 2005

LA: City of America's Future

If the future of a country can be found in its schools, then America's outlook is bleak indeed. A plan to introduce college preparatory courses for all high school students in the LA Unified school district has run into opposition from teachers who complain that most of their students can't handle basic subjects as it is.
They say a Los Angeles school board proposal to require all high school students to take college prep courses is intellectually valid but practically impossible. The Los Angeles Unified School District, they say, doesn't understand what they are up against.

"In L.A. Unified, we can't teach these kids to multiply," said math instructor Geoff Buck, who has been teaching for 19 years. By expecting them to meet more difficult standards "we're forcing them to drop out. We're actually doing them harm."

The Board of Education is expected to vote in June on the proposal, which would require all students to take the 15 high school courses needed for acceptance into the University of California or California State University systems. Students would be required to take four years of English, three years of math, two years of history, science and foreign language, and a year of visual and performing arts and advanced electives.
Those promoting the plan say adding college preparatory courses would raise standards and encourage students toward higher achievement.
Board of Education President Jose Huizar, who is co-sponsoring the resolution, believes more rigor will lead to higher graduation rates. Board member Jon Lauritzen, Supt. Roy Romer and State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell strongly support the idea, along with a coalition of more than 2,000 Los Angeles parents, students and community members.

If approved, the plan would be implemented beginning with the freshman class in 2008, allowing the district three years to improve math instruction for middle school students who would enter high school facing the more rigorous requirements. The district also could use that time to hire teachers and put tutoring and other support systems in place to help students with the additional coursework, Huizar said.

"We have to set high expectations for these students," Huizar said. "It's a psychological and cultural change."
Despite Mr. Huizar's optimism, teachers at Hollywood High tell a different story.
But at schools such as Hollywood High, teachers and counselors say the district's focus needs to be shifted more toward middle schools, where even failing students are promoted to the next grade level.

"A lot of students just never receive these basic skills in middle school," said Hollywood High counselor Elizabeth Payne. "Kids come to me and say 'I don't understand anything he's telling me to do.' This is understanding simple things like percentages and ratios."

During one Hollywood High math class on a recent afternoon, Buck went over a lesson on parallel slopes and positive integers. He was vying for the attention of two girls whispering about Spanish soap operas in the back of the room.

"Guys, I've lost you completely," said Buck, who was teaching a basic class required for high school graduation. "I've lost you."

Another student flipped through a magazine with pictures of Jennifer Lopez. A 20-year-old sophomore gazed through a window, twirling a ruler around his pencil.

Buck tried again: "This is not hard."

Most had already failed algebra once. Buck worries what would happen to students like them if the district approved the college track plan.

Patty Iniguez, 18, a senior at Hollywood, doesn't have much faith in her classmates. "They're going to fail," she said.
School counselors have encountered the same attitude - and lack of ability - amongst students.
Hollywood High college counselor Judy Campbell said one student had failed algebra six times. He should have graduated a year ago, she said, but "he just can't get it."

Every student should have access to college prep courses, Campbell said, but "they have a hard time now just meeting regular graduation requirements."

In her office, Campbell flipped through a 13-page list of this year's 538 seniors and their grade point averages. Students who had between a 2.0 and 3.0 took up six pages; students receiving lower than a 2.0 filled four pages.

Campbell pointed out that some of the students excel in the school's culinary and performing arts classes. But because most of those classes don't qualify as college prep courses, she worries that students will miss out on those subjects.

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