Sunday, August 12, 2007

SCHOOLS IMPROVE AFTER LAWSUIT, STUDY SAYS: The report studied effects of a settlement requiring changes at state's lowest-achieving schools.

by Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

[The Report] found progress in all areas, although some counties and individual districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, still fell behind statewide averages.

According to the report, 69% of all improperly assigned teachers in the state were reported in one district -- Los Angeles Unified.

August 12, 2007 - Three years after the settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of California's poorest students, a new study has found that teaching and learning conditions in the state's lowest-performing schools have improved: More children are receiving textbooks, school facilities are in better repair and more teachers have proper credentials.

The report, scheduled to be released Monday, is the first comprehensive assessment of the impact of Williams vs. California, which resulted in a package of laws requiring county superintendents to visit the lowest-achieving schools to monitor the availability of textbooks and the physical condition of buildings as well as to determine if teachers -- particularly those in classrooms with large numbers of English-learners -- are properly assigned.

The ACLU Foundation of Southern California and Public Advocates, which prepared the report and were co-counsel for the plaintiffs, found progress in all areas, although some counties and individual districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, still fell behind statewide averages.

Some education groups that have been monitoring the settlement criticized the adequacy of complaint procedures and the depth of teacher training. They pointed to figures in the report, such as that 20,000 classes with substantial numbers of English-learners still did not have teachers with the proper training to provide instruction. They also noted that there is no evidence the settlement has helped to close the achievement gap between poor students and non-native English-speakers and their white counterparts.

Still, during the study period from 2004 to 2006, students statewide received more than 88,000 new textbooks and instructional materials, nearly 3,000 emergency campus repairs were funded and the percentage of fully credentialed teachers increased from 90% to 92%.

"Williams set a floor, not a ceiling, for providing all students a meaningful opportunity to learn, and while work still remains to be done to reach these basic standards in some schools, the significant improvements in all three key areas targeted by Williams demonstrate that clear standards, combined with targeted funds and effective accountability systems, can make a positive difference in our children's classrooms," said Brooks Allen, the ACLU of Southern California attorney overseeing the settlement's implementation.

The Williams suit was filed in May 2000 by several civil rights organizations, which argued that tens of thousands of minority students were being denied an equal education when compared with their suburban counterparts. A settlement was announced in August 2004, and legislation outlining the conditions of the agreement was signed into law a month later by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The new standards and most accountability systems -- including a complaint process -- apply to all public schools. All districts must perform self-evaluations to ensure compliance.

The lowest-performing schools on the 2006 Academic Performance Index receive additional funds and oversight, with mandatory annual inspections, some of which are unannounced.

The settlement holds the state responsible for ensuring compliance and provides $1 billion to accomplish its goals, including an $800-million emergency repair program. Districts are required, for example, to address textbook deficiencies no later than eight weeks after the start of school and the county office of education can request that the state purchase the books, with the costs deducted from the district.

The report, conducted by UCLA researchers, looked at four segments of the state -- Los Angeles County, the Bay Area, Sacramento County and the Central Valley -- and statewide trends. Among the key findings:

* The proportion of low-performing schools with insufficient textbooks dropped from 20% in 2005 to 13% in 2006.

* Although 62% of the state's lowest-performing schools needed some type of repair in 2005, that number fell to 47% the following year.

* Teachers who were assigned to classes with 20% or more English-learners and lacked proper training dropped from 30% in 2005 to 13% in 2006.

* In Los Angeles County, which has 80 school districts and 1.7 million students, the percentage of low-performing schools with insufficient textbooks dropped from 22% to 14% during the study period and the county showed improvements in other areas as well. One concern, though, was the number of low-performing schools with at least some teachers assigned to classrooms for which they were not qualified or credentialed, which fell from 83% to 70%, but still far exceeded the statewide figure of 53%.

L.A. County Office of Education Supt. Darline P. Robles acknowledged that it remains a challenge for schools to hire properly credentialed teachers for classrooms of limited-English speaking students.

"Unfortunately, there has been declining enrollment in some schools and teachers with English-learner credentials may have been let go," said Robles, whose office is required to review 598 schools under the Williams settlement. "The report does reflect progress made by schools and school districts to implement not only the legal parts of law but the spirit of it."

According to the report, 69% of all improperly assigned teachers in the state were reported in one district -- Los Angeles Unified, where district officials said they have focused "laser-like" attention on improving the numbers, with intensive training for current staff and mandatory English-learner certificates for new hires. In fact, out of 35,000 teachers in the district, only 2,700 now lack proper certificates, said Deborah Ignagni, the district's interim administrator of certificated employment operations.

"We look at Williams as a real positive thing that has held us more closely accountable in making real progress," said Ignagni.

The report cites instances in which the settlement has dramatically improved education, such as at Frank D. Parent Elementary School in the Inglewood Unified School District. When the Williams suit was in litigation, said the report, the school did not provide enough books for students to take home, 43% of teachers lacked full credentials and school bathrooms were filthy and regularly lacked toilet paper. Students in grades 6 through 8 did not have science books or lab equipment.

Now, according to the report, "students' access to textbooks both at home and at school has increased as has students' access to a corps of committed and highly qualified teachers. In addition, the school is maintained in good repair, consistent with the new Williams standard."

Principal Garry Gregory agreed that the school has been transformed and credits much of that improvement to the lawsuit settlement. Teachers and staff have been trained to spot problems and report them immediately, and everyone stays on their toes because the campus can receive unannounced visits, he said.

"What's very positive is that our district takes this as a top priority and that has made it very easy," said Gregory. "We use as leverage our school being a Williams school and they are very quick to accommodate."

Still, while lauding the overall intent of the settlement, some advocacy groups say much remains to be done. Gabriel Medel, a member of the group Parents For Unity, which has been monitoring the settlement, said responses to complaints, for example, often drag out or are disregarded. In one instance, a promise to buy books at one L.A. Unified school resulted in students receiving copies of chapters. In another, a girls' gym closed by a fire still has not been repaired and school officials have been unresponsive to parents' concerns. Another school purportedly refused to enroll an English-learner, claiming it lacked sufficient resources.

"The system is working when parents are well-informed," Medel said, "but it still doesn't have the full effect in changing the landscape for children's needs."

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