By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Newspaper Group/Daily News
Youngsters take to the playground at Hart St Elementary School August 12, 2009. (Andy Holzman/Staff Photographer)
Aug 13 -- NORTH HOLLYWOOD - For nearly three decades, Camellia Avenue Elementary has buzzed with children 12 months a year, operating on a multi-track schedule to cycle more students through the overcrowded campus.
But this summer, the chatter of children has been replaced by an unfamiliar quiet.
Like dozens of other schools across Los Angeles Unified, the North Hollywood campus closed over the summer and will open next month on a traditional nine-month calendar.
At the peak in 2002, one out of three LAUSD schools stayed open year-round. But thanks to an aggressive $20 billion school construction program started earlier this decade, fewer than 10 percent of schools will be multi-track by September.
The goal is to rid LAUSD of multi-track schools by 2012.
The steady elimination of year-round schools became a key priority years ago for many educators, who trace LAUSD's persistent academic performance problems to decades of year-round schooling.
"I don't think there is any single thing that had a stronger negative impact on children in this district than having multi-track schools," said Julie Korenstein, a retired LAUSD board member of 22 years who fought to start building more schools.
"We were so grossly overcrowded for so long that it had an impact on how well our children could be educated."
Year-round schools have been hotly debated among parents, teachers and administrators since their inception at LAUSD in 1974, when Elizabeth Street Elementary in Southeast L.A, now the Elizabeth Learning Center, became the district's first multi-track campus.
On the alternate calendar, children are put on one of three or four school schedules - usually marked tracks A,B,C and D - with one track of students always on vacation. The tracks can allow one school to cycle up to a third more children through its classrooms.
Parents complain that the schedule causes chaos in family life because it makes summer vacations impossible and it forces them to find childcare at several points during the year, while parents with kids in traditional schools can rely on summer school.
Educators say the calendar deprives kids of 17 days of instruction, which is difficult if not impossible to make up.
For Dora Pimentel-Baxter, Camellia's principal, the schedule has forced her into a juggling act since she took her job four years ago.
"It's constant moving," Pimentel-Baxter said.
"Teachers are switching classrooms, one track ends on a Friday and the next one starts on Monday and you are always having to re-teach things to kids as they come in and out of vacation."
One of Pimentel-Baxter's biggest nightmares was enrollment. Finding slots for children, while trying to match students to teachers who fit their needs as well as accommodating siblings so parents can have kids on the same schedules became nearly a fulltime job.
Testing was also a struggle for Camellia where one track - usually B-track - always starts school just one week before state testing begins.
"How can you prepare children for a test in a week?" Pimentel-Baxter said.
Recently elected LAUSD school board member Nury Martinez remembers her days as a student at Pacoima Elementary School during the 1980s, when the schools went on a multi-track schedule.
"It was a mess for my household," Martinez said.
"I'd be off-track for 6 to 7 weeks, my mom was always struggling to figure out what do with me, then I'd go back to school for a couple of months and then I was on break again and we had to make other arrangements."
During the late 1990s enrollment continued to grow at LAUSD - with some elementary schools reaching 3,000 students and high schools hitting 7,000.
The largest portion of schools to go on the year-round schedule were campuses in lower-income areas, with more densely populated neighborhoods and a higher proportion of minority students.
The multi-track calendar was chosen over less desirable options, including the "split-session" schedule that would have had half the district's students going to school in the morning and the other half in the evening.
During the tenure of former LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer, who arrived in 2000, LAUSD's student enrollment peaked at nearly 750,000.
"When I got here in 2000 we were 150,000 seats short," Romer said. "It was an emergency."
Romer and the board promptly launched a campaign to raise school construction money through voter-approved bond sales. Since then the district has succeeded in getting four separate bond initiatives passed, raising billions of dollars in money.
"This district hadn't passed a bond in over 30 years," Romer said. "All the bonds were uphill battles ... but we established our reasons for asking for money and we showed we could be successful, that we could get it done."
LAUSD's building program is currently 60 percent complete, with 80 new schools set to be completed by this fall and 51 more to follow.
Still, it has not gone without glitches, including escalating construction and land costs. The district's management of the program has come under sharp criticism by tax watchdog groups, who accuse officials of misspending millions of dollars on consultants and other expenses the groups argue are not necessary.
LAUSD's declining enrollment has also led many to question the need for so many new schools.
Last fall the district's enrollment was just under 650,000 - 100,000 fewer students than six years ago - with more students fleeing to charter schools and private schools every year.
And while many hope the return of the traditional calendar will be a huge boon for test scores and graduation rates at the district, many are tempering their optimism due to the drastic budget cuts to public education since the onset of the economic crisis.
"Had the economy and school budget remained the same, we would have seen tremendous change," Korenstein said.
"But these cuts will force (student-to-teacher ratios) to increase dramatically from 38 to 1 in some high school classes to 45 to 1. ... The variables in play right now will have as much of a drastic impact on student achievement as multi-track year-round schools had."