Steve Lopez /LA Times Columnist | http://lat.ms/eMTeF6
Melanie Lundquist and her developer husband, Richard, pledged in 2007 to give $5 million a year for 10 years to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. (Deidre Davidson / Torrance Memorial Medical Center / August 14, 2009)
December 8, 2010 - In late November, roughly 60 Los Angeles teachers and administrators jetted off to New York to study reforms in that city's public schools. How could they afford a three-day excursion with midtown Manhattan lodging prices, even as 1,000 L.A. Unified employees got the ax?
The answer has a lot to do with the $50-million woman, Melanie Lundquist.
"Teachers are underappreciated and undervalued, with very little professional development available," said Lundquist, whose generosity has helped pay for trips to New York two years in a row.
Lundquist and her husband, real estate developer Richard, pledged in 2007 to give $5 million a year to the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools for 10 years. The group, spearheaded by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, aims to turn around a cluster of the district's lowest-performing schools. The Lundquists are now $15 million into their commitment, and Melanie and I met last week to talk about how it's going.
The last time I saw Lundquist, in August 2009, her outlook was rosy despite a rough start for the partnership. The mayor's insistence that he could do better than L.A. Unified at running the schools was starting to seem doubtful in the face of continuing low test scores, and teachers had passed no-confidence votes at eight of the 10 partnership schools.
More than a year later, it's still a mixed bag, but looking better. Academic Performance Index scores are up an average of 36 points over the last two years at the partnership schools, seven points more of a gain than the district average.
Lundquist says fixing schools is more about attitude and expectations than money, and since school funding may shrink, we need to find practical reforms. For sure, but it's easier to get started on those reforms with a $50-million gift, and the other 700 L.A. schools don't have that.
Still, I was eager to see what the schools have accomplished, so last week I went with the mayor's chief of staff, Jeff Carr, to meet up with Lundquist at 99th Street Elementary, one of the jewels of the partnership.
Here's what I found there:
A bulletin board celebrating the school's soaring API test scores, another board showing that 96% of all students had a parent attend at least one academic event last year, a weed patch that's been turned into a community garden, and a principal who couldn't believe the line of people trying to transfer their kids into a school that had been given up for lost a few years ago.
"With the partnership, there's much more support," said Principal Sherri Williams, who told me there's less administrative hassle than she had at her previous assignment as assistant principal at a non-partnership school.
We dropped in on a fourth-grade class, taught by Courtney Moore, in which a student was instructed to get up, walk over and quietly welcome us to class. He whispered that they were learning division by approximation, which the kids appeared to understand. Carr and I, on the other hand, were lost.
Monica Rangel, a mom I met in the school's parent lounge, was pasting class photos onto a poster. She said she and other parents had picketed to get rid of the previous principal, and Williams is a vast improvement.
Parents weren't welcome on campus at one time, Rangel said. Now they're welcomed and put to work as volunteers, and student enrollment has gone from 480 to 600.
"I could not be more pleased with the progress," said Lundquist, who added that Williams has a talent for motivating teachers, students and parents, and for getting financial support from local businesses.
It's been rockier at Markham Middle School, our next stop. Markham is surrounded by housing projects and gangs, and a large percentage of students are from foster homes. Only 15% of second-year students rank as proficient, and 30% of the teachers are substitutes. That last number could change with a recent lawsuit settlement aimed at preventing low-performing schools from having to endure huge teacher turnover during cutbacks.
Brand-new Principal Paul Hernandez spoke as if he was lucky to have so daunting a challenge. He said he's big on data, and despite some early wariness, the school's union reps have been on board as teachers review test scores every two weeks to chart student progress.
Hernandez has a "Do-Now" requirement in which students have to start working on the assignment written on the board as soon as they sit down. In one class, eighth-grade history teacher Raymond Velasco's board assignment asked students what would happen if Congress and the president signed off on a bill outlawing religious speech outside of churches.
"They go to the Supreme Court because the law is against the Constitution," the student nearest me wrote in her notebook.
English teacher Mena Webster, who went on the New York trip and has been at Markham more than 20 years, said the campus is calmer than it used to be, and she no longer has to go looking for administrators if she needs support.
"They're right here with us," she said.
Two kids walked up to me between classes and shook my hand, welcoming me to Markham. I asked where they planned to go to college.
UCLA, said Denzel Gordon.
Harvard, said Jerome Jones.
Melanie Lundquist was smiling.