Sunday, August 28, 2011


By Rob Kuznia Staff Writer - Daily Breeze |

,<< When Leuzinger High students return to school on Monday, they will be welcomed with a state of the art addition which features 44 new classrooms. (SCOTT VARLEY)

08/28/2011 - all the talk of doom and gloom in the world of education, most K-12 schools in the South Bay are poised to begin the 2011-12 school year having suffered only an incremental erosion of resources rather than cataclysmic cuts.

But that's only because many districts already have made the deep reductions necessary to weather the shift in the economic climate. In Torrance Unified, for instance, the "doom and gloom" scenario has already arrived. Others, such as El Segundo Unified, are dipping into reserves to hold it together.

The lucky ones, such as Manhattan Beach Unified, are the beneficiaries of increasingly generous campaigns to maintain programs in spite of dwindling state dollars.

That's not to say things won't get worse. There's good reason to believe California's beleaguered K-12 school system is in the eye of the storm, with a round of midyear cuts - the worst kind - looming on the horizon.

This could mean shortening the length of the school year by up to seven more days. That's on top of the five school days that already have vanished at Torrance and many other South Bay districts.

The first day of school varies by district, starting as early as Monday for the Centinela Valley high school district serving Lawndale, Hawthorne and Leuzinger high schools, and as late as Sept. 8 for all schools in Torrance Unified.

Meanwhile, when it comes to school construction in the South Bay, one could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. Several gleaming new structures are ready for business: The completely rebuilt plant at Hull Middle School in Torrance, an entirely new high school near Carson, and a stunning wing containing two-thirds of the campus at 80-year-old Leuzinger High in Lawndale.

At Redondo Union High School, a state-of-the-art gymnasium is slated to open in March. Crews also will rebuild the cafeteria, which was bulldozed this summer, meaning students next year will grab lunch at various pushcarts around campus.

In El Segundo, the high school will enjoy a newly renovated auditorium and stadium.

But these are the products of local voter-approved bond measures generating millions of dollars that can be spent only on construction. By law, that money cannot be spent to hire teachers.

Not all South Bay districts are avoiding deep cuts.

The K-8 Hawthorne school district is letting go of 13 teachers, the deepest layoff there in at least two decades, said Shelley Rose, the district's assistant superintendent of administrative services. Because of declining enrollment, class sizes there are not expected to increase.

Redondo Beach Unified is taking a unique approach to the uncertainty surrounding midyear cuts. Essentially, the district has given half-year contracts to 30 temporary elementary school teachers. If midyear cuts are necessary, those teachers will be let go in February, and class sizes in grades K-3 will rise from 25 to about 30.

"These are very unusual times," said Nancy Billinger, the district's assistant superintendent of human resources. "It really requires us to think outside the box for ways to protect ourselves, because we don't have definitive information about the budget."

Schools expand offerings

Despite all the cutbacks, schools still are managing to change with the times.

In Manhattan Beach, the middle school is adding Mandarin Chinese to the short menu of foreign languages offered, the others being French and Spanish. The Mandarin class will have a video conference component, with Manhattan Beach students interacting in real time with peers on the other side of the globe.

Manhattan Beach Middle School also will launch an elective science and math class exclusively for boys. Last year the district created a course for girls, due to research showing a disproportionately low number of females in the sciences, said district spokeswoman Carolyn Seaton.

"We just felt we wanted the boys to have the same opportunity," she said.

In Hawthorne, largely in an effort to compete in an era of school choice sparked by the charter movement, the K-8 district has reconstituted the curriculum at its three middle schools, turning each into a learning academy with a specific focus.

The theme at Bud Carson Middle School will be science, math, engineering and technology (widely known as STEM). Hawthorne Middle will be the business academy; Prairie Vista Middle, the new performing-arts academy.

"We are seeing more high schools that have a focus on things like math and science, or performing arts," said Superintendent Helen Morgan. "This just gives the kids a leg up to help them decide where they want to put their focus."

In many cases, schools are becoming more technologically wired even as they make do with fewer humans to teach the classes.

The Torrance Unified School District has lost 400 teachers in four years, causing class sizes to soar.

The district hit a milestone this summer, installing wireless technology in every school that didn't already have it, courtesy of the Torrance Education Foundation

At Hull Middle School in Torrance, every new classroom is furnished with a smartboard, a document camera and an LCD projector. At Leuzinger, teachers will have all that, as well as a handheld digital slate that can be passed around the classroom, on which students can work out problems, with the results being posted on the large board at the front of the room.

This means no more making the dreaded walk to the front of the room to demonstrate one's knowledge.

Da Vinci School in Hawthorne is piloting a project in which students will use tablet computers instead of textbooks for some classes. Manhattan Beach Unified is rolling out a similar program with iPads, providing dozens of them to every K-12 school in the district.

The fall is also bringing two brand-new schools to the South Bay.

One of them, the K-8 Da Vinci Innovation Academy in Hawthorne, is a testament to the growing popularity of both charter schools and home- schooling. The school, which enrolls 215 students, is a kind of hybrid between home-schooling and traditional classroom education.

The other, Rancho Dominguez Preparatory School, is a four-story structure in Long Beach, just over the border from Carson. The Los Angeles Unified school will host grades six through 12 in four separate academies, drawing students from Carson and Wilmington. That means fewer students at Carson High and Banning High, which are both making adjustments.

The changes will extend into the cafeteria.

On Monday, Los Angeles Unified will unveil a healthier school lunch menu with a media preview at the new Rancho Dominguez school.

The district, which got a lot of attention when it moved to stop serving chocolate and strawberry milk this year, will offer more vegetarian and "ethnic" food options on a menu it's touting as "student-driven." Former Laker A.C. Green will be at the event Monday, which will push a broader wellness campaign for LAUSD students.

Although most South Bay school districts were spared the bloodbath of prior years, at many of them a familiar game of fire-and-rehire played out as school leaders struggled to make sense of the foggiest budget situation in memory.

Layoffs are often offset

Of the 60 teachers to receive a pink slip in the Centinela Valley high school district serving Lawndale and Hawthorne, all but a dozen or so were either called back or found teaching jobs outside the district, teachers union President Jack Foreman said.

"This is the same story we see played out over and over again," he said. "They talk about doing these massive layoffs, that there's going to be doom and gloom. ... Some (teachers) wind up looking for other jobs and the vast majority get called back."

Even in Hawthorne, where 13 of about 430 teachers have been let go, the district has called back the majority of the 55 teachers initially laid off. And even more could return, depending on the size of enrollment, Rose said.

In the Torrance Unified School District, of the 46 teachers let go, 24 were called back. This year, unlike years past, the layoffs had more to do with declining enrollment than dwindling state funds. As a result, class sizes aren't expected to rise. But they've already reached historic highs, with middle and high schools packing 40-plus students in the classroom on average.

Also in Torrance, high schools have cut the number of guidance counselors from five to three.

In the K-8 Lawndale school district, Superintendent Ellen Dougherty said no tenured teachers will be laid off, and there will be no furlough days. In June, the Lawndale and Hawthorne districts were included on a California Department of Education list of districts facing severe financial problems. But both districts are now off the list.

"I think we're going to be OK this year," Dougherty said. "We had a very large reserve. It keeps going down, down, down."

Statewide, the dreaded midyear trigger cuts will be necessary in the K-12 schools should tax receipts fall at least $4 billion below projections.

So far, it doesn't look good: One month into the fiscal year, the state is on pace to fall

$7 billion short.

Torrance has stashed away a sizable rainy day fund, and so will not have to make midyear cuts even if the state deems it necessary.

"On top of that, we have this whole federal mess," said George Mannon, superintendent of the Torrance Unified School District. "Is that going to affect the state of California? My guess is that it is. We are really living in a very volatile time right now."

Staff writer Melissa Pamer contributed to this article.

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