Wednesday, February 29, 2012


By Barbara Jones, Staff Writer | LA Daily News |


Program Coordinator Elsa Perez helps Darion Debora, 8, with his homework at the Greig Smith LAPD Devonshire PALS Youth Center in Northridge on Feb. 28, 2012. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)

2/28/2012 08:01:06 PM PST  ::  Despite the school board's desire to end social promotion, Los Angeles Unified lacks the money and personnel to eliminate the practice of passing academically unprepared students to the next grade level, officials said.

The school board approved a resolution last July seeking a new policy to promote students to the next grade only if they meet academic milestones.

Although officials wanted the policy in place for the 2012-13 school year, the committee studying the issue has recommended indefinitely postponing any significant change because of the ongoing budget crisis.

Citing research that found little benefit in forcing a student to repeat a grade, the panel of district educators and parents discouraged student retention. And despite the constraints on money and personnel, they recommended making a greater effort to focus on struggling students before they get left behind.

"The committee felt very strongly that retention should be a last resort," Jaime Aquino, the deputy superintendent of instruction who oversaw the panel's work, said in an interview Tuesday. "We believe that professional development (of teachers) and early intervention (of students) will be more effective. We don't think that holding a student back will make a difference."

The staff recommendation was outlined Tuesday for the school board's Curriculum Committee and will be discussed further in upcoming sessions.

Social promotion is the term given to the unsanctioned practice of advancing students to the next grade level even if they are academically unprepared. While students who perform below grade level may be frustrated and at increased risk of dropping out, researchers say it is healthier for the youngsters' social development to remain with their peers.

Experts estimate that 7.5 percent of LAUSD's students have been retained for a year by third grade. The average child who is held back is a Latino boy who is younger than most of

Seven Nelms, 8, left, and Juliana Francisco, 8, work on their homework at the Greig Smith LAPD Devonshire PALS Youth Center in Northridge on Feb. 28, 2012. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)

his classmates, is from a low-income family, and is an English-language learner with poor reading skills, according to the LAUSD staff report.

With the district facing a budget shortfall of some $500 million for the next school year, Aquino conceded there will be no money available to invest in additional resources. The budget-balancing plan now in the works shows across-the-board increases in class size, and no indication that summer school will be revived.

Instead, he said, administrators are identifying effective techniques that can be shared with teachers around the district to help bolster student achievement.

Napa Elementary Principal Victoria Christie can attest to the value of providing intense, personalized instruction for struggling students. Her Northridge campus saw its Academic Performance Index score jump from 668 in 2010 to 798 last year, an improvement she attributes to focused teaching and early intervention.

Two years ago, she said, the school intensified its curriculum in an effort to score well on the API, a standardized test administered to schools throughout California.

Teachers and aides reviewed student test data, then worked with struggling students in small skills-building workshops -- one of the techniques advocated by Aquino.

In addition, students also were able to get homework help from tutors volunteering at the Greig Smith Devonshire PALS Youth Center, which opened in 2009 near the Napa campus.

"When you give them that extra scoop of instruction so they understand a standard or skill, you can really get results," Christie said. "If we see them responding to the intervention, we keep going. If they're not responding, then we change the materials or methods.

"We keep a close eye on the measurements to see whether they're making progress."

Christie said the improved skills that helped boost the API scores among the primary grades are reaping benefits as the students are promoted to higher grades, with higher levels of proficiency in math and English-language arts among the 75 percent of Napa students who are English-language learners.

Christie also gave a lot of credit to the PALS tutors, who see their work as backstopping the teachers at Napa Elementary and other schools located around the privately funded drop-in center. From 1-6 p.m. weekdays, retired teachers, education interns from California State University Northridge and Pierce College are available to anyone who asks for help.

"The teachers work hard, but they don't always have the resources they need. We help fill the gap for what's missing," said Sue Bruno, the center's executive administrator. "We'll sit down with the kids in small groups or in one-on-one sessions.

"Sometimes, the kids just need a sharp pencil and someone to encourage them."

Given Los Angeles Unified's financial problems and its dearth of new resources, the district is going to be looking for innovative ways to strengthen its teaching corps.

A planned reorganization that will streamline the central administration and place more experienced educators in the classroom will help, Aquino said.

The district also is training its teachers for the implementation of the Common Core Standards system in 2014. The program will take effect statewide in 2014, and will set specific academic benchmarks for each grade level -- a system he said will actually give teachers more time to work with struggling students.

"The Chinese word for `crisis' is spelled with two characters," Aquino said. "The first character means `danger' and the second, `opportunity.' So in every dangerous situation lies opportunity.

"The financial crisis is an opportunity for us to rethink the way we do our work."


smf notes:  "The Chinese word for `danger' is spelled with three characters," smf said. "The first two characters mean`two women' and the third places them in a single house.  So every Chinese pictogram offers a clichéd  philosophical metaphor.”

Please: When you fly into a cloud’s silver lining in the shiny optimistic airplane you are building in flight without a blueprint or a budget – or a parachute - you are in trouble!

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