In Partnership with The 74

Despite district rules, Haddon Elementary increases enrollment and decreases absenteeism with unique programs

Mike Szymanski | August 18, 2016



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Principal Richard Ramos with Dominga Verduzco.

Haddon Elementary Avenue School is so in demand that families want to drive their children across the San Fernando Valley from Granada Hills to attend the Pacoima school.

Haddon is not a charter school, it’s not a new pilot program and it’s not a magnet school (yet). It’s a traditional Title 1 district school in a low-income Latino neighborhood that has been there since 1926.

But it wasn’t always growing. And in fact it had to fight district rules that prohibited families from moving to the school.

Five years ago, parents were so fed up with the school that they initiated a “parent trigger” to try to take over the school from the district. The trigger was never pulled, and a new principal came in who brought programs students wanted, like a Mariachi class, a robotics program and an award-winning speech and debate team.

“We are certainly an anomaly in the district, and I’m learning now that part of my job is to figure out how to be competitive and promote the school,” said Haddon Principal Richard S. Ramos, who has worked with the charter school group Partnerships to Uplift Communities and on dozens of successful electoral campaigns, most recently for Robert Gonzales to the San Fernando City Council in 2012. “We have to figure out better ways to get the word out about what we’re doing that’s good in our schools.”

Soon students were clamoring to transfer to the school — a welcome change especially as without the new enrollment, the school faced a loss of teachers.

Then came the curve ball. District administrators said “No!” to the families who wanted to transfer to Haddon.

The district wouldn’t allow students to transfer because it wasn’t a pilot or magnet or charter school. Families weren’t allowed to leave their home schools to attend Haddon. One family was pleading to get in because their daughter loved robotics, and the parents were willing to drive nearly an hour every day to bring her to the school.

“They have parents wanting to come in, and I don’t understand why it’s not allowed?” school board member Monica Ratliff said at a board meeting this spring after she heard about the issue.

District administrators listened to Ratliff. They worked it out so that applicants could say they wanted to transfer to the school because similar programs were not offered at their home schools. Parents’ requests needed to include a waiver form that explained the programs offered at Haddon were not offered elsewhere.

Removing that roadblock resulted in unprecedented growth for the school unlike any other school in the area. The principal noted that Haddon has had increased enrollment for the past two years. In fact, he said that 39 of the new students he has this year are transferring from charter schools.

“We are in a time now where the entire district is seeing declining enrollment,” Ramos said on the first day of the new school year on Tuesday. For the past decade, the school enrollment was on a steady decline. The school now has an enrollment of more than 900, with a capacity of 960.

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Mariachis at Haddon. (Courtesy: Haddon)

Ratliff, who was at Haddon on Tuesday for the first day of school, said she was a bit irritated about the district’s initial response late in the school year.

“It should not be up to a board member to have to bring this up at a meeting to promote that a school is doing well,” Ratliff said. “Everyone on the administrative level should be helpful in a situation like this,” Ratliff added. “I’m glad the district was listening and no one stymied the efforts of this great principal.”

Ratliff pointed out that many principals at traditional district schools have great programs that no one hears about, and the district should be better at promoting those programs. She said charter schools do their own promotion and have learned to become competitive for students, so the district schools should too.

Monica Ratliff greets volunteers

Monica Ratliff greets volunteers on the first day of school.

“Our principals haven’t had time to promote their programs,” Ratliff said.

One solution for Haddon is that the school will apply to become a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Magnet Academy. That proposal will come before the school board in January. Ratliff said she would be stunned if it doesn’t get approved. When it becomes a magnet school, the school will have open enrollment and anyone can apply from within the district.

Superintendent Michelle King repeatedly brings up sharing best practices and touting and promoting district school successes. The LA Unified Communications Department launched LAUSD Daily last year and LAUSD Shines, which shares school successes. They place posters in schools and throughout the district to encourage principals, teachers, parents and students to share their stories.

“I am realizing I have to be competitive with our school,” Ramos said. “People don’t hear about our great programs unless they hear about it in the laundromat or at a soccer game.”

Before Ramos came to the school, parents at Haddon organized a parent union chapter to initiate a parent trigger and began gathering signatures in 2011, aided by Parent Revolution, which helps with parent trigger movements at failing schools.

But in January 2013, parents voted to put the process “on pause.” The following month, teachers at the school voted to institute a series of reforms by becoming a Local Initiative School, a reform model that allows some autonomy from district policies, such as in hiring.

“We were unhappy, and the district brought in a new principal and the parents are now happy,” said Dominga Verduzco, who was president of the parent chapter. “They implemented new programs and a curriculum and brought in a principal who puts kids first. We like what he is doing,” Verduzco said Tuesday as she helped give out school supplies donated by the nonprofit Rainbow Packs.

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Haddon’s speech and debate team. (Courtesy: Haddon)

This is the last year at the school for Verduzco’s fifth-grader, and she is proud of the changes she helped create.

The teachers voted 29 to 2 in favor of the STEAM program to come to the school, and Ramos said they all stepped up to improve the school curriculum. Test scores are still not up to par, with the latest scores showing English and math at 18 and 11 percent meeting or exceeding standards, respectively, and 5 percent chronically absent. They expect to see improvements soon.

“Some of the special programs we have are electives that kids don’t see until middle school,” Ramos said.

Not only are the Mariachi classes a big draw, but the students can choose gardening, cooking, computers and photography thanks to the nonprofit Woodcraft Rangers, which offers after-school activities and clubs that align with Common Core standards. Do It Yourself Girls also comes to campus and helps introduce girls to professions such as engineering, construction and other traditionally male professions.

Another plan Ramos has for the school is to make it a dual language school.

“Although most of the students are bilingual, it is not a good Spanish, it is more colloquial and they could benefit from a dual language program,” Ramos said.

He wants to get the school’s test scores up, but the principal said he already notes some major changes. The attendance rate is increasing, chronic absences are down, and even teacher attendance increased from 69 percent to 79 percent.

This year, the school has a new director for the parent center, and the school was picked to be part of the Early Language Literacy Plan that works to make sure students read by third grade. The school is also starting a new Eureka math program — and explaining all the changes to parents along the way.

“People are wanting to come to school, and that’s a good thing,” Ramos said.

Meanwhile, Ratliff, who is running for Los Angeles City Council and will be leaving the school board, said she hopes the district will take note of the successes at Haddon.

“People do a lot of head nodding at the district level, but all administrators should be on the same page with helping schools like this succeed,” Ratliff said.

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