Three-in-One Approach Gives Crenshaw a New Look for Success
Vanessa Romo | August 23, 2013
On the first day of school last week, students at Crenshaw High School showed up in uniform. It’s the first time the school has ever instituted a dress code, and Principal Remon Corley was relieved when about 90 percent of students walked through the campus’s blue gates dressed in gold, black, blue, and white polo shirts with coordinating khaki pants.
“It just shows how different things are going to be this year,” Corley said enthusiastically.
Indeed, there have been drastic changes at the low-income south central L.A. school.
After months of controversy and heated debate pitting parents and community leaders against LAUSD officials, including Superintendent John Deasy, Crenshaw has been transformed from a traditional high school into three smaller magnet schools – Visual and Performing Arts, Business and Entrepreneurship, and Science,Technology, Engineering, Math and Medicine – all under one roof.
New administrative offices have been built. Thirty three of last year’s 65 teachers have been replaced. And the daily academic schedule has been restructured to include an “advisory” period and 20 minutes of school-wide silent reading.
The overhaul is intended to solve a number of problems plaguing Crenshaw, a school of approximately 65 percent African-American students and 35 percent Latino — and 80 percent who receive free and reduced lunch. It’s also a school of woefully low student test scores, ranking among the lowest performing schools in California and LAUSD for the last 14 years, with a hemorrhaging of students to nearby public and charter schools and a revolving door of administrators who have contributed to a profound lack of leadership and continuity.
Corley, who returned to the helm of the school, said he can’t remember the last time a principal held the position for two full years. He hopes to be the first to break the streak. Since 2005, more than 30 administrators have filed in and out of the troubled school.
“Our goal, which is to give these kids the education that they deserve, hasn’t changed,” Corley said. “And the magnet program is going to allow us to implement a high quality practice that’s going to make a difference in the lives of students.”
But critics of the magnet conversion worry that Crenshaw’s 1,150 students are victims of the latest trend in education reform circles and that Deasy’s decision to change course will come at the expense of progress that was being made.
Over the last five years, Crenshaw was governed by the Greater Crenshaw Education Partnership, a coalition that included the Los Angeles Urban League, USC’s Rossier School of Education and LAUSD. They too, implemented a themed school-within-a-school reform plan known as the Extended Learning Cultural Model. The curriculum was built around addressing real life issues at school, in the community and with local businesses. ELCM gained national recognition from the Obama Administration and was supported by grants from the Ford Foundation and the Bradley Foundation.
That approach is now being set aside to pursue the magnet school model.
In a letter to her fellow union members Cathy Garcia, the UTLA Chapter Chair at Crenshaw, called the magnet conversion “fake reform” and accused Deasy of “cleverly” using the guise of conversion process to get rid of unwanted teachers. Teachers were required to reapply for their jobs.
Garcia said Deasy opted for conversion over reconstitution “because it brings in more resources and connotes positive change.” But, ultimately, she argued, it creates more destabilization.
George Bartleson, whom Deasy assigned to oversee the conversion of Crenshaw, denies anything so sinister.
“We needed to make an immediate change and our magnet schools have a great track record,” Bartleson said. “In fact, our magnet programs have been a model for other states.”
Bartleson is convinced that the magnet conversion is the right method to raise student achievement scores. Only 17 percent percent of students tested proficient in English Language Arts while just 4 percent proved proficient in math.
As evidence, he points to the gains made at nearby Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets, which was reconfigured in 2011-12. In the same year, English language proficiency rates bumped up to 44 percent from 37 percent while math proficiency remained steady at 11 percent.
Schools function best when they’re broken down into smaller learning communities, he said.
Under the new reorganization each magnet school is designed to handle 500 students though Corley said as of last week, only about 450 students had enrolled in the STEMM program, by far the most popular with parents. About 360 students had been admitted into the performing arts and the business and entrepreneurship programs.
When the idea to transform the school was initially proposed, Bartleson said he noticed a fear of academic rigor by both students and parents that he found “really troubling.” But after involving students, parents, alumni and community members in creating the criteria used during the selection process for candidates and educational programs, “everyone’s on-board.”
“We made it a home-grown transformation,” he said.
And, he insists, lessons learned from the Extended Learning Cultural Model will be incorporated into the new curriculum. The business magnet will continue to involve local business owners and seek relevant internships for students, and the Debbie Allen Arts Academy will continue to train performing arts students.
Bartleson says the conversion of Crenshaw into a magnet school is not the end of an era but rather the continuation of one.
“I am not stepping away,” he said, “and neither is Superintend Deasy. We are both committed to the success of Crenshaw. We are betting on it.”