LOS ANGELES — The federal government's push for drastic reforms at chronically low achieving schools has led to takeovers by charter operators, overhauls of staff and curriculum, and even school shutdowns across the country.
It's also generated a growing backlash among the mostly low-income, minority communities where some see the reforms as not only disruptive in struggling neighborhoods, but also as civil rights violations since turnaround efforts primarily affect black and Latino students.
"Our concern is that these reforms have further destabilized our communities," said Jitu Brown, education organizer of Chicago's Kenwood-Oakwood Community Organization. "It's clear there's a different set of rules for African-American and Latino children than for their white counterparts."
The U.S. Department of Education's civil rights office has opened investigations into 33 complaints from parents and community members, representing 29 school districts ranging from big city systems such as Chicago, Detroit and Washington D.C. to smaller cities including Wichita and Ambler, Penn., said spokesman Daren Briscoe. Two additional complaints are under evaluation, and more cities, including Los Angeles, are preparing their filings.
Last week, Secretary Arne Duncan fielded complaints at a public forum in Washington. The forum was attended by some 250 people who boarded buses, vans and planes from around the country to demand a moratorium on school closings and present a reform model that calls for more community input, among other items.
The recurrent theme is that communities are fed up with substandard education, but want solutions that will not create upheaval at the schools, which are often seen as pillars of stability in neighborhoods where social fabric is fragile.
Instead of focusing on dramatically changing the structure of a school, officials should invest in improving teaching, learning, equipment, and community engagement, which happens more often at schools in white, affluent neighborhoods, Brown said.
"But the response of the school district is to throw a grenade into our schools," Brown said.
Reformers say civil rights complaints are misguided because school failure disproportionately impacts minorities in the first place. Turnarounds are efforts to improve that, said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.
However, he noted that turnarounds are often a "Band-Aid solution. Most of the turnarounds aren't going to succeed because the school continues to exist in a dysfunctional school system. Radical change at the district may be what's needed."
Federal officials said they are open to working with communities to lessen the impact of turnarounds.
"On the ground, these policies can have an impact we don't see," Briscoe said. "But there's no promise that we'll be able to satisfy all people."
Overhauling the nation's 5,000 lowest-performing schools is a cornerstone of the Obama administration's education policy. To do that, the federal government revamped the existing School Improvement Grant program, boosting it from a $125 million annual initiative in 2007 to $535 million for the current school year.
Under the renewed program, which launched in 2010 with a onetime $3.5 billion infusion, districts receive grants to institute one of four school jumpstart models. They can turn the school over to a charter or other operator, replace at least half of the staff and principal, transform the school with a new principal and learning strategy, or simply close the school. Improvement schools can receive up to $2 million annually for three years.
Results have been mixed.
In Chicago, where the nation's third largest school system has undertaken one of the more extensive turnaround programs, a study of 36 schools by the University of Chicago found some improvement in academic achievement in elementary and middle schools but not until the second or third year of either a principal or staff replacement or a charter conversion.
"They're closing the gap but it's taking some time to do so," said Marisa de la Torre, who directed the study.
With high schools, researchers did not have academic data to parse, so instead looked at attendance rates, which are often a good indicator of performance, de la Torre said. Attendance rates improved in the first year of a turnaround, but then reverted to pre-turnaround rates. "We can't really say if the glass is half full or half empty," de la Torre said.
A study released last May found graduation rates and college-prep course participation increased dramatically at a Los Angeles high school in the Watts section taken over by charter Green Dot Public Schools in 2008. The National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing called the new Locke High School "an impressive success story in many ways," but noted overall achievement remains low.
To boost academic performance, Green Dot now plans to revamp its ninth-grade curriculum to offer more remedial help and open a middle school to better prepare kids for high school.
With no guarantee that turnarounds produce solid results quickly, some question whether drastic reform is worth the disruption, and whether less radical changes could work as well given adequate time and funding.
"We take issue with experimental reforms such as these when it is only children of color who are the subject of the experiment and especially when the experiment has already failed," wrote Jonathan Stith of Empower DC in his federal complaint about Washington D.C. schools.
Staff replacements have proven especially problematic at schools where teachers have to reapply for their jobs. Many don't reapply out of resentment and it's hard to find experienced teachers who want to work in an urban classroom.
A study by the National Education Policy Center found that in turnaround schools in Louisville, Ken., 40 percent of teachers were fresh out of college. Other reformed schools have had to start off with substitutes.
"Teachers are like their surrogate parents," said Christina Lewis, a special education teacher at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, where teachers will have to reapply for jobs in the fall when the school is converted to a magnet. "I'm so afraid that teachers who have put their hearts and souls into their jobs won't return next year. We just need stability and resources."
Experts also note that impoverished children often rely on schools for meals, positive role models, and mentors for personal issues, as well as education. Trust built with familiar faces in the school community gets severed by drastic reforms, said John Rogers, director at the University of California Los Angeles' Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.
Several students at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, where teachers must reapply for their jobs when the school is converted to a magnet program next fall, said it was disconcerting not to know who or what to expect.
"We have a lot of kids in foster care. Their lives are changing all the time," said Crenshaw student Anita Parker. "We have teachers who ask me if I need to talk. We have teachers who care about us."
The prospect of a civil rights complaint does not faze Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy, who has several high schools on his turnaround list. For Deasy, the real civil rights issue is that these schools have been allowed to fail for so long.
Crenshaw High School, the turnaround that is spurring community advocates to file the complaint, is the lowest performing school in the nation's second-largest system, a fact that Deasy called "immoral" at a recent school board meeting.
Just three percent of students are proficient in math and 17 percent in reading. Just 37 percent of students attend school 96 percent of the time. Just half of the class of 2012 graduated.
"Students aren't learning. Students aren't graduating," he said. "The purpose of this decision is to make sure Crenshaw gets dramatically and fundamentally better."
School board member Marguerite P. LaMotte, the board's only black member who represents the Crenshaw area, said she was angry that every effort to reform Crenshaw had gone nowhere and civil rights was about improving the school: "We have got to change something at Crenshaw for the better."
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