Roosevelt High School. / Photo by Andrew Roman
Roosevelt High School. / Photo by Andrew Roman

The attempt by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to improve academic performance in underperforming schools has brought many changes and even controversy to Theodore Roosevelt High School, which has been transformed by the non-profit education organization backed by the mayor.

The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (PLAS), a project of the Los Angeles Unified School District and the City of Los Angeles, was founded in 2007 to improve test scores, diminish dropout rates, and raise graduation rates in 10 underperforming schools in Los Angeles. PLAS now manages 22 schools, including the seven schools within a school at Roosevelt. PLAS also manages Hollenbeck and Stevenson middle schools and Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center, a high school, all in Boyle Heights.

When PLAS started managing Roosevelt in 2008, the school was already composed of 12 small learning communities and followed a year-round schedule to ease over-crowding. In 2010, the school was split into seven distinct schools, each with its own academic focus, ranging from science to politics to math to technology, making it unique in the district.

Roosevelt High School is the umbrella name for all seven schools. Collectively, Roosevelt had about 4,600 students in the 2008-2009 school year, but the population dropped to 3,045 in the current school year because of the opening of nearby Mendez and Esteban E. Torres high schools.

For years before the PLAS reforms, Roosevelt had a reputation for poor performance. Before PLAS took over, only 40 percent of Roosevelt students graduated in four years. Its Academic Performance Index (API) score was 551, far below the statewide performance target of 800.

In 2007, the majority of Roosevelt High School faculty, staff, and parents approved the Villaraigosa plan for PLAS to run Roosevelt in a vote organized by the school district. PLAS’s goals include improving academic performance in English/Language Arts and Math, raising API scores, decreasing the dropout rate, and improving attendance.

Three years after the takeover, there are mixed feeling about the changes imposed by PLAS.

There have been some measurable academic improvements. PLAS reports that API scores at Roosevelt’s schools have gone up — with scores at individual schools now ranging from 524 to 724. Academic improvement also can be seen in California Standard Test (CST) scores. And the first-time pass rate for the California exit exam has gone up seven percentage points ”“ to 58 percent ”“ in three years.

And some students are enthusiastic, saying that the small school system allows for more personalized instruction.

Roosevelt High School has suffered major budgets cuts, resulting in teacher layoffs and less services. / Photo by Andrew Roman

Identity Issues
But others — including one third of 38 students who replied to a recent Boyle Heights Beat survey on Facebook — say they are unhappy with the small school system. Some even question whether Roosevelt’s identity as a school can survive being broken up into seven small schools.

“It creates superfluous competition,” one student said in the Facebook survey. “We have been divided which was once united,” another student replied.

While the small school idea sounds ideal in theory, many teachers are unhappy with its execution. In 2009, more than 90 percent of Roosevelt teachers gave PLAS a no confidence vote in a union-organized vote.

Today, several parents are trying to remove PLAS because they believe it’s been more destructive than helpful.

Schedule Challenges
Carlos Alvarez, a senior at the School of Communications, New Media, and Technology, believes that the school reforms have not helped him reach his educational goals. He was unable to take all the classes he wanted to this year because of scheduling challenges that he blames on the small school system.

Passporting — taking classes in another school — has become increasingly difficult because not all schools share the same bell schedule. Three schools have a six-period schedule, three schools have an eight-period schedule, and one school is off-campus.

Although the classes he was unable to take were not required, Alvarez said they would have made him a more competitive college applicant. “I wanted to challenge myself because I wanted to excel academically and graduate,” he said.

Alvarez is not alone. Last summer, Patrick Sinclair, PLAS senior director of communications and external affairs, conducted listening sessions and interviews with students, parents, and teachers. One of their major concerns, Sinclair said, was the lack of availability of classes due to the small schools’ different schedules. Other students complained that conflicting schedules made it difficult to participate in Roosevelt-wide extracurricular activities and athletics.

Sergio Ramos, a football player and student in the Math, Science, and Technology Magnet Academy, pointed out that students are released to their last period at different times, making it difficult for the coaches to schedule practices.

“In the beginning, the students in one schedule couldn’t make it to practice before a game, so the coaches were concerned because some of them were key players,” said Ramos. Teachers have come up with ways to deal with conflicting schedules, but say that it has been a difficult adjustment and that scheduling continues to pose problems.

PLAS officials point out that under the small school system, each school has the authority to develop its own bell schedule. According to Sinclair, all PLAS can do is advise schools to choose a common bell schedule, which many students believe is the solution.

“There were a lot of discussions about the ramifications of it,” Sinclair said, “but because the small school theory devolves all power down to the schools, every school across L.A. votes for the schedule they want””and that’s how we got to how we are right now.”

Proposed budget cuts are threatening academic offerings at Theodore Roosevelt High School next year. / Photo by Andrew Roman

Complaints about Communication
While PLAS has no control over bell schedules, it does have responsibility for other controversial aspects of the small school system. Some teachers have voiced their frustrations over the lack of technology promised by PLAS, including a laptop for every teacher. They also have criticized the partnership’s communication record, claiming that PLAS officials have not clearly outlined their plans for the school.

Irene Arreola, a parent and Roosevelt alumnus, said she lacked information about PLAS when it first took over Roosevelt. She says too many changes occurred too fast, confusing parents. Now, as a paid community representative for the school, she informs other parents about new programs and how they can get involved in their children’s education.
“It’s very important for a parent know where their children are at,” said Arreola. “A lot of parents are happy with the changes, but a lot are not. Nothing is going to get done”¦if you don’t get involved.”

Marshall Tuck, chief executive officer of PLAS, admits that the organization’s execution has been flawed, but says that PLAS has come up with new ways to involve principals, chapter chairs, and students in decision-making. Tuck and other PLAS representatives are available on campus once a week, and five of the seven small schools now have received the promised laptops or iPads for each teacher. PLAS also has provided laptop/iPad carts to each school for blended learning programs.

Like the rest of LAUSD, Roosevelt also has suffered major budget cuts in the last few years, resulting in teacher layoffs and cutbacks in services. Tuck says the decrease in funding since PLAS’s first year has affected its plans. Those cuts also caused resentment against PLAS, even when changes were outside of the organization’s control.

“You really feel it on things like campus aides, janitorial,” he said. “But you just have half the people you used to have, and you expect them to do the same kind of a job. It’s really difficult.”

Change Takes Time
Ben Gertner, principal of the School of Communications New Media and Technology, agrees that budget cuts on top of major changes have made the transition difficult for everyone. For a new educational program to work, a school needs time to adjust, he said. “It’s not something you’re going to see immediate results from. It’s a big change.”

Gertner says the new system is designed to focus on students who are struggling and to provide them with more personalized attention and more opportunities to interact with their teachers.

Sabrina Diaz says it’s working. “By having small schools, we have more one-on-one time with teachers,” the ninth grader said. “We also have a greater opportunity to communicate with the same teachers and students. Teachers within a small school even work together.”

Next year, the school district will review PLAS’s management at Roosevelt. In the meantime, says Arreola, if teachers, administrators, and parents continue to motivate students, they can make the school reforms work.

Although she understands why some people are discouraged by the changes, she says that Roosevelt’s history and pride should remain. “Roosevelt is still Roosevelt, even if there are seven schools. [Pride] is within yourself.”

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