Track system at Manual Arts eases overcrowding, hinders student performance

imageLos Angeles has some major issues. Traffic is one. The state budget’s another. But unbeknownst to many Angelenos, is the chaos that is the year-round schedule of many schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Students relish that spring day when they walk out of their school’s doors and don’t look back until early September. But for two thirds of all Los Angeles high school-aged, public school students, the idea of summer vacation, is well, just an idea.

Starting in 1974 and coinciding with a rise in student enrollment that lasted three decades—almost 750,000 students attended a public school in Los Angeles in 2000—elementary, middle and high schools implemented a track system. Tracks—labeled A, B, C and sometimes D—organized the school year so that up to one third of the student body was always on break—whether it was April or August.

A year-round schedule was the best option for school districts with such rapid growth—such as L.A. Unified, according to 1997 an analysis by the Education Commission of the State (ECS), a Denver–based nonpartisan education research organization that first studied year-round schooling more than a decade ago just as the idea was introduced in U.S. schools.

“It was a poor, quick fix,” said Tom Roddy, who has been a teacher in the district for almost a decade. “It was done as a stopgap, and they did a poor job of it.”

Roddy is a currently journalism teacher at Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles.

“A traditional school has 182 instructional days,” he said. “With the tracks, we have 160. Twenty-two less days for instruction really adds up. Not to mention after having two months off twice a year, we end up having to go over a lot.”

In 2006, the passage of the Williams Settlement Legislation required that all students have access to adequate learning materials, such as textbooks, access to clean, safe and functional facilities, and that all teachers are appropriately assigned and have the proper certification or training for their assignment, especially those in classrooms with 20 percent or more English learners.

To fulfill these requirements, L.A. Unified needed to ease overcrowding by building more schools, in turn being able to put all schools on a traditional schedule.

“I think it will help tremendously,” said Nisha Dugal, interim principal at Manual Arts High School. “We are constantly battling low test scores. It’s easy to see why, when we have students on A track coming back to school from two months off on March 7th. Their high school exit exams are March 8th and 9th. It just doesn’t work.”

A Problematic System

According to the ECS findings on year-round schooling, every case study was different: “In some cases, year-round schools have led to an increase in student achievement. Conversely, levels of student achievement have decreased in other instances.”

Though enrollment has slowly waned, with 100,000 fewer L.A. Unified pupils than in 2000, the education budget crisis in California has taken a toll on swift progress.

Had the economy and school budget remained the same, the change back to a traditional school year would have happened much more quickly, but the district just didn’t have the funds to create the space to have all students on a September-June schedule.

Yet as L.A. Unified slowly moves back to a more traditional 9-month academic schedule, not everyone is happy about it.

Jovana Urrutia, an 18-year-old senior at Manual Arts, likes the tracks.

“The track system is a good thing. With a school of over 3,000 students, it’s nice that it’s not so crowded during the year. I can do Intersession too and catch up on everything,” Urrutia said.

Intersession, much like summer school, was something L.A. Unified initiated so that students could catch up on some of the school days they lost due to the tracks. “We have about 200 kids out of 3,000 attending Intersession and exam prep. I wish I could say there were more, but I can’t force them to go,” said interim principal Dugal.

“I stay more focused,” Urrutia said, in defense of the track system.

Yet, she admitted that the all the tracks are not equal.

“A track is the most crowded, because kids really want to be on a normal schedule. You can really only get a summer job if you are on A track,” Urrutia added.

For parents with children in different schools, the track system proves troublesome.

“Originally the tracks were based by city block, to help with truancy, and to keep families together on the same tracks, even at different schools,” Dugal said. “But now it’s really about numbers.

Students at Manual Arts who have siblings at our feeder middle schools—who are a traditional schedule—may not have the same vacation. It makes things difficult.”

Easing the Overcrowding

The light at the end of the tunnel for Manual Arts and other high schools in the area is that they know help is on the way. West Adams, a high school near Manual Arts, is almost finished with its school year and ready to take up to 600 of Manual Arts’ students.

“They will relieve us a little, but we will still have a high school with 2,400 students. That’s a lot,” Dugal said.

As per the new L.A. Unified policy, schools are mandated to go to a traditional September to May schedule, which will force many students to newer surrounding high schools. Dugal said that students would be reassigned based on where they lived.

Roddy, the Manual Arts journalism teacher, emphasized the need for more space.

“There hadn’t been a school built in Los Angeles in 30-some-odd years,” Roddy said. “The school can’t close down for more than a day or two for repairs, nothing gets really clean.”

Dugal seconded this fact, but added that this year the school was able to shut for a full week over Christmas, to do maintenance and spruce up the school. Roddy concluded it was much-needed rare occurrence.

Superintendent Ramon Cortines also proposed that many schools start earlier as well, creating yet another change to try and improve student test scores. Based on a trial of 17 high schools in L.A. Unified, Cortines wanted to have early start, saying that kids had more time to prepare for the exit exams and letting them out earlier in June was met with much backlash from parents who already had summer plans in place. Though this has nothing to do with the new traditional schedule, Cortines is grasping for just about anything to improve test scores.

On top of building more schools and switching to a traditional September through June school year, Cortines is facing a plethora of budgeting concerns and taking heat most recently from parents frustrated with the flip-flopping of scheduling for next school year.

Cortines has since pushed his plan back a year, to 2012, giving the district two huge changes in their education system in one year, which has the potential to make it hard to figure out if either one is working to boost test scores.

Ultimately, the push for a traditional schedule will help all involved, especially the students. Whether more budget cuts will reduce the number of teachers and new buildings is still unknown. Dugal is hopeful.

“Because of the new school in our area, we hopefully will just be moving teachers, not terminating them,” she said.

Community gathers to spread word on Props 24 and 25


imageMembers of the South Los Angeles community gathered Saturday to be part of over 200,000 people throughout California to walk in neighborhoods to educate residents on Propositions 24 and 25. Prop. 24 would repeal corporate tax loopholes and restore over one billion dollars to the state budget. Prop. 25 would establish a simple majority for passing the state budget, rather than the two-thirds vote California currently has.

Both Propositions, if passed, would ultimately bring more money to the education budget of the state.

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It was a Saturday morning four days before the midterm election and 40 people gathered on a cement patio outside a building on Florence Avenue in South Los Angeles. Community members, teachers and students gathered at the offices at the community organization SCOPE (Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education.) They have one common goal: to create change in California.

They hope change will come with Propositions 24 and 25. Two of the many Props on the midterm ballot. Prop. 24 would repeal corporate tax loopholes and restore over one billion dollars to the state budget. Prop. 25 would establish a simple majority for passing the state budget, rather than the two-thirds vote California currently has.

Andrew Carrillo gave up his Saturday to walk precincts. He’s a teacher at 32nd Street USC Magnet. He says he hasn’t canvassed since 1982 but these propositions pushed him to get the word out.

“They are important to me because our government is dysfunctional. This is a small small step, but an important step to make it a little more functional.”

Many of the students and teachers walking on Saturday had one agenda: get more money for education. It’s no secret California’s economy is in disarray. And a budget in the red affects schools.

Michael Husinger was one student self-motivated to walk on Saturday. He’s a 15 year old from Crenshaw High School. He says Props 24 and 25 give him the chance for a better education.

“Well one, it improves the schools, so better education for me, and also for my family like my little brother and sisters and everything.”

Husinger is in the Social Justice and Law Academy so politics is a big draw for him. He and his classmates were part of a larger group of over 200,000 people were working over the weekend to get out the vote. Teacher and activist David Rapkin believes there is power in numbers.

“The differences that usually keep us separate need to be broken down. There is nothing like students and teachers walking together to symbolize that and create a reality.”

If Props 24 and 25 pass, the state is bound to direct more money to schools.

USC president visits Foshay Learning Center

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Tucked away in the annex of the James A. Foshay Learning Center off Exposition Boulevard in South Los Angeles is a program teaching students not only about creativity and art, but also about finance, public relations and business management. Room 13, as it is called, is a self-sustaining art program that not only teaches students about art, but also how to promote and sell their work.

Foshay teacher John Midby has been with the project since its inception at the school. The students work with him and the school’s artist in residence to create and sell works. The University of Southern California President C.L. Max Nikias visited Room 13 as part of a tour Monday morning. Midby is pleased with current partnerships with the school, but in the future, he hopes to expand to more schools.

Starting Dec. 10, the students will team up for a gallery show at Hold Up Art with University of Southern California alum Brian Lee. The proceeds of the event will benefit both the gallery and Room 13.

Breast cancer survivors speak out about the deadly disease

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Breast cancer is the second most common cancer, after skin cancer, in women. The chance of a woman having invasive breast cancer some time in her life is less than one in eight.

In an effort to support National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, The South Los Angeles Report visited and listened to stories from women affected by the disease. The Women of Color Breast Cancer Survivors Support Group is made up of cancer survivors, supporters of cancer survivors and those currently receiving treatment for cancer.


Housed in a dilapidated medical building on a sleepy street in Inglewood, the Women of Color Breast Cancer Survivors Support Group works to educate women on a cancer that kills one woman in the United States every 15 minutes.

“I didn’t know black women got breast cancer,” said Happy Johnson, who was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in 1998. “I never saw someone who looked like me on a poster.”

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The women gathered to tell their stories in hopes that more black and Hispanic women will realize breast cancer can happen to them.

“Early detection is key,” said two-year survivor Mary Battle. “I am a witness of that.”

Battle was diagnosed at the age of 60 with Stage 0 breast cancer, the least aggressive form of the disease.

“I am the third straight generation in my family affected with cancer,” Battle said.

Battle had a double mastectomy a month after she was diagnosed.

“I wasn’t fooling around,” she said.

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Marva Cobb, whose mother died of breast cancer in 1996, was diagnosed in 2004. Cobb immediately turned to the Women of Color Breast Cancer Survivors Support Group, a group that offered so much support to her mother.

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Students and volunteers reflect on trip to Washington

image“Students will actually benefit from this program, people start to look up to these students,” Daniel Reyes said, an alum of Crenshaw High School who works with the program Mother of Many and was one of the 18 students that went to the White House this past September.

The group, who is made up of students both from Crenshaw’s Digital Media Team and Cooking Live with Dorsey High raised all the money themselves through fundraisers and drives.

“We got to meet with President Barack Obama’s Digital Web team, we met with the First Lady’s nutrition campaign, the ‘Let’s Move’ campaign and we got to see her garden, which was very cool,” said Mother of Many board member Lauri Burrier.

The students were so inspired that they want to start their own First Lady Garden on a already existing 2.5 acre plot at Crenshaw. Mother of Many served healthy popcorn at the Taste of Soul Festival on Crenshaw Boulevard October 16.

“Our big dream is to start a farmers market that would work with the community, so we really want to get out into the community to give the kids more incentive to feel an involvement and feel leadership in their community and stay in school and go to college,” Burrier said.

Workers raise awareness about high level of unemployment

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On a Saturday morning in South Los Angeles, construction workers gathered to help spruce up the Paul Robeson Community Center. They also wanted to raise awareness about the high level of unemployment, especially among black workers.

The Paul Robeson Center, known for its longstanding commitment to youth in the community, gave space to the Black Workers Center in Los Angeles, free of charge, in exchange for time to make much-needed upgrades to the community center.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas showed support for the day of service. He pledged he would help bring jobs to the community. There is more than $2 million in construction jobs that await Los Angeles County.

Of the nine percent of African-Americans who reside in Los Angeles County, about 30 percent are in low-wage jobs. Another 20 percent did not work last year.

The day was hot, but it also served as a reminder that there is a need for more jobs in Los Angeles.

Family pleads for information about daughter’s murder

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Shaquana Watson, 23, was shot and killed Tuesday, July 27. She was gunned down on the 5300 block of South Broadway in the South Park area of Los Angeles.

Watson died from gunshot wound complications. The shooter supposedly intended to hit two African-American males who stood on the sidewalk near the parked car Watson was in. Police have few leads, but there is one picture from a surveillance camera. The picture shows an unmarked, white van with a man leaning out of the passenger side window.

If you have any information about this shooting, please contact the Newton Community Police Station at (323) 846-6547.

LAUSD students start the new school year

imageParents, teachers, administrators and even students were in a mood to celebrate the beginning of the new school year. Students in the Los Angeles Unified School District not only started their 2010 summer break a week early, they also ended it a week late. School traditionally starts right after the Labor Day holiday. But this year, budget cuts and furloughs pushed back the first day of school until September 13th.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa kicked off the school year by applauding gains in Academic Performance Index (API) scores, which were released Monday morning. One of the school that saw an increase in its API scores was Santee High School in South Los Angeles. The mayor went there for a morning pep rally. Click to hear about his visit and the pep rally in a story by Ruth Frantz of Annenberg Radio News.

The Academic Performance Index charts the progress made by public school students throughout California. Schools are rated on a scale of 200 to 1000, with a state target score of 800. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, 28 more schoos got an API score of at least 800 this year, up to a total of 173. And, more than half of all LAUSD schools have an API score of 750 or above this year.

imageSeveral schools in South Los Angeles recorded increases in their API scores. For the second year in a row, 99th Street Elementary School in Watts has raised its API, this year by 52 points. In addition to Santee High School, Markham Middle School in Watts recorded growth. All three of those schools are operated by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a collaboration between the City of Los Angeles and LAUSD to turnaround the city’s lowest performing schools.

In addition, the ICEF (Inner City Education Foundation) Public Schools, which operates a network of 15 public charter schools in South L.A. announced today that six of their schools topped the state’s target score of 800. ICEF serves a student population that is 89 percent African-American.

According to a news release put out by ICEF:

“At the elementary level, 4 out of 5 schools exceeded 800, with ICEF Inglewood Elementary scoring a 768 in just its first year in operation. ICEF’s View Park Prep and Frederick Douglass elementary schools are rapidly closing in on 900 points with scores of 891 and 877 respectively … The results show that the ICEF academic model works system-wide and is replicable. The first API score for Frederick Douglass Elementary, which opened last year, was an impressive 877, in a school with a 94 percent African-American and 74 percent free-and-reduced lunch student population.”