Romer Proposes Reforms to Stem Tide of Dropouts
At least $21 million -- if the funds can be found -- would go toward algebra-readiness classes, catch-up courses and more counselors.

By Mitchell Landsberg
LA Times Staff Writer
February 8, 2006

Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer announced an array of measures Tuesday to keep students from dropping out of school, but said he didn't know where the district would find the money and teachers needed to carry out the plans.

Romer's announcement called for a minimum of $21 million in new spending - not a pie-in-the-sky figure in a district with a $7.1-billion annual budget, but money that would have to be diverted from other programs.

Because state funding for schools is based on the average number of students in class every day, Romer said the new programs could pay for themselves if they succeed in keeping more students in school.

Romer's initiatives come on the heels of a Times series about the dropout problem in Los Angeles schools. Four members of the Los Angeles Board of Education joined Romer at the news briefing and voiced enthusiasm for the measures, some of which require board approval. Members Marlene Canter and Julie Korenstein acknowledged that they have been grappling unsuccessfully with the dropout problem for years.

Now, said Canter, the board president: "We do not have a moment to waste. Every day that we lose is a day that we cheat the kids."

At the heart of the plans outlined by Romer are two changes aimed at catching students before they slide into failure.

One would require middle school students who fall behind to take additional classes outside the normal school schedule until they catch up. The classes could be held after school, before school, on Saturdays or wedged into the school day. The program would begin in the 2006-07 school year with math classes only, and would be expanded the following year to include students who are struggling in other core classes.

The second initiative would add one counselor to the staff of every middle and high school to help at-risk students. The counselors would hold quarterly meetings with the students' parents and would work with the students to keep them in school.

Two additional measures are aimed specifically at improving achievement in algebra, which is required for graduation and has emerged as a major stumbling block for many students. Nearly half the ninth-graders who take algebra in the Los Angeles Unified School District fail it.

Romer said the district would introduce new "algebra readiness" classes in eighth grade for students not yet ready for algebra, and would try to reduce class size in that course and in algebra by five students per class. Currently, class sizes range from 32 to 40 students.

But, Romer said, he wasn't sure if the district had the money to do that, or whether it could find enough qualified teachers.

Romer also announced plans to add attendance clerks to every secondary school and to work more closely with students and parents to monitor academic achievement and keep students on track to graduate.

Romer said the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with The Times series, and that the initiatives had been "on our minds for months."

Reaction to Romer's plans was generally favorable, although some educators said they didn't reach far enough.

"We are behind the superintendent all the way," said Canter, who added that the Board of Education had asked Romer to find a way to keep students from dropping out. "We have been ahead of the curve in terms of our vision," she said.

Korenstein said she had seen "10 billion different programs come and go" during her 19 years on the board, but expressed enthusiasm about those outlined by Romer.

She said, however, that the board might have to reconsider recently adopted plans that would require all students to take a rigorous course of study that is required for admission to the University of California. Opponents of the idea say it will keep many students from graduating.

"I think we're going to look at that very seriously if we want to keep our students in school," she said.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the announcement "a step in the right direction," but said it would not deter him from his campaign to take control of the school district from the Board of Education. In an interview with Times editors and reporters, he referred to the school board, along with teachers and administrators, and said: "I am taking on all of these stakeholders because they are defending the status quo."

Neal Kleiner, principal of John Muir Middle School in South Los Angeles, said in an interview that the new initiatives aimed at middle schools should be helpful, although his school is already doing much of what the superintendent proposed. For instance, he said, Muir already channels low-performing math students into a pre-algebra class in eighth grade, holds Saturday classes for at-risk sixth-graders and schedules quarterly meetings with parents.

He questioned, however, how schools could enforce the mandatory classes for at-risk students. "Are they going to back us up if we apply the heat?"

Kleiner said he believes the problems that are prevalent in middle schools have much deeper roots, and the best weapon may be an expansion of high-quality preschool. "That's where I'd put money," he said. "If I were the education czar, I'd get more and more preschools going."

Marcia Coates, principal of Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, which The Times profiled in its series of articles on the dropout problem, was particularly pleased by the proposal to reduce the size of algebra classes. "I think it's wonderful," she said.

She predicted that the new programs would "make a dent," but saw no magic bullet for the dropout problem. She noted that many middle schools have pre-algebra classes for eighth-graders, but that there is little indication they succeed in getting students up to speed by ninth grade.

One of the sharpest reactions came from Jeannie Oakes, a professor of education at UCLA whose study of graduation rates in Los Angeles Unified has become a central component in the turf battle between the Board of Education and Villaraigosa. Oakes' study found that only about half of the students in the district make it to graduation; the district claims the correct figure is two-thirds.

"What Romer ... should have said is that we have a moral responsibility to make sure these kids don't slip through the cracks, but we don't have the resources to do an honest and respectable job of that," she said Tuesday. The initiatives announced by the superintendent "are all good things" but don't get at the root of the problem, she said. "To bill them as some extraordinary intervention and recovery program - it's so sad."

The announcement of the Los Angeles Unified initiatives coincided with the annual "state of education" speech in Sacramento by Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. In it, O'Connell said that the dropout rate, "no matter how you calculate it, is unacceptably high." He said the state's current drive to establish "small learning communities" within larger schools would help keep students in school.

He also called for universal preschool, saying he was "convinced that preschool for all will improve students' success in school and in their futures."

Times staff writers Duke Helfand in Los Angeles and Joel Rubin in Sacramento contributed to this report.

Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times