Crenshaw High Is Still Fighting the Battle For its Own Brand of Reform

Crenshaw High School. | Photo: ATIS547/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The end of the school year compels me to write another story -- though certainly not the last -- about one of LAUSD's most successful but most beleaguered campuses, Crenshaw High School. Successful because over the last few years Crenshaw has implemented an innovative learning model that's garnered private funding and produced encouraging results amongst its largely black and Latino student population. Beleaguered because the district appears hellbent on shutting down the program in what can only be described as a power play typical of the 800-pound gorilla that it is.

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The Crenshaw High story is long-standing, complex, and worth far more than the space I'm giving it here. But here it is in a nutshell: After surviving an accreditation crisis back in 2005 in which it nearly lost its accredited status, the Crenshaw High community got serious about making significant institutional change. Parents, teachers, students, and stakeholders got together to support that change and eventually came up with something called the Extended Learning Cultural Model, a holistic approach to education that spans academic subjects, advocates small learning communities, factors cultural relevancy into teaching, and looks beyond high school to job training and internships.

The model got grants from Ford Foundation, the Tom and Ethel Bradley Foundation, and most recently a $5.4 million grant from the federal government. Since the implementation of the model, Crenshaw's test scores have improved, though admittedly there is a considerable ways to go -- but then, Crenshaw has the lowest scores in the district. Despite that -- or maybe because of it -- Crenshaw's efforts have been noted nationwide, especially its Social Justice and Law Academy and Business Academy. Special education teacher Cathy Creasia says the changes shifted not just the learning environment at Crenshaw, but the cultural consciousness as well. "Students and teachers got more collaborative," she said. "Even as the district's budget crashed, even through all the administrative changes" --Crenshaw has had a dizzying number of principals in the last decade --"we kept going."

Creasia and others that I talked to say that the independent-minded reform and the Extended Learning Cultural Model had the blessing of former LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines. But John Deasy has been a very different story. An advocate of charter schools and the competitive public school model embodied by Obama's "Race to the Top," Deasy loudly voiced his concern about the low test scores at Crenshaw and vowed action. He gave Crenshaw a year to improve test scores, but moved swiftly (too swiftly, many say) to start converting the entire Crenshaw campus into a trio of magnet schools. Nothing inherently wrong with magnets, but as models of reform they're frankly old news -- why mess with something new and promising that has some momentum and some success, albeit not enough success yet to pull the school out of the test score basement? While we're at it, why measure success purely by standardized test scores anyway? Keep in mind that Crenshaw has an unusually high population of students in foster care and special ed, a fact that tends to pull down test scores. Nonetheless, special ed students posted a 92-point gain in API test scores last year. Not too shabby.

Teachers and others at Crenshaw say the district seems determined to destabilize not just the school, but the entire community, via a dramatic, slash-and-burn restructuring that's disparagingly known as "reconstitution." Thanks to parents' protests, the Extended Learning Cultural Model has been retained in the magnet plan, but many of the teachers who have been key to the model have been let go, casualties of the magnet re-hiring process that required a vast majority of Crenshaw teachers and staff to reapply for their jobs. Of the 33 teachers cut loose, 21 were black, and 33 were in their mid-40s and older. One was the UTLA chapter chair and an eight-year math teacher who received stellar evaluations every year. Parent Angelita Parker calls the whole situation "educational homicide," and particularly harmful to black and Latino students who need the most specialized and community-based solutions to bureaucratic problems of neglect decades in the making.

I asked Alex Caputo-Pearl, a 13-year Crenshaw teacher who championed its Social Justice Academy, what will happen to the funding and the good will that's been built up around the Extended Learning Cultural Model and Crenshaw reform efforts in general.. He isn't really sure. "Look, it's not untrue that we have low test scores," he said, somewhat wearily. "But the question is, do you destroy what's been put in place with community ties, with federal funding?" Caputo-Pearl added that that accreditation team that came to Crenshaw last March had two suggestions: continue with the stabilizing efforts, and make sure that Crenshaw's new principal would be coached by Sylvia Rousseau, a veteran educator and former LAUSD administrator who's been involved with the Extended Learning Cultural Model. Neither thing has happened. It's been mind-blowing," said Khallid Al-Alim, a member of the Coalition for Educational Justice and vice president of the Park Mesa Heights Neighborhood Council. "We stress autonomy and democratic process, and Deasy does unilateral action. It's like slave days."

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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