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As Students Return to Class, Los Angeles School District Faces a Make-or-Break Crisis


AS Daryl Albrecht begins 10th grade today at Reseda Senior High School, he wonders which friends will be in which classes, if he'll land teachers who are tough or easy graders, and how to garner the right art classes to prepare him for nearby Pierce College.

His grandfather and guardian, Leonard Hunter, says his first concern is for his grandson's safety. An on-campus shooting last February made national headlines when an inner-city transfer student shot and killed another student with a handgun. Mr. Hunter also wonders whether the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation's second largest, can overcome its worst teacher shortage in a decade, and ongoing financial/labor strife that has deprived students of facilities and supplies while cutting teacher salaries 10 percent.

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``The LAUSD's been going downhill for 15 years,'' says Hunter, a 37-year resident. ``If they don't turn things around this year, I think it's all over.''

New LAUSD Superintendent Sid Thompson echoes these concerns. ``I see [this year] as a year to either get things moving or else face the consequences,'' Mr. Thompson told a meeting of 800 principals and administrators.

A bill is pending in the state Legislature that would break up the 620-school district into smaller chunks. And a statewide November ballot measure could give parents vouchers to send children to private schools. Forty-seven percent of voters are said to support such a system.

Widely seen as a last-ditch effort to fend off attempts to dissolve the district, a reform known as LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now), was passed last spring. Now being phased in over six years, the attempt is to shift more decisions about curriculum, staffing, and funding from centralized bureaucrats to local principals, teachers, and parents.

The breakup bill, voucher initiative, and LEARN come at the end of a 20-year decline for California education that can be measured by several indicators. Among them are student test scores on scholastic aptitude tests, as well as spending per pupil and teachers' salaries - all of which have dropped from No.1 nationally in the early 1970s to below 40th.

``It's what we predicted all along, that if you can't remain competitive in salaries, the best teachers will go somewhere else,'' says Helen Bernstein, president of the powerful teachers' union, United Teachers-Los Angeles. Because of last spring's 10-percent pay cut, which prompted many resignations, 1,000 noncredentialed teachers will be filling vacancies, she says.

City and state fiscal woes as well as costly concessions to the teachers' union during the 1980s are the biggest reasons for the fiscal crisis, according to Maureen DiMarco, state secretary for child development and education.

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All is not gloom and doom across the district, however, according to Ms. Bernstein. LEARN reforms are moving apace in 35 schools that are beginning the six-year phase-in; ninety more are trying various forms of school-based management.

Dr. Al Hemenway, assistant principal for counseling services at Reseda High, says new ideas to be expanded this year will be a so-called ``coordinated scope and sequence'' program funded by the state. The idea, says Mr. Hemenway, follows the successful lead of Japan and several European countries in integrating biology, earth science, chemistry, and physics into one course rather than teaching them separately.

Another idea gaining currency at Reseda, according to Elisabeth Kono, dean of students, is clustered learning - ways to coordinate both teachers and students of different subjects. Social science, history, and English teachers might combine projects, for example, so that grammar and vocabulary essays in one class may be written about subject matter being discussed in a separate class.

``Reseda is a school with many outstanding teachers who are doing new things in creative ways against the odds,'' says Ms. Bernstein. ``It's just that it's getting harder and harder to do so in L.A.''

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