A Look Into L.A. Unified: Arlington Heights Elementary
The Los Angeles Unified School District overflows with bad news. The second largest school district in the country has a graduation rate of a mere 72 percent, 8 percent lower than the state average. Thirty-two of the city’s worst performing schools were essentially auctioned off to rebuild as charters. The school board and teachers’ union voted to shorten the school year, cutting five days from this year.
A team of Neon Tommy reporters visited campuses across Los Angeles to see how well the reports match what happens in classrooms on any given day.
Arlington Heights Elementary sits amid a street of one-level bungalows just off Washington Boulevard in the neighborhood for which it was named, Arlington Heights.
It’s a quiet street, unremarkable in its architecture or landscape. Only the faint echoes of the school’s students can be heard from outside its doors.
Or, in fact, inside them.
Visitors to Arlington Heights Elementary are greeted by bugs not children. Teacher Silverio Chan installed an insectarium in the main hallway, infusing a touch of a green into a sea of drab off-white walls and lockers.
On the second floor, the walls are decked with bulletin boards bearing shaky cursive writing or pictures colored brightly in crayon.
But the classrooms at Arlington Heights Elementary make up what the hallways lack in color and noise.
Grisca Torres was teaching math in her kindergarten class.
Twenty students sat cross-legged on a rug placed strategically in front of a whiteboard. A few stragglers participated from their desks, jumping out of their seats when they realized the answers to Torres’ questions.
The lesson of the day was place value. One at a time, students went to the board to break down a large number into its various digit placements. While they attempted, their fellow classmates yelled out the answers, much to the chagrin of their teacher.
Most of the students were active, engaged, and abundantly so. Some five-year-old eyes, however, wandered around the classroom, taking in its colorful posters, notices and art projects.
But the majority remained riveted to that board and to elevating their hand as far as it possibly could go so they too could go up to the board.
In Torres’ hand was a cup with Popsicle sticks, each with a name printed on it. Torres picked a stick, randomly selecting the next student to attempt the math problem.
In Brian Grosdidier’s fifth grade classroom, that determinant was a deck of cards.
His 30 students were contemplating double negatives. They pored over a worksheet listing affirmative and negative pronouns, preparing themselves for his inevitable questioning.
Some were prepared when their name was selected from the deck, others not so much.
Some students stumbled in their attempt to provide Grosdidier with one negative and one affirmative sentence, often resorting to changing the subject matter completely to achieve that goal. Others responded in hushed words with voices shaking with insecurity. Still others answered assertively, secure in their response and their English.
But Arlington Heights Elementary’s instructional coach Ellen Jackson said that those students who appeared secure in their English are few and far between.
Located in the densely Central American community, many of the school’s students are whom Jackson called English Language Developers.
In fact, Jackson credits the high rate of English Language Developers for the school's 53-point decline in Growth Academic Performance Index score.
“Because of our drop, we’re trying to make some changes. We decided that English learning comes first in all our classrooms,” Jackson said.
Arlington Heights Elementary uses the Into English program, one that focuses more on vocabulary than the majority of English language programs. It also helps build up writing components.
Jackson said the Into English program does not hurt those students who are already fluent in the language.
“It’s not like they’re missing out on something. They’re gaining more. It’s extra practice with different skills and strategies,” Jackson said.
While Arlington Heights Elementary has several bilingual teachers, no instruction is given in Spanish.
Spanish does often creep into the classroom. When an unruly student yelled out in the middle of class, Torres chided him in Spanish.
Jackson does not speak Spanish. Her dealings with students, however, appear unaffected. During a stroll around the school, Jackson identified several students by name.
And the students, in turn, recognized her.
Daryl Moore’s first grade class was lining up for gym. Almost mechanically, the students put away their papers—they had just completed a lesson in addition and subtraction—and moved toward the door. Finding his or her spot on the tiled floor, the students elevated their eyes to their teacher, who slowly made her way in their direction.
Upon noticing Jackson, one boy pointed to her leg, coyly asking how it was feeling.
“I’m fine,” Jackson reassured him.
Jackson is training for an Iron Man. After a hard workout weeks before, she came to school with her leg bandaged, much to the fascination of her students. She said some of the students are fastidious in questioning her physical health.
Jackson has worked in the L.A. Unified School District for eight years. Though the first part of her career was in the classroom, she transferred to Arlington Heights Elementary three years ago to take a job as a math coach.
Over those three years, Jackson has witnessed a change in the school, especially in its expenditures.
Arlington Heights Elementary has seen a decline in numbers, both in student population and funding.
The school’s enrollment dropped from 894 students during the 2004-2005 academic to 669 during the 2008-2009 year. Budget cuts to education statewide and within L.A. Unified have heavily impacted the school.
The most dramatic of which is the increased class sizes. Kindergarten classes at Arlington Heights Elementary now have 24 students.
“We have no control over who walks through that door,” said Jackson. “And if they come, we have to make room. It’s just worked out that way. The cap is 24, so we have to go to 24.”
Jackson did note, however, that the increased class sizes did not account for the drop in Academic Performance Index score.
“It’s a huge stress for [the teachers]. But our data shows that class size does not make that much of a difference. It’s not like the test scores improve with smaller classes,” Jackson said.
And Jackson said the school has learned to go without.
Arts education only occurs in 10 classrooms. What Jackson called “an arts prototype” takes these classes through music, drama, fine arts and dance classes over the course of the year.
The first grade students also have music education.
Because of a grant, Arlington Heights Elementary is one of the few elementary schools in the district to offer physical education. A gym teacher comes to the school every other week, giving each student 45 minutes of physical education a day.
Jackson said that on the off weeks, the classroom teachers are supposed fill that void.
Lowering her voice, she added, “But that doesn’t always happen.”
The limited budget also does not account for field trips. Instead, the school took the matter into its own hands.
“We had a fall festival where we raised enough money for field trips, one for every class, but that was through our fundraising,” Jackson said.
While the school still provides textbooks for each student, as is stipulated in the William’s Consent Decree, it is a struggle outfitting students with school supplies.
“Most of our staff buys [school supplies] for the kids, and if they don’t, they don’t ask the families for it. They use what we have here,” Jackson said.
She then added, “It’s not the best, not the cutest, but it works.”
“We couldn’t afford a new computer in every classroom for it, so we’ve had to fix what we already have to make it work,” Jackson said.
“You don’t need a ton of money to be a good teacher,” Jackson later added.
But one thing teachers do need is time, said Jackson.
The school recently announced that the academic year will end four days early. The 2010-2011 academic year will be seven days shorter.
While this is a financial detriment to the teachers, Jackson said it will be even more troublesome for the students.
“They already lose so much in the summer,” she said. “That’s another big difference between our school and a lot of other richer schools. Those kids go to summer camp, have tutors and get that support from home. The kids here don’t have that. They don’t go to summer camp; they have a television.”
To read the rest of this series, click here.
To reach Catherine Cloutier, click here.