Enrollment is down and test scores are flat, but Debra Bryant won’t let Westchester give up on its high school
By Gary Walker
After years of declining enrollment and a revolving door of principals, LAUSD leaders heralded the April 2011 conversion of Westchester High School into a science-focused magnet campus as a transformational moment for the struggling public school.
With its specialized Aviation & Aerospace, Health & Sports Medicine and Environmental & Natural Science programs, the newly created Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets promised to renew parent interest in the high school and boost student academic achievement.
The concept garnered support from neighborhood leaders, then-Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, Supt. Ramon Cortines and Westside school board representative Steve Zimmer.
“I think that 10 years from now, the change at Westchester High School will bring the most positive, lasting effect for public education in my board district that I have been a part of,” Zimmer said at the time.
Nearly five years later, measurable change has failed to materialize.
Enrollment has continued to taper off — dropping from 1,499 students in the 2010-11 school year to 1,247 students in 2014-15, according to California Department of Education statistics.
Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets has also underperformed on state standardized tests compared to other LAUSD magnet programs. Only 4% of its students passed this year’s inaugural Common Core mathematics test, and just 23% tested at grade level or above in English.
Whether converting Westchester High into a magnet was the right decision lies with whom you ask.
Some say the transition to magnet campus sounded the death knell for a neighborhood public school that was making slow but steady gains in student achievement and community support before school district officials intervened.
“It took a long time to bring the community back to where they wanted to be invested in our schools, especially the high school,” said Kelly Kane, a Westchester resident who serves on the LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce Education Committee. “By converting the high school to a magnet, LAUSD destroyed the community school.”
Zimmer, LAUSD administrators and current Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets Principal Debra Bryant say the school is on the right track and already stronger than it was five years ago.
But one key goal for the magnet campus has yet to come to fruition: attracting students from the surrounding communities of Westchester and Playa del Rey.
WHERE ARE ALL THE LOCAL KIDS?
The magnet school conversion was the brainchild of former Westchester High School Principal Robert Canosa-Carr, who claimed the concept was attracting positive attention from families in Playa del Rey and Westchester who had otherwise abandoned interest in the high school.
“We have already had several calls about the magnet proposal, so there is definite interest in local parents sending their children here for the new magnets,” Canosa-Carr, who now works for
a charter school organization, said just after LAUSD board members approved the transition.
But almost anyone familiar with the school can tell you that hasn’t happened.
According to LAUSD’s own school enrollment data, only 207 current Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets students have Westchester (90045) home addresses and there are no students on campus who live in Playa del Rey (90293).
That means about 83% of kids attending Westchester’s public high school aren’t from the surrounding neighborhood.
Westchester High School’s student population became increasingly African-American in the 1990s, and by 2010 its student body was 73% black. African-Americans accounted for only 14.2% of Westchester residents at the time, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. Meanwhile, Westchester and Playa del Rey families increasingly sought transfer permits for their children to matriculate into neighboring school districts or attend schools as far away as Manhattan Beach.
Westchester parent Ann Wexler, whose daughter attended Westchester High before it became a magnet campus, said the way LAUSD handled creation of the magnet school may be one reason many local parents don’t want to send their kids there.
“I haven’t had a child there since before it became all-magnet, but I do know that the community has pretty much checked out where the high school is concerned. I remember that the community was not consulted about what kind of magnets would be there; when the arts were mentioned, the district said our students could just go to Hamilton [High School] if they wanted arts,” Wexler said.
Kane, whose children attended Westport Heights Elementary School, said that over the years she has heard directly and indirectly from Westchester parents who did not want to their children to attend school or have play dates in “unsafe” areas — which she understood to be concerns about the high school’s increasingly African-American and out of the area demographics.
One Westchester parent was recently heard talking about how “minority” students at the magnet who don’t live on the Westside “overrun the school and are different from Westside kids because of ‘cultural differences.’”
Education historian, author and policy analyst Diane Ravitch thinks she understands such code.
“What they’re describing is white kids being afraid of black kids,” said Ravitch, a prominent advocate for public schools and formerly an assistant U.S. Secretary of Education.
NEW LEADERSHIP EMERGES
Described by Zimmer as an “excellent school leader who is interested in being here for the long haul,” Bryant — who took the helm as Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets principal in July
2014 — has focused on strengthening the culture of the school to boost academic performance.
In an effort to enhance school spirit, Bryant has enacted a dress code that encourages students to wear tan or gray pants and black or gray polo shirts bearing the school’s red Comets logo. She often joins students in sporting school colors to foster a sense of campus unity.
“The kids see that we take pride in the school and I think that makes them feel good about our school,” Bryant said. “It builds community and trust, and when you have that it builds academics.”
Extracurricular academic programs are also starting to flourish.
With the help of the Rotary Club of Westchester and an anonymous donor, the school’s robotics club finally received long-absent funding that allowed members to participate in thier first competition this year. In the spring they’ll compete again in San Diego.
One of Bryant’s proudest moments as principal came last spring when a 10-member student team from Westchester bested teams from 15 other Los Angeles-area high schools to win “Aspen Challenge LA: 2015,” a contest asking students to solve complex public policy problems. The victorious students crafted proposed water conservation legislation to expand turf-replacement rebates and regulate outdoor irrigation, winning them a trip to Colorado to present their project at the Aspen Institute’s 11th annual Aspen Ideas Festival.
Under Bryant, the school currently offers 16 Advanced Placement courses that can count for college credit.
Bryant has also been expanding the roll of hands-on, cooperative-learning lessons in the classroom to encourage critical thinking and reasoning skills.
LAUSD Local District West Director LaVerne Brunt said students at the magnet campus were already engaged in project-based learning — one of the central pillars of the Common Core curriculum — prior to the introduction of those new statewide standards.
Zimmer said that “early indicators” of academic success at the high school are encouraging.
“When I walk the classrooms, when I see the relationship between teachers and students, I sense the rise in the school that I feel is coming back at all levels,” he said. “What makes the difference between earlier indicators taking hold and early indicators just being flashes that don’t ignite is leadership.”
‘ROOM FOR GROWTH’
Though Westchester has not performed as well on standardized tests as other magnet programs in the district, including the one at Venice High School, the school has made progress. Though falling short of the state benchmark of 800, Westchester’s overall Academic Performance Index score — the previous measure of a school’s academic progress before Common Core — did increase from 628 in 2009 to 704 in 2013, the last year API scores were recorded.
“There’s always room for growth. We’re working towards implementing the Common Core standards with our teachers and lowering class sizes. We’re moving away from [lecture-based] direct teaching and toward [cooperative and student-directed] team teaching,” Bryant said. “We have our game plan in place. We’ve regrouped, and our test scores will be a lot better next year.”
At LAUSD headquarters, Brunt is also optimistic.
“Last year’s scores were just preliminary. I’m confident that we’ll see improvement,” Brunt said.
Zimmer says that among Westside parents there is a level of “test score obsession” that often prevents families from discovering a local school that is on the verge of thriving.
“We have tours often and we invite parents to visit us all the time,” Bryant said. “For some, it changes their perspective, and for others it doesn’t.”
Brunt said students are a school’s best advertisement.
“They’re the ones who can tell [a parent] if they’re getting a good education, if they feel safe, if they like their teachers. That’s what parents are looking for,” Brunt said.
Ravitch, who maintains that test scores only measure “family income,” said visiting a school is the best way to accurately gauge how well or poorly it is run.
“Walk around, look and listen,” she recommends. “Are the teachers and students engaged? Is there a hum of activity? What about attendance? Is there a wide array of activities for students — arts, athletics, etc.?”
LOSS OF LOCAL CONTROL
After a long struggle, 2009 saw LAUSD officials promise Westchester schools a certain amount of local control in campus decision-making. Active community members such as Kane and Wexler thought this breakthrough would become a vehicle for academic improvement at Westchester High and Orville Wright Middle School. Governance and hiring committees comprised of parents and members of community organizations had a voice in selecting principals at both schools, and Kane recalled that it began to look like Westchester families might be coming back to those schools.
But then Cortines closed LAUSD’s iDesign Division, which had been created to assist Westchester with its local control initiative.
For Wexler, that was the last straw. She began the process of creating something that she and others had not previously considered — a charter school for local middle and high school students.
After being rebuffed by LAUSD, Wexler helped co-found Westchester Secondary Charter School, serving students in grades six through 10, in 2012.
“I remember that, under local autonomy, scores went up for the year we had it at the high school. Of course I think it’s great we now have a local option that so far has served its middle and high school students better than either Orville Wright and [Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets] — and that’s with the extremely difficult facilities situation we’ve had,” said Wexler, referring to the charter school’s difficulties finding adequate classroom space in Westchester.
The loss of local autonomy hit Kane especially hard, as she was perhaps the most vocal proponent of local control and one of LAUSD’s staunchest critics.
“We had done the impossible. We had convinced the community to care about the high school again. But just like with autonomy, all the promises about the magnet school — that it would bring in more local kids, that they would teach Japanese, that test scores would improve — have been broken,” Kane said.
According to Wexler, a new movement is afoot to make a second run at local control in Westchester.
“Especially younger parents have not given up on this idea. They would embrace it again in a heartbeat, as well as any school board member [or candidate] who supported it,” Wexler predicted. “I understand some of our leading community groups want to support this concept as well. As things stand now, parents will continue to vote with their feet.”
RECIPE FOR A COMEBACK
Zimmer said it’s still too early to draw conclusions on whether the Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets is performing as he and others hoped it would.
“I think we have all the components in place for the school to make a comeback,” he said. “I’m not satisfied, and I do understand that there are some unique challenges that this school faces, but I really do think that we have the leadership team in place, both in terms of the faculty and the administration, to set the right foundation for a breakthrough. And I do think that we can break through.”
Kane dismissed the idea that not enough time has passed to determine whether the conversion has been a success. While she blames LAUSD bureaucracy for the loss of school autonomy, Kane lays what she calls a failed experiment with Westchester’s high school at the feet of Zimmer, Cortines and Canosa-Carr.
“They’re the ones who pushed for this. We can’t wait for 10 years to see if this ‘experiment’ works. LAUSD has said ‘Let them eat cake’ to Westchester for too long,” Kane said. “What needs to be done is a remarketing and a rebranding for the school, and that’s going to take a long time. When you’re selling New Coke and it isn’t working, you pull it from the shelves.”
Zimmer acknowledged that turning the school around hasn’t been an easy prospect, but he also reiterated his commitment to attracting more local students and making the campus competitive with other magnet schools.
“Has it been a smooth ride? No,” Zimmer said. “Do I feel like the foundation for breaking through is in place? I do.”