Once Failing Highland Park School Making Strides
New buildings and jump in test scores, point to brighter future.
By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer
People unfamiliar with Luther Burbank Middle School in Highland Park might take a quick glance at the campus and its latest student standardized test scores and assume it’s a new, well-performing school. It wasn’t to long ago, however, that the campus was one of Los Angeles Unified School District’s worst performing schools, plagued with gang violence, buildings in danger of collapsing in an earthquake, and many unhappy parents.
School officials last week held a ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of three new buildings on the Northeast Los Angeles area campus. The event happened to coincide with the release of the state’s Academic Performance Index (API) reports that showed Burbank had increased its score by 100 points, far above the average increase across the district and the state.
LAUSD Board Member Bennett Kayser congratulated the school’s students and staff, saying it was a historic day for the campus, referring both to the new buildings and the higher test scores.
Kayser noted that as the school’s API was going up, discipline problems at the school were going down: Only six incidents for bad behavior were reported last year, he also said.
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The campus is composed of a traditional middle school, Luther Burbank Middle School, and two magnets: Luther Burbank Middle School Police Academy Magnet and Luther Burbank Middle School Math and Science Magnet. The school’s API score is for all three schools combined. Burbank students earned 794 points—just six points away from the API target of 800.
Former LAUSD Board member David Tokofsky, who emceed the ceremony, gave parents credit for finding the earthquake fault on the campus that led to the new construction, but said it was “Huizar’s fault” the problem was addressed. Now Councilman Jose Huizar was LAUSD’s board president when the District implemented its $19.5 billion New School Construction and Modernization Program, funds used to pay for the new structures at Burbank Middle School.
“… Our goal wasn’t just to build new schools, we also wanted to improve existing schools with aging infrastructure that were in need of repair,” Huizar said at the ribbon cutting ceremony. “Burbank Middle School was one of those schools. With these much-needed improvements, Burbank students, parents and teachers can take pride in a transformed and beautiful campus designed to support academic excellence. A very special thanks to everybody who made this possible.”
The campus now has a new two-story gymnasium, one-story multi-purpose building and a two-story, 11 classroom building. Construction began in 2009 and was completed in August of this year. According to the District, the Burbank Middle School redevelopment project included the removal and replacement of approximately 48,500 square feet of building space located in a seismic fault zone.
While construction was going on at the campus, the schools’ academics were also undergoing a transformation. The school was reconstituted in the spring of 2011 under the No Child Left Behind Act, after attempts to improve it under LAUSD’s Public School Choice (PSC) reform failed. The school choice reform focuses on in-district and out of district groups competing to take over the management of underperforming schools. In Burbank’s case, no group competed with school staff to reform the academics and the staff seemed unwilling to implement the plan they wrote. As a result, LAUSD made the decision to reconstitute, which meant that all of the school’s teachers had to reapply for their jobs. Not all them were rehired.
During the 2008 public school choice process, parents complained that the school had been in Program Improvement Status since 2004 and that it had a reputation as being overrun by gangs.
Principal Arturo Valdez, one of two principals now at the campus, told EGP the 100-point API increase was due in part to the reconstitution, but also in large part due to the implementation of new expectations, a new curriculum and new pedagogy.
“Other schools that have been reconstituted haven’t had growth” at this level, he explained.
Valdez said the school has been addressing the gang issue with the best gang prevention and intervention program: hope.
“It’s giving students a hope, a sense of home and belonging and purpose,” he said. “And I think this teaching staff has done an incredible job at engaging the kids and giving them a little success—and once you do that, they like the feel of it, they want to continue.”
Local District 5 Superintendent Roberto A. Martinez credited Valdez’s vision for the student’s success. Valdez, however, said it is the student’s hard work that is paying off.
Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council Member Janet Dodson said during the event that there is a marked difference in student attitude at Burbank Middle School. She said she wandered around campus recently and could not help but notice the students “smiles” when around Valdez. That “speaks volumes of the relationship the principal has with the students,” she said, adding that Burbank is now a safe haven for students.
Reina Gomez, mother of Police Magnet 6th grader Estevan Saul Parra, said she was very excited about Burbank’s academic improvement. Her son is bused to the campus at 6:10am and doesn’t get back to South Los Angeles until 4:25pm. “It’s been a sacrifice but it’s worth it,” Gomez said. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, it’s been a good experience so far.”
October 18, 2012 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.