Big Urban Schools Grapple with Multiple Problems

Big city schools such as those in the Los Angeles Unified School District face a host of problems. Education correspondent Claudio Sanchez discusses racial tensions, overcrowding in the classroom and changing demographics at urban schools across America.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

NPR education corespondent Claudio Sanchez has walked the halls of many big city schools, including Thomas Jefferson High School in LA. And Claudio joins us now.

Good morning.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Is this school that we just heard about unique?

SANCHEZ: It is not. In Los Angeles, unfortunately, most high schools are powder kegs and Jefferson is really a pretty typical example.

INSKEEP: And now the principal at Jefferson said in that story that he has 3,800 students in a school that was built for about 1,500 kids. What kind of toll does that take on education, that kind of crowding?

SANCHEZ: Well just think about the logistics. In many of the high schools that I have visited in Los Angeles, kids start lunch at 9:30 in the morning because...

INSKEEP: Lunch?

SANCHEZ: Lunch, 10 AM. These are schools that cannot deal with the human traffic of kids, let alone the control, the learning. And really nothing has happened there that has alleviated the problem. Los Angeles has not built a high school or went 30 years, 1970 roughly to the present, without building a new high school.

INSKEEP: Now in that report it was also pointed out that this is a school that was overwhelmingly black; it is now overwhelmingly Latino. That is the kind of change that you do see over time in many schools in many parts of the country. Does that kind of change often lead to the kind of tension that we see there?

SANCHEZ: It does lead to tension, but for all kinds of reasons, not just because of the racial makeup. Large urban school systems have now predominantly become black and Latino majority. In Los Angeles the overwhelming numbers show that Latinos with the influx of Mexican immigrants has just pushed this system to the brink. But I would say that it's the concentration of poverty. It's the fact that too many kids--I mean, this is a system of about 780,000 kids. Too many kids attend schools where everybody's poor. Too many students don't speak English, can't read or write at grade level, and yet, it's the overcrowding that has complicated matters. I mean, it's simply just--a huge enormous school does not lend itself to any kind of reform, so reform has been piecemeal.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about some possible solutions here in the moment that we have. I mean, people talk about smaller class sizes, more school construction, that sort of thing, things that are perhaps easier to say than to do.

SANCHEZ: Exactly. Remember that about a year and a half ago in October of 2004 the Los Angeles Board of Education approved a plan to scale down all the sprawling district's secondary schools and even smaller schools from 350 to 500 students ideally. The policy was intent on breaking down the bigger schools and creating more manageable schools and almost starting from scratch, educationally, academically and logistically. Well, that hasn't happened. It's a very expensive proposition, and the fact is that this is a system that itself is too big. We're talking about a huge school system, a centralized bureaucracy that is slow to respond to a lot of the problems that schools like Jefferson have.

INSKEEP: Have you run across in your reporting school systems, individual schools or even individual school administrators who have come up with some kind of a solution to problems like this?

SANCHEZ: Well, over the last 10 or 15 years, Steve, there's been a small schools or schools-within-schools movement in this country located precisely in large cities, in mostly impoverished neighborhoods. New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago have all experimented with this. Size has been seen as necessary--a necessary ingredient, a precondition to improving instruction. Small is better. I mean, the research over the last 10 to 15 years has made it very clear that in smaller schools students come to class more often, drop out less, earn better grades, participate more in extracurricular activities, feel safer and show fewer behavior problems. Again, it really comes back to the--really the backdrop to this whole thing, which is how do you pay for these smaller schools. It's ironic that, you know, back in the 1930s throughout the `40s, 70 percent of the nation's schools were no bigger than a hundred to 150 kids. After the World War II period--I mean, we saw a consolidation of school systems that led to bigger--for the right reasons in many ways. You know, you get more teachers, better instruction, but now it's kind of come back to haunt us.

INSKEEP: Claudio, thanks very much.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Claudio Sanchez. And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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