RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Here in California, Golden State used to be more than just a nickname, and the public schools were part of the reason. They were among the best. Today, that seems like a long time ago, as most school districts here are struggling with huge budget cuts. And it's not likely to get any better as lawmakers try to fix the state's $26 billion deficit. In our series California in Crisis, NPR's Carrie Kahn shows us how one L.A. school is coping.
(Soundbite of song, "Pomp and Circumstance")
CARRIE KAHN: It's graduation day at Birmingham High School in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, and students wearing bright blue caps and gowns stream onto the football field.
Unidentified Woman: Good Evening Birmingham, class of '09 and family and friends.
(Soundbite of cheers)
KAHN: Over the next two hours, 720 students come up to the stage to pick up diplomas. However, one-quarter of the senior class didn't even make it. But that's an improvement. Not long ago, the dropout rate at Birmingham was 50 percent, quite a downfall for a school that used to be one of the best.
As Lance Johnson watches his daughter graduate, he talks about how crowded Birmingham has become.
Mr. LANCE JOHNSON: It's twice as hard to get the same level of service when there's twice as many kids at the table, okay?
KAHN: Next year, because of budget cuts, it's going to get worse. Some classes will have more than 40 students.
Mr. JOHNSON: You're going to have a lot more drop out. You're going to have a lot more upset parents, and you're going to have a lot more people saying the system doesn't work.
KAHN: Just before the ceremony, Johnson and several Birmingham officials went to the L.A. School Board to say they'd had enough. They wanted Birmingham to break away from L.A. and become an independent charter school.
Principal Marsha Coates says that will allow Birmingham to manage its own finances, avoid getting caught up in the district's bureaucracy. Plus, she can fire bad teachers.
Ms. MARSHA COATES (Principal, Birmingham High School): If what you're doing isn't working, you have to stop. You need to do something different. What we're doing is not working.
KAHN: Many oppose Birmingham becoming a charter, but everyone agrees the school needs help. And this is hardly the only school struggling with low student achievement.
UCLA Education Professor John Rogers says discontent over the state of public education in California is at an all-time high. Schools here used to be in the nation's top 10. Rogers says now they're in the low 40s in almost every academic category.
Professor JOHN ROGERS (Education, UCLA): There's been some estimates that by 2025, California is going to have this dramatic shortage of college-educated and professionally educated workers for the jobs that the California economy requires.
KAHN: Instead of trying to fix public schools, California is now forced to make drastic cuts. In Los Angeles, the district just fired thousands of teachers, raised class sizes and canceled all summer school, except for kids who need to retake failed classes to graduate.
Mr. RICK PRIZANT (Algebra Teacher, Birmingham High School): Now let's multiply these two. Is this going to be positive or negative?
Unidentified Group: Negative.
Mr. PRIZANT: Negative. So then put a plus negative…
KAHN: Back at Birmingham, this summer Algebra 2 class is full. Jennifer Alicia Serrano says she's frustrated by the crowded classes and the lack of even good basic supplies.
Ms. ALICIA SERRANO (Student, Birmingham High School): Sometimes they'll give me books that are really, really, bad - like, they don't work. Some of them are ripped, and it's just not good. Like, we should have new books or more computers, 'cause we don't really have computers. We don't work with computers here.
KAHN: Serrano's Algebra teacher, Rick Prizant, has been teaching at Birmingham for 25 years. He's watched the general state of decline, not just in the classroom, but everywhere.
Mr. PRIZANT: When I first started teaching, where the room was mopped - mopped clean and swept and everything every day. Now, if the trash cans are taken out once a day, it's like that's what you can expect.
KAHN: Prizant isn't just a teacher. He's a Birmingham alum, class of 1972. Back then, it was a different place: mostly white and affluent. Today, the school qualifies for federal assistance. More than 60 percent of the kids get free lunches. The student body is 70 percent Hispanic, typical of most schools in L.A.
Principal Marsha Coates says it's a challenge meeting students' needs these days.
Ms. COATES: I had one girl that told me I need to increase my hours at Carl's Jr. to help my parents make the rent. And we have kids staying home with younger siblings. We have kids whose parents are ill. I've never heard of so many kids that face such adversity.
KAHN: But Coates is trying to remain hopeful. Birmingham got the green light to become a charter school. It may not solve all the problems, but Coates says it gives the school something it didn't have before: a chance.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News.
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