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Miracle in South Central
The Watts Learning Center…
[Lance T. Izumi] 12/30/05

Mention South Central Los Angeles and most people think of poverty, gangs and despair. Beyond the stereotypes, one discovers real heroes doing great things. One place where such heroic work is taking place is the Watts Learning Center (WLC) charter school, one of the most improved charter schools in California.

Lance T. Izumi
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

Lance Izumi is Director of Education Studies for the Pacific Research Institute and
Senior Fellow in California Studies. He is a leading expert in education policy and the author of several major PRI studies. [go to Izumi index]

From 2000 to 2005, the WLC rose from a low test-score ranking to a level near the state’s proficiency target score of 800. The K-5 charter school was able to defy low expectations and accomplish this feat with a student population nearly all African American and low income. In an example of what the President called “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” these two factors are too often considered indicators of educational failure. WLC charter school defied that expectation.

In the Pacific Research Institute’s recent book, Free to Learn: Lessons from Model Charter Schools, high-performing charter schools were found to have a number of common characteristics. These schools featured good management, high expectations for students and staff, and a rigorous curriculum based on state academic standards. They also used test results as diagnostic tools to address student weaknesses and chose teaching methods based on what really improved student performance. One finds all these critical characteristics at WLC.

Gene Fisher, founder and president of WLC, says that the school’s mission is to create a culture of learning and high expectations for students, parents, faculty and staff. He points out that, "The job of our teachers includes an emphasis on a proven curriculum while also reinforcing these high expectations – a belief that students can and will succeed."

The school uses the structured phonics-based Open Court reading program. WLC chose Open Court before the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted the same program. Open Court emphasizes continuous review and practice of already learned material. Sandra Fisher, the school’s executive director, says that it is important that the curriculum be structured because so many students lack structure in their lives.

Walk into any WLC classroom and you’ll see students who can’t wait to answer questions posed by teachers. As opposed to trendy teaching methods that coddle students and de-emphasize getting the right answers, WLC teachers demand that students give correct answers and push them when they don’t.

Testing is a critical part of the school’s academic program. The school uses assessment results to inform staff about the efficacy of the instructional program and the learning needs of individual students. These in turn help develop intervention plans for students.

Like many of the schools profiled in Free to Learn, professional development for WLC teachers is focused around the state academic content standards, with teachers participating in programs that enhance their ability to teach to the standards.

WLC could not have achieved its success had it not been a charter school. Charters are deregulated public schools that trade freedom from rules for a guarantee of better student performance. Gene Fisher says that the city school board "couldn’t enforce accountability for how our children were learning." Citing a WLC parent named Yolanda who had problems with the mammoth Los Angeles school district, Fisher observes, "Our community public schools needed to be set free from the bureaucracy so they could see a parent like Yolanda as a partner, not as a bother."

A visit to the Watts Learning Center is an inspirational experience. Like the other charter schools in Free to Learn, it is a model that should be emulated by charter and regular public schools alike. CRO

copyright 2005 Pacific Research Institute



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