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The truth about charter schools

Posted: November 28, 2008 6:49 p.m.
Updated: November 29, 2008 4:59 a.m.
The recent Signal news article "Change is in the air for probation camps Scudder and Scott" prompted me to think, "Why should the Santa Clarita public give a thought whether these detention-camp schools become pilot-dependent charter schools operated under an umbrella from the Los Angeles County Office of Education, with the approval of Los Angeles County Probation?"

It would be an unusual occurrence if any Santa Clarita Valley parent actually had a child detained in a juvenile detention center such as Scott or Scudder in Saugus. So what's the big deal if both camps become pilot charter schools?

For starters, converting both camp schools to charter entities would hurt the most vulnerable of our population, "at-risk youth."

These under-age-18 adolescents aren't sent to camp detainment for singing too loudly in the church choir!
Many have committed serious crimes including grand theft, robbery, burglary, destruction of private and public property also known as "tagging," and serious narcotics felonies that include drug dealing.

Many of these minors have been habitual truants, never attending traditional district schools and consequently suffering low reading and math scores.

Probation's Comprehensive Education Reform Report presented to the Board of Supervisors in early October suggests 35 items intended to improve the education at the 19 county Juvenile Probation Camps, including girls' camps Joseph Scott and Kenyon Scudder in Bouquet Canyon.

Second District Supervisor Don Knabe was so impressed with these recommendations that he offered the motion to accept the report.

Fifth District Supervisor Michael Antonovich heartily seconded Knabe's motion, and the board on a 5-0 vote unanimously approved the report.

Thirty-four of the recommendations are positive and productive. I am totally on board with those recommendations.

But one of the suggestions is to convert Scudder and Scott schools to pilot charter schools. I am not on board with that.

I am hopeful the board will re-think its position on allowing Camps Scudder and Scott to become charter schools. Here's a capsule history.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education and its Juvenile Court schools have a five-decade history of educating students who get in trouble with the law.

Partnering with Probation, the county office has served the educational needs of these youths, providing an accredited academic program that mainstreams the students back to their home district schools.

Probation provides a stable environment while the Office of Education provides the instruction. Have there been some ups and downs over 50 years? You bet. But each agency did its job and helped kids.

Now, it would appear Probation wants to enter the education business and has convinced the Board of Supervisors that its recommendations are the panacea to improve students' test scores and enhance options.

Probation wants to bring in a dependant charter company to implement these proposals.

Here are some of the reasons charter schools are a terrible idea for Scudder and Scott students:

n Virtually no charter school entity in California has any experience in dealing with a population of incarcerated youth. The present Office of Education Administration and Certificated Staff are highly experienced in dealing with the challenges presented by our students.

n STAR test scores under the county administration are actually higher when compared to the districts' scores from where these kids originated.

For example, a student from the Antelope Valley who ends up at Scudder/Scott actually tests higher than the average test scorer from the Antelope Valley Union High School District.

n Office of Education schools, including Scudder and Scott, are certified by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

n Scudder's High School GED program passes an average of 75 percent to 90 percent of test applicants.

n Our government works on what we call a "checks and balances" system. Shifting this balance to a single control entity is not in the best interests of kids.

This formula was sadly proven correct by the failed California Youth Authority model when the state exercised complete control over a minors' program.

Probation cites one example: The Maya Angelou Schools in Washington, D.C. that claim to graduate 70 percent of students to colleges and the work force. But the Maya Angelou schools similar in population to
Scudder/Scott students do not have incarcerated students.

Over the past decade, test scores from more than 4,000-plus charter schools nationally are lackluster, neither below nor above comparable scores from the public school districts.

And let us not forget that charter schools are for-profit entities. That fact alone can lead to higher teacher turnover, and that can most certainly undermine school performance.

Supervisor Antonovich's chief justice deputy, Anna Pembedian, mistakenly presents the opinion that the teacher's union is in full support of the implementation of a charter entity at the camp schools.

Wrong! Darlene Robles, superintendent of LACOE, does not speak for teachers, and if Dr. Robles presented the position that certificated staff at LACOE support charter schools, than she misspoke.

LACEA and its president, Mark Lewis, who does speak for teachers, is absolutely opposed to any kind of a charter school arrangement with court school children.

Ms. Pembedian also states a charter "gives flexibility to do innovative things that traditional schools are unable to do under the status quo."

Excuse me? What kind of innovative things are we talking about? Circumnavigating pesky hurdles like unions and collective bargaining agreements? C'mon, Ms. Pembedian, certificated staff and LACOE administration have a lot of leeway in providing a quality education.

Perhaps Ms. Pembedian and I can agree on one at least one item: We want to help kids. I just don't think charter schools are the way to go.

The Probation Department's aggressive push into education is nothing more than a power grab.

I am hopeful Supervisor Antonovoich, a former teacher and longtime friend of education, will rethink his position on charter schools and give LACOE and its trained staff the tools necessary to continue to help these children.

Why should you give a thought about these teens? Many of them may well be living in your neighborhood soon. Let's give them the tools to succeed.

Roger Gitlin, a resident of Santa Clarita, is a teacher at Kenyon J. Scudder Juvenile Probation Camp and has been with LACOE for 16 years. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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