When analyzed by subgroups, the CAHSEE data show less positive news. While all subgroups of students are making steady, and, in some cases, impressive progress on both the English-language arts and mathematics portions of the exam, significantly lower passage rates persist for some subgroups of students compared to the statewide passage rate.
Other testing data are consistent with those low achievement indicators. Clearly these numbers cry out for more conducive learning environments that support students to perform at much higher levels.
Maintaining the status quo will continue these unacceptable results that truncate the lives of Americans in this community. A bold innovation in secondary schools is imperative to eradicate the under-education of young people in Los Angeles.
Therefore, the community in the Pico-Union area has coalesced to bring together forces for significant change in public education that is rooted in the Belmont Zone of Choice.
THE BELMONT ZONE OF CHOICE—ONE SOLUTION
The Belmont Zone of Choice is a bold educational innovation to transform Belmont High School into a portfolio of dynamic small learning communities (SLCs) and autonomoussmall schools that support all youth to excel academically and personally. For students to reach high levels of academic achievement, their learning and developmental needs must be cared for and supported. If we believe all students can learn at high levels, then it is incumbent upon educators, parents, and the community to build the environments and conditions to make that possible.
Given the demands on students to meet higher expectations, the needs of diverse learners, and the complex challenges youth confront in their lives, and the world today, Belmont High School requires a significant shift in culture and organization. Based on what we know and understand today about youths’ needs and the conditions of high-performance learning organizations, Belmont High School has begun its transformation from a large industrial-like structure into a series of small learning communities, autonomous small schools, and a 6th-12th grade span school.
Belmont Zone of Choice schools will consistently demonstrate student readiness for success in college with a high success rate in student proficiency on state academic standards, one hundred percent success rate in passing high school exit exams, and dramatically reducing the dropout rate to less than 10 percent, and who will graduate ready to successfully enter college.
In every Belmont Zone of Choice small learning community and small autonomous schools, each young person is valued as a vibrant, dignified human being, as a creative and intellectual force, and a respected member of an interdisciplinary community of scholars. Based on principles of nonviolence, peace and social justice, multicultural youth and adults partner to create a culture of commitment, caring and inquiry in a safe learning environment. Students and teachers cultivate respectful, trusting relationships among themselves and with families and communities to develop shared responsibility and accountability that allow them to think, understand, and act with integrity for young people to be prepared to succeed in life, college and work with civic and environmental consciousness.
To offer students in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles with an IN-DISTRICT Zone of Choice that allows students the opportunity to attend a small learning community or small autonomous school of their choice based on interest, skill or preferred field of study. The aim of the Zone of Choice is to inspire urban youth, from communities traditionally less politically and economically powerful, drawing on mind, heart, and body. Through unfettered experiences, Zone of Choice schools prepare young people to become independent critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, and humane leaders who collaborate and strive for a democratic common good. Zone of Choice schools will enable youth to lead positive, productive lives, acting consciously on the power, goodness, and beauty within themselves, within a place, within a community and within a democracy.
WHY THE ZONE OF CHOICE?
To contend with Belmont’s challenges, which have led to its being identified by the California Department of Education as a Program Improvement 4 (PI 4) School, the Belmont ZONE OF CHOICE schools are dedicated to helping transform the comprehensive Belmont High School into a portfolio of schools among which students and parents can choose. The portfolio is made up of:
nine small learning communities; and
one autonomous small high school.
What is unique is the networking strength, expertise and imagination that these schools with students, families and communities will bring to bear on young people’s holistic development.
While building on Belmont High’s own best practices and assets, the Belmont Zone of Choice will take advantage of new facilities being constructed in the Pico-Union area to establish innovative conditions for learning and teaching (Figure 1). Drawing upon the strengths of Belmont High School stakeholders and the commitment of the Belmont Educational Collaborative, these conditions will incorporate deep understandings about learning and organizational theory; brain research; best practices in special education, cutting-edge curricular pedagogy for English Learners, performance-based instruction and assessment design; youth development; resource allocation; and professional learning communities, etc. With this approach, the Belmont Zone of Choice is a plan of action to implement LAUSD’s A-G requirements along with meeting district and state standards.
Small Learning Communities are one type of the Zone of Choice portfolio of educational offerings that will operate as parts of a larger school configuration. Each SLC has 300 – 400 students. Each shares administration and various resources with the broader school entity. Small learning communities are semi-autonomous, developing under the guidelines of the LAUSD Request for Proposal (RFP) process and SLC attributes. Those have been established by the district, informed by collective bargaining units and approved by school board policy. Enhanced by specific opportunities provided by the Belmont Educational Collaborative and its national partners, the RFP process enabled Belmont’s SLC proposals to grow from its existing academies or to start-up as
new small learning communities.
PURPOSE OF THE BELMONT ZONE OF CHOICE
As new facilities open, thousands of community students can get off busses and attend neighborhood secondary schools. The principal aim of the Belmont Zone of Choice innovation is to have every student in SLCs or new autonomous small schools to make substantive yearly academic progress through a vigorous, coherent curriculum, based on A-G requirements, that closes the achievement gap and enables young people to realize their potential as they reach for their dreams. In short, the Zone of Choice allows Local District 4 to formulate a grassroots and professional answer to implementing LAUSD’s policy of providing an A-G curriculum by re-conceptualizing the means and manner of delivering educational services.
Additionally, the Zone of Choice is meant to build new knowledge and demonstrate what it takes to imagine, devise and create leaner-centered cultures and communities in which teachers can know students well and work with them and each other, face-to-face, in humane, caring relationships that foster intellectual and democratic habits and a professional craft for the 21st century.
Cultivating trust and respectful relationships is a first step of closing the achievement gap. That gap actually exists as an “opportunity” gap produced in factory-like schooling, and a bureaucratic, hierarchical organization, overloaded with demands, particularly constraining in high schools. That system of mass production views students as passive recipients or targets of programs and gives teachers little time to treat students as unique individuals. Unfortunately, opportunity gaps begin early in the current system of schooling.
Though the Belmont Zone of Choice focuses primarily on secondary schools, it will reach to affect preK-5th grade elementary school and 6th-8th grade middle school programs and practice. With the assistance of the Belmont Educational Collaborative and recognition of its own responsibilities, there can be a community-rich effort to uproot the institutional bureaucratic norms and habits that separate schools from the families and the community. As such a fissure widens, so too do the opportunity gaps which retard achievement. The Belmont Educational Collaborative can help close gaps by leveraging the learning resources found in families, neighbors, as well as in community, cultural, higher educational, political, civic, civil society and business allies. Their advocacy, ingenuity and goodwill can enrich and honor both students and teachers for the uniqueness and talents that they can bring to bear on learning from PreK-12.
Small Learning Communities in the Belmont Zone of Choice will serve an area of need in the Pico Union community where schools are heavily impacted by overcrowding, lack of seat space, and transportation out of the community.
Small Learning Communities in the Belmont Zone of Choice will serve students in the Pico Union community where schools have historically low academic performance with an Academic Performance Index (API) state rank of 1 or 2 on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best.
Small Learning Communities in the Belmont Zone of Choice proposes to implement an innovative small learning communities design in the Pico Union community focused on personalizing students’ education that will support the District’s goals for improving performance in secondary schools.
Autonomous Small Schools will form the second, highly experimental, part of the educational portfolio. As stand-alone organizations with no more than 400 students, the small schools have their own principals, select their entire teaching and support staff, and have maximum freedom and responsibility to control their resources and set the conditions of their own work to provide students with a complete academic program unique to the school’s philosophy, inventiveness and distinct manner.
The Zone of Choice’s small schools network is to be a primary hub of cultural shifts and educational innovation in LAUSD Local District 4, operating as research and development sites for effective urban public schools. Unique in California the network will expect skilled and knowledgeable teachers and administrators to use their authority to set the conditions for internal professional accountability—having autonomy over curriculum, instruction, assessment, professional development, budget, staffing, governance, the schedule and school calendar—while pursuing external accountability that exhibits students’ progress of learning over time.
To maximize the benefits of the autonomous small schools’ IN-DISTRICT pilot innovation, the network will use its creative space to show how the autonomies are levers to organize resources, curriculum and staffing to best meet students’ needs in real time, while operating within the economy of scale of a large urban public school district. These conditions are critical in establishing successful urban schools, and, in particular, improving the achievement of low-income students and students of color.
The New Tech High Foundation and the Center for Collaborative Education-Boston, non-profit education organizations, in partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District has committed to providing the Zone of Choice autonomous small schools pilot network with coordination, support, and assistance, including coaching services, professional development, advocacy, research and evaluation.
A committed group of Belmont High School’s community-based organizations, including Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), Families in Schools (FIS) and Alliance for a Better Community (ABC), have agreed to help convene the Belmont Educational Collaborative to build a sustainable system of intellectually rich and equitable public schools in the Zone of Choice.