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FAREWELL, GABRIELA! A brilliant report in the L. A. Times begins with a child left behind: // link // print // previous // next //

SIDEKICKIN’ IT: Tomorrow morning, we’ll play guest sidekick to our favorite, Bill Press, on his eponymous Sirius show. We’re on from 6-9 AM. We think you can take it from there.

AFTER THIS, THE DELUGE: Today, we start a five-part series based on Duke Helfand’s recent report in the Los Angeles Times—a superlative bit of education reporting. We want to focus on the topics encompassed by this far-reaching piece. So we’ve decided that we’ll pretty much stick to ed topics during this period. All prior threats are abandoned.

And then, it will be time to act! We’ll suspend operations until we launch our new site on educational issues. This will take about two hours. But until we force ourselves to do it, it will never get done.

We don’t like conjoining HOWLER topics with those from the world of low-income ed. After this last gasp of HOWLER-does-education, we’ll split into two sites, and be done. But Helfand’s report is extremely instructive. It allows us to look at a range of issues from the world of low-income ed—a range of issues which are often ignored in the ongoing discussion.

Special Report: Farewell, Gabriela!

PART 1—THIS CHILD LEFT BEHIND: Click here for a remarkable piece of education writing, by the Los Angeles Times’ Duke Helfand. Helfand’s piece centers on Gabriela Ocampo, now a Los Angeles high school drop-out. Incredibly, Ocampo dropped out of her Los Angeles high school midway through her twelfth grade year—because she couldn’t pass the school’s first-year algebra course. And there’s no doubt that she couldn’t pass this course. By the time Ocampo finally gave up, she had taken it—and failed it—six times!

Hang on for a remarkable story of low-income education—“higher standards,” “No Child Left Behind” style.

Yes, you read that first paragraph correctly; Gabriela Ocampo dropped out of Birmingham High in Los Angeles midway through her twelfth grade year. The reason? She couldn’t pass the school’s first-year algebra course—and a few years earlier, the Board of Education had made the course a graduation requirement, something it never had been in the past. At the start of his report, Helfand describes Ocampo failing the course as a freshman—then trying, and trying, and trying again. Here’s the way decent kids get “left behind” in this utterly brainless new era:

HELFAND (1/30/06): Gabriela failed that first semester of freshman algebra. She failed again and again—six times in six semesters. And because students in Los Angeles Unified schools must pass algebra to graduate, her hopes for a diploma grew dimmer with each F.

Midway through 12th grade, Gabriela gathered her textbooks, dropped them at the campus book room and, without telling a soul, vanished from Birmingham High School.

An obvious question comes to mind: What kind of school would let a student take the same course six times in four years? And no, this isn’t the way it always has been done; traditionally, American students haven’t been required to pass Algebra 1 to get their high school diploma. Traditionally, kids like Gabriela Ocampo—kids who “worked hard and played by the rules”—were granted the dignity of their high school diploma without the requirement of passing this course. But at some point in the late 1990s, the hapless Los Angeles Board of Ed got the “higher standards” bug in its ear. Its new standards took effect in 2003—despite a gruesome failure of planning on the part of the board, a failure laid out by Helfand (details to follow tomorrow). And by the way—Ocampo isn’t the only kid being denied her high school diploma because of this poorly-planned, ill-advised action. As Helfand explains, thousands of Los Angeles kids are now becoming high school drop-outs because they can’t pass their school’s algebra course. Early on, he starts to lay out this truly remarkable story:
HELFAND: [Ocampo’s] story might be just a footnote to the Class of 2005 except that hundreds of her classmates, along with thousands of others across the district, also failed algebra.

Of all the obstacles to graduation, algebra was the most daunting.

The course that traditionally distinguished the college-bound from others has denied vast numbers of students a high school diploma.

"It triggers dropouts more than any single subject," said Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer. "I think it is a cumulative failure of our ability to teach math adequately in the public school system.”

The Los Angeles schools have staged a “cumulative failure,” Romer says; he says they’ve failed to teach math adequately. But for all the superintendent’s hand-wringing, it’s Ocampo who’s getting the shaft in the process—not her teachers, and not Roy Romer. As Helfand notes, the ability to pass this particular course was traditionally a sign of academic distinction; it separated college-bound students from mere high school graduates. Now, thanks to a know-nothing school board (more to come), this same course takes a kid like Ocampo and tells her to get her ass out of our schools. It tells her that she has been “left behind.” Whatever the school board thought it was doing in this ill-advised scheme, it has told her that she isn’t wanted.

Tens of thousands of Los Angeles kids are failing algebra, Helfand reports. Often, they’re being taught by unqualified teachers, a point which Helfand explains in his piece. Often, they had no business taking that course to begin with, a key point we’ll expand on ourselves. Tomorrow, we’ll review Helfand’s staggering drop-out numbers, and we’ll review those comments by Superintendent Romer—a former pol who came to L.A. with no educational expertise. Of course, Romer continues to draw his pay, despite the “failure” he has overseen. Meanwhile, he and this board have been singing a song. They sing sweetly: “Farewell, Gabriela.”

TOMORROW: Helfand describes the board’s woeful planning. We’ll add a few points of our own.

Part 2—A wealth of bad planning
Part 3—How do they get so far behind?
Part 4—Conservative theoretics, liberal indifference
Part 5—That illustrative Virginia “school report card” (long promised)