Los Angeles County juvenile probation camps may try charter schools

Dissatisfied with the students’ performance, county supervisors vote to create three charters within the system. Camp teachers question whether the shift would bring improvement in students’ skills.
By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
November 24, 2008
Students held at Camp Joseph Scott, one of 19 juvenile probation camps in Los Angeles County, are some of the toughest to teach.

Locked in classrooms behind 12-foot fences topped with razor wire, many of the girls sport tattoos with the emblems of some of the region’s most infamous gangs. Although most are high-school students, on average they read at a fourth-grade level and have fifth-grade math skills.

Karen Berns has taught math there for 15 years. Over time, she learned to be vigilant. At the end of each class, Berns collects the girls’ pencils. Otherwise, they might use them as weapons.

“I got my experience from years of teaching with these kids,” said Berns, 55, who is known as “Granny” to her students. “It takes a long time to get that.”

Now, the veteran teacher’s future at the camp is uncertain. Earlier this month, Los Angeles County supervisors — dissatisfied with teacher performance at the camps — voted to create charter schools at Camp Scott, which houses about 100 girls, and nearby Camp Kenyon Scudder, which houses about 60.

Supervisors also approved a charter for boys, possibly at Camp Glenn Rockey in San Dimas, which houses about 80.

“All of these kids who are in camp now get the same model of education: the cookie-cutter model,” Robert Taylor, Los Angeles County probation chief, told supervisors when he presented them with a 35-point plan to improve education at the camps last month.

But there are many unanswered questions — including how much the charters will cost to operate and how they will be authorized and staffed. Among the options under consideration for operating the charters: Green Dot, a private company that runs several charters in Los Angeles, and Bonita Unified School District in San Dimas.

The charters would be the first in the county camp system. Education at the camps is supervised by the county Board of Education and managed by the state-funded Los Angeles County Office of Education. The office employs about 240 teachers, who average about 19 years of experience, according to state records.

Many teachers at the camps oppose the change, arguing that the switch to charters is an excuse for the county to hire cheaper, less-experienced, nonunion staff.

“I am proud of the instruction provided,” said Darline P. Robles, superintendent of the county education office. “At the heart of these programs is a corps of teachers who are dedicated to making a difference with an incredibly challenging group of students in perhaps the most difficult of learning environments.”

By law, school boards, not county governments, are responsible for authorizing charters. Once a charter is designed, including a proposed budget and staff, by law the board is required to get the signatures of at least half the number of teachers needed to staff the charter. If not enough teachers sign on, the board or county could petition the state for a waiver to start the charter, a move the county probation chief and supervisors are already exploring.

Supervisor Don Knabe, who backs bringing charter schools to the camps, says administrators and teachers with the county education office have been underperforming for years and need to be challenged.

“You need to have multiple educational opportunities for these kids,” Knabe said.

On state tests, students scored below those in county-run probation schools in nearby counties. Last year, 21% passed a state high school exit exam in math, compared with 35% in Riverside County and 25% in San Bernardino County. In English exit exams last year, 24% passed, compared with 34% in Riverside and 28% in San Bernardino.

The most recent state assessment of the L.A. County-run schools, conducted in 2006-07, showed students completed about 5.2 credits a month, which is considered less than sufficient.

The push to improve education in the camps comes as the county juvenile detention system also faces increased pressure by federal Justice Department officials to improve safety. A scathing report on safety conditions by federal investigators, and a threat by the Justice Department to sue if the county failed to act, spurred the Board of Supervisors last week to announce plans to hire a team of independent monitors for the camps.

A committee made up of probation and county education office officials is reviewing charter plans this month, starting with the girls school, which could open within six months, Taylor said. The boys charter is not expected to open for a year, he said. Taylor is to report back to the board with a more detailed plan by Dec. 14.

Although many charter schools teach at-risk and violent youths, few instruct youths who are in detention, according to the California Charter Schools Assn. One that does is Five Keys Charter School, which the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department started six years ago. The school says students enrolled there for at least a month increase academic levels by about two grades.

Some veteran teachers at Los Angeles probation camps say that if a charter school can demonstrate results, they would be willing to make the shift. But they question whether that would happen.

“We’re dealing with a whole new breed of kids. These are gang kids. Tough kids,” said Roger Gitlin, a union representative at Camp Scudder who has taught probationers for 18 years and opposes the charters. “Many of them have never even gone to school, kids who are born into a tough situation, and we are supposed to provide some sort of miracle formula.”

Still, Gitlin said: “I understand Mr. Knabe’s frustration. He wants results.”

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