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It's not hopeless at Lawrence, Sutherland schools

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Posted: Saturday, March 13, 2010 12:00 am

The "bad headlines" concerning Lawrence and Sutherland schools don't mean the situation at these schools is hopeless.

They've been judged to be "Persistently Low-Achieving Schools." But years ago, Lawrence won Lodi Unified School District's first when Distinguished School Award, things weren't always off track. And with good decisions, the kids might dig their way out of the "pit" of being in the lowest 5 percent.

There's no glossing over that students at these schools aren't measuring up. It's been going on so long that state and federal laws are forcing Lodi Unified School District to make changes.

Moreover, the Obama administration wants to use "stimulus money" to improve test scores at under-performing schools. With the right application, Lodi Unified could bring in as much as $2 million for Lawrence and Sutherland. Say what you want about the wisdom of taking borrowed money from the federal government, but helping the kids at Lawrence School is a worthwhile endeavor.

Just ask Dutch Williams. He's the retired principal of Tokay High School, and since 1999, he and his fellow Kiwanis Club members have been volunteering at Lawrence School.

To him, there's no mystery as to why test scores are so low.

"The biggest problem at that school is the kids are second-language kids," he said.

Besides struggling with English, most of them are poor. Some have roots in the most impoverished parts of Pakistan. Most are the children of seasonal workers who take them out of school for long stretches and bring them back when Lodi's vineyards need tending.

High turnover of the student body makes it difficult for teachers to have a lasting impact, explained Linda Kopic, the retired school administrator who has been temporarily assigned to lead Lawrence School.

But Lawrence is not a barrel of bad apples. It's not overrun by drugs, violence or gangs. For the most part, kids are obedient and their parents encourage learning, even if Lawrence is their first encounter with American public education.

When Williams — a grandfatherly guy — walks on the schoolyard, he is smothered in hugs.

"You're like a rock star on this campus," former principal Vince Arias once told Williams. He loves the kids at Lawrence School, and frankly, I do, too.

I spent my time for this column looking into Lawrence School because my kids went there. I was PTA president in 1997-98.

Sutherland, like Lawrence, has many impoverished families and English learners. It's located in Stockton and serves fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders only. I hope that most of what I say about Lawrence will be useful to parents at Sutherland.

(By the way, Friday's paper reported that the state took Lodi Middle School and McNair High School in Stockton off the problem list.)

The judgment that Lawrence and Sutherland schools are Persistently Lowest-Achieving is important because there's a good possibility something good can come out of it.

The law now requires LUSD to shake things up by choosing one of four actions — "models," in edu-speak.

1) "Turnaround model" means firing the principal, requiring half the staff to re-apply for their jobs, plus "adopting a new governance structure; and implementing an instructional program that is research-based and vertically aligned from one grade to the next, as well as aligned with California's adopted content standards." (To tell you the truth, I don't know what that means, so keep reading the paper.)

2) "Restart model" means creating or fostering the creation of a charter school.

3) "School closure model" means closing the schools and sending the students elsewhere.

4) "Transformation model" means firing the principal, increasing the number of hours of teaching, and implementing "a series of required school improvement strategies." (Again, I'm in the dark.)

Assistant Superintendent Catherine Pennington told me the administration will probably recommend option 1 or 4 "in the coming weeks." The LUSD board, of course, makes the final decision.

She said there's no serious thought being given to close Lawrence or Sutherland.

But what about charter schools?

And, perhaps more importantly, what about the fact that Lawrence doesn't have a principal at all right now?

Forgive me, but this column is running long and I want to discuss the leadership issue and charter options for Lawrence. I'll pick this up on Monday.

Have a nice weekend.

Marty Weybret is publisher of the Lodi News-Sentinel.

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