Administrators of a program that drove $100 million into improving Los Angeles County schools say its impact on student achievement has been mixed so far.

“We see some promising things, but they are very few,” said Maria Casillas, president of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project (LAAMP), a coalition of civic, educational, and business leaders working on behalf of the county’s 1.6 million schoolchildren.

“But we didn’t come into this saying we were going to change the world,” she added.

Unreasonable expectations

The program is part of the national Annenberg Challenge, a public-private partnership serving more than 1.3 million students in at least 30 states. Funded by a $53 million matching grant from the Annenberg Foundation, LAAMP seeks to improve educational access and quality throughout Los Angeles County, in part through the use of technology.

On Jan. 27, more than 900 educators, parents, and community leaders gathered at a downtown Los Angeles hotel for a day-long symposium to discuss a report of their progress to date.

The report found that test scores for elementary school students at the 135 participating campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) have gone up. Third grade literacy scores have increased, dropout rates have declined, and more students are taking rigorous courses.

While these results show promise, the report also indicated that test scores at many participating LAUSD high schools went down. And while use of technology in the schools is increasing overall, some schools have yet to actually use donated computers as part of their curriculum.

Barbara Cervone, national coordinator of the Annenberg Challenge, said that expectations may have been raised too high when the project came to Los Angeles.

“With all the money came all sorts of unreasonable expectations,” she said. “What the Annenberg Challenge had to offer was, most of all, hope, and an occasion to mobilize communities around concern for public education. But it never really had the financial resources to do the kind of major investments an operation like LAUSD probably needs.”

School “families”

The LAAMP program was launched in 1995 and will end June 30, 2000. At that time, the program will leave the job of sustaining reform efforts to local funders, partners, educators, parents, and surrounding communities, and LAAMP’s governing board plans to turn itself into a watchdog group.

The program involves 200,000 students and 8,700 teachers. Schools underwent a strict selection process where only the most enthusiastic toward reform were awarded the grants.

LAAMP’s primary mission has been to knit schools into “families” consisting of a high school and its feeder middle and elementary schools to give students a smooth trip from grades K-12. The program helps schools work together to track students’ progress, coordinate teacher training, install computer networks, and carry out other projects.

There are 28 school families participating in the project–14 in LAUSD and 14 outside the district. LAUSD receives about $5 million annually through LAAMP.

The focus of reform for each family varies. While most target literacy, five of the 28 families focus specifically on technology and its use to strengthen curriculum. In addition, LAAMP’s board has created an initiative to identify schools doing great work with technology and help them document their successes.

LAAMP vice president Randy Ross said the group’s next challenge will be to make sense of the schools’ uneven test scores.

“We feel especially good that we’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “The results show that families are focusing their reforms on the elementary schools. Still, there’s the question of what we can do to integrate the high schools more. We believe that you can’t just rest on your laurels.”

The program’s administrators now will try to narrow their focus to emphasize fewer but potentially higher-impact efforts to raise reading scores, expand professional development opportunities for teachers, and integrate new technology into classrooms.

Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project

Los Angeles Unified School District

Annenberg Foundation