Signal Article 2-12-09

Mixed emotions over charter idea
Probation camps' schools in the balance

A girl takes a break between classes Wednesday morning at Camp Joseph Scott, a county probation camp for girls off Bouquet Canyon Road.

Signal Articl 12-1-08 Photo

By Brian Charles
Signal Staff Writer

Brian Charles Photo

Dec. 1, 2008

Officials at two local juvenile probation camps for high school girls continue to wrestle with a request approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to make the camps charter schools.

The board's Comprehensive Education Reform Report contained 35 items aimed at improving education for camps Kenyon Scudder and Joseph Scott in Saugus, but the charter issue continues to create the most controversy.

"The union perspective is that we don't see any benefit," said Mark Lewis, president of the Los Angeles County Education Association.

Until someone can actually show him how putting the camps under the umbrella of a charter school would benefit the girls, Lewis is against the idea.

At present, responsibilities are split between the county Office of Education and the county Probation Department, with the latter handling law enforcement and supervision duties, and the Office of Education focused on the classroom.

"When we're most successful is when we work together," camp Principal Valerie Martin said.

However, the schools would have more "flexibility and freedom" because as a charter, they would not be required to adhere to the strict state-mandated comprehensive educational curriculum.

"I say let it go forward because it's easy to do and it gives (the Office of Education) a chance to try something that's a little different than what they do now, and I think that's good," Watson said.

Although the camps' schools would continue to operate under the Office of Education, Martin and Lewis are concerned that a "dependent charter" would mean an extra, unnecessary level of bureaucracy - some type of charter board.

"We represent the most difficult, challenging kids in the county," Lewis said. "I get defensive about saying someone else could handle this."

Sharon Watson, executive director of the Children's Council of Los Angeles County, is not sure if a charter board would be implemented, but nonetheless, she sees the dependent charter idea as a window opening on opportunities for the camps.

Watson was executive director of the education coordinating council that helped compile the Reform Report, including the charter recommendation.

Because the charter would be dependent, the camps' schools would continue to operate under the Office of Education, she said.

Margo Minecki, spokeswoman for the Office of Education, said while she is not sure how the charter would operate since no other juvenile court school operates as a charter, the office is open to collaborating and exploring the charter option.

Students at the camps have not been performing as well as they could, Watson said.

"It was felt that things aren't going well," she said. "The kids are reading around the fifth-grade level or below the average reading level at the camps. There are very poor results compared to kids that are in camps in other counties.

"Yes, these kids come in and they're difficult to deal with, and are challenged and way behind in school, but we want to see what can be done to step it up. We've got just a little window to turn these kids around and get them back into the community."

More flexibility in curricula could make way for programs such as vocational classes or community college-level courses, Watson said.

"The point is, you can individualize for the students' needs and give kids more attention and customize in a way that meets their particular needs," Watson said.

Some officials at the schools have countered that they are already successful.

"It's working fine the way it is right now," said Susan Hayward, a teacher at Camp Scudder. Hayward said some students advanced years academically in a matter of four or five months.

The Board of Supervisors recently asked school officials to put together a five-page concept report representing an ideal situation.

Martin formed a work group composed of camp directors, some teachers and superintendents to tackle the issue from all sides and create the report. A quality education program in a safe environment combined with female responsiveness and collaboration with probation is the ideal vision the group has formed for the camps' schools, she said.

"At this time, after two meetings," she said, "we haven't seen where a charter would be a benefit."