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Reason Foundation

Los Angeles Daily News

Break Up LAUSD's Violent Schools

Smaller campuses are the safest

Lisa Snell
March 3, 2005

A 14-year-old ninth-grader was arrested for having a loaded handgun on campus at Sylmar Senior High last month.

A 15-year-old student suffered a broken jaw in a gang fight in front of Crenshaw High School in December.

According to Los Angeles Police Department statistics, there were three sex offenses, 17 robberies, 25 batteries and 11 assaults with a deadly weapon at Locke Senior High School last year. Similarly, Jordan Senior High School students suffered five sex offenses, 16 assaults with a deadly weapon, 25 batteries and 65 property crimes.

Seven campuses across Los Angeles had racially motivated brawls in the 2003-2004 school year.

Most Los Angeles schools are safe. But imagine sending your kids to one of the several large high schools that continue to buck the national trend of less violence in public schools. A new plan by the Small Schools Alliance would reduce the violence that plagues these schools by creating several smaller schools with 500 or fewer students in Los Angeles.

It's important to note that overall, school violence is down. The National Center for Education Statistics found the nationwide crime victimization rate at schools decreased from 48 violent victimizations per 1,000 students in 1992 to 24 victimizations in 2002. And just 2 percent of schools accounted for approximately 50 percent of the serious violent incidents.

We do know that violent crimes are more likely to occur in large schools. Thirty-three percent of schools with 1,000 or more students experienced a serious violent crime, while just 4 percent to 9 percent of small- and medium-size schools had a similar occurrence.

Smaller schools experience fewer incidents because school funding and decision-making are concentrated at the school level rather than upstream at the school district. Small-school principals have more control and less red tape, which allows them to execute policies that actually reduce school conflict and violence on their campuses.

A growing body of evidence suggests that reducing school size also improves student learning. Data collected by researchers at the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois show that smaller school sizes improve student performance (grades and test scores) and produce lower drop-out rates.

In recognition of this trend, two urban districts in California — San Francisco and Oakland — have moved their school budgeting practices to the school level. San Francisco, with 116 schools and 60,000 students, is in its fourth year of using a weighted student formula for funding and giving more decision-making power to principals and their School Site Councils, made up of parents and school staff. Since implementing the plan, San Francisco's test scores have improved every year.

In light of the relationship between large schools, school violence and student achievement, the national small schools movement is receiving great financial support because of its promise. In the past decade, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided $745 million in grant money to promote small schools, including a $51.2 million gift to New York City's public schools to fund 67 small, theme-based high schools, each of which will limit enrollment to a maximum of 500 students.

Chicago has also announced that about 60 of its worst schools will be closed and replaced by 100 smaller schools with new staff and new programs.

Los Angeles should do the same. The winner of the upcoming mayoral election should work with, push and cajole the Los Angeles Unified School District to replace the area's most dangerous schools with smaller schools to ensure our students are given the best possible learning environment and don't have to worry about being a crime victim on campus.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.


Lisa Snell is Director of Education


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