When Westchester High School voted last month to become a part of the autonomy movement from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the feeling expressed by many of the leaders of this reform effort was that bringing the high school into the fold was a watershed moment in the drive for academic freedom and local independence.
“With the addition of Westchester High, we now have the entire pipeline, from the elementary schools to the high school,” said Kelly Kane, the president of the Westchester/Playa del Rey Education Foundation. “That’s why getting the high school in the Innovation Division was a key element for (the autonomy movement).”
Kentwood Elementary School, Orville Wright Middle School and the magnet school at Orville Wright voted to join the district’s Innovation Division, or iDivision, in December.
The iDivision is an educational initiative created by L.A. Unified superintendent David L. Brewer last year that is charged with fast-tracking school improvement across the district. It will play a key role, along with Loyola Marymount University (LMU), in assisting schools that join the initiative with hands-on training in self-governance, which will include professional development for teachers, workshops for parents and teachers in creating budgets and structuring lesson planning for students, among other things.
Westchester High School principal Anita Barner also believes that it was critical to have the high school on board in order to have a direct line for students in iDivision schools from kindergarten through the high school years.
“Orville Wright is the only middle school (locally) that feeds into Westchester High, so that’s very important,” she said.
The president of Orville Wright’s Parent Teachers Association, Ingrid Lamoureux, added, “We’ve established a feeder pattern with K-12 [kindergarten-through-12th-grade] students.”
LMU officials echo the sentiments of educators and community leaders.
“I think that having the high school as part of the network is a visible, almost tangible example of the Family of Schools idea,” said Drew Furedi, executive director of the university’s Family of Schools. “Right now, in the Innovation Division-LMU partnership, what we’ve got is kindergarten through 12 and we’re there as the higher education portion of the partnership.”
Furedi pointed out that teachers and parents at the high school had been among the most skeptical regarding autonomy for months, and that makes the overwhelming vote to join the iDivision all the more significant.
“I think that was an indication of all of the stakeholders recognizing and saying that our kids could be doing better, and we will do anything it takes to get them to a place where they are succeeding at a higher level,” Furedi surmised.
“This was really a vote for parents, teachers and the students,” he added. “It was about saying we accept the responsibility and the authority that comes with this, and we are looking at a new way of stepping up to get to new solutions.”
Now that nearly 50 percent of Westchester schools have voted to become autonomous from L.A. Unified, many are asking what role LMU will assume in the next stage of autonomy and what that will mean for students, teachers and parents.
The university recognizes that it will now shift gears from solely facilitating the conversation surrounding autonomy to a partnership and leadership role in working with the interested parties to make the transition to self-governance as smooth as possible.
“We’re not only in partnership on this; we’re accountable for this now also,” Furedi noted. “We’re accountable for providing a leadership role in this.”
School board member Marlene Canter, who represents Westchester, sees LMU as an amalgam of leader and partner as the local control movement goes forward.
“Part of their leadership role is to facilitate,” she explained. “As a network partner, I see LMU helping to define the priorities and the needs of each school in the iDivision.”
Kane feels that the university can and should be both a leader and a facilitator in future stages of reform, but it must also recognize that the autonomy initiative is a collaboration between several like-minded yet distinct groups.
“I believe that LMU should partner with us to make our schools the best that they can be,” she asserted. “But it should be a partnership in every sense of the word.”
Kane, who has two children in Westchester schools, said she would like to see all interested parties — educators, parents, community members — be allowed to participate in every major meeting surrounding the continued exploration of autonomy.
“In order for autonomy to work in the best possible way, there has to be transparency at every step of the process,” she said.
Lamoureux, the Orville Wright PTA president, sees the university’s role from a slightly different perspective.
“I look at LMU as a collaborator and a facilitator, but not very hard-line from a leadership standpoint,” Lamoureux said, adding that she has enjoyed working with Furedi.
Schools that have voted for autonomy are currently in an exploratory mode as far as what they would like to see in the next step of planning for local control, according to Furedi and Lamoureux.
“One part of this next process is to take a critical look at a school’s plan and to determine what are the high priority things that are going to move students to where they need to be,” Furedi explained. “A lot of this is looking internally at what has been working and improving upon that, and taking a look at other schools that might resemble Kentwood or Orville Wright and see what things they might be doing that are successful, about setting up instruction or governance, and what did not work.”
LMU will also assist the schools in providing access to its wide network of resources to the autonomy effort, including grant writing support, additional teacher training, and research.
Lamoureux is part of an exploratory committee with members from Kentwood, Orville Wright and Westchester High who are visiting other schools with demographics similar to Westchester schools to obtain information that Furedi referred to that might benefit the local reform effort.
“We’re looking at schools that have seen a turnaround academically, and what they did to turn things around,” she said.
At a press conference celebrating Westchester High’s vote for autonomy January 25th, Brewer mentioned that he had reminded teachers that now that they were moving toward autonomy they, along with parents and school administrators, would have greater responsibilities for the academic well-being of their students.
“That means that you can’t look to LAUSD and point fingers,” the superintendent noted. “Now, if something is not going the way that you want it, you have to look in the mirror and ask yourselves, ‘What am I doing that’s not making this happen?'”
Canter hopes that local control can serve as the vehicle to unlock what she feels is a vast array of untapped academic promise in Westchester schools.
“I’m hoping that (autonomy) will be the booster rocket that helps our students maximize their potential,” said the school board member.
Furedi says LMU is up to the challenge and the responsibility as the next level of exploring autonomy kicks in.
“We’re ready for the responsibility and the accountability for making sure that schools get through that exploratory, fact-finding stage and become successful, self-governing schools,” Furedi reiterated. “And we’re really excited about that responsibility.”