A reform campaign for local control in three Westchester schools has begun, or as Kelly Kane puts it, “The autonomy train has left the station.”
Kane, the president of the Westchester/Playa del Rey Education Foundation, joined other parent volunteers and educators in applauding the decision by Orville Wright Middle School, the magnet school at the middle school and Kentwood Elementary School to join the autonomy movement for independence from the Los Angeles Unified School District on Tuesday, December 11th.
Over 98 percent of the parents who voted at Kentwood cast ballots in favor of autonomy. Of the votes cast by parents at the Orville Wright magnet school, over 95 percent voted yes, and the middle school’s percentage was 90 percent.
A majority of teachers at Kentwood and the magnet school cast ballots in favor of autonomy — 70 and 64 percent, respectively — and 54 percent of Orville Wright educators chose autonomy.
“I couldn’t be more pleased and more excited about the outcome of the votes,” said Kane, who has two children enrolled in Westchester schools and whose organization has been at the forefront of the push towards autonomy. “We have pushed the envelope [for autonomy], and I’m so excited that we have accepted the invitation to participate in something that we have helped to create.”
Parents, administrators and teachers at both schools, along with the magnet school at Orville Wright, voted to join the Innovation Division, or iDivision, of the Los Angeles Unified School District. That is the first step towards the beginning of a breakaway from the district, which, despite some success in certain individual schools, has failed to graduate many of its seniors and lags behind other school districts in test scores.
The presidents of the Parent-Teacher Associations that voted were pleased with the results and are looking ahead to the next step in the process of laying the groundwork for local school governance.
“It was really wonderful to see such a great turnout,” said Mylah Wessels, who heads the PTA at Kentwood Elementary and the Westchester Council PTA. “This is a very big step for everyone who wants to make our schools better.”
Ingrid Lamoureux, her counterpart at Orville Wright, added, “It’s really exciting to be a part of something that is going to greatly benefit our children.”
Both PTA presidents anticipated a high turnout among parents, administrators and teachers at their respective schools.
Asked if the high number of yes votes surprised her, Wessels said, “No, I wasn’t really.”
She mentioned that so many parents in her group have been monitoring the autonomy movement over the summer and many were not only well informed, but also ready to begin the next stage of the process toward self-governance.
“Those of us who have been involved for a long time have felt the frustration of not [having more localized control],” Lamoureux added. “We know that there is no silver bullet for improving student achievement, but we’re very excited to get started.”
Lamoureux and Wessels believe that one of the first things that should be discussed when classes resume in January is how each school will set up its own governance council. Similar in structure to the current model of school site councils in Westchester that have an advisory role to the school administration, the governance councils will have actual control over budgets, overseeing curriculum and deciding what reforms best suit their individual schools.
Stephen Rochelle, the principal at Orville Wright, thinks that governance councils are a good place to start.
“One of the first steps will be to mobilize the broad spectrum of groups to come to the table with new, innovative ideas,” the principal said. “In doing so, we will begin to define what we want to do to make an excellent school.”
Loyola Marymount University, which has played a vital role facilitating discussions between the various parties on what form autonomy can take and mitigating any misconceptions about teacher and parental roles within the reform model, has pledged to assist all schools who join the autonomy campaign with fundraising, professional development for teachers and training in budgets and ideas on how to start governance councils.
“I and the [Orville Wright] PTA look forward to collaborating with LMU,” said Lamoureux. “Drew Furedi [LMU Family of Schools executive director] has been a dream to work with.”
Lamoureux would also like to see the achievement gap between minority students addressed from a different perspective.
Wessels said she is very interested in exploring the new terrain of local control with a governance council at Kentwood.
“I’m interested in planning to see what type of curriculum we want, what resources will be available to us, and hearing all of the good ideas to see what will be the best approach for us,” said Wessels, whose daughter will attend Orville Wright next year, where her husband teaches.
Kane feels that one of the most important roles that her group will serve in the next few months is similar to what they have done prior to the December 11th vote, which is to continue to assist in informing teachers and community members about the benefits of local control.
“We will do what we have always done; support and advocate for our schools,” she asserted. “We will continue to be a conduit for parents to talk freely about what their schools really need and what kind of school they envison for themselves, their children and our wonderful teachers.”
Rochelle, whose school has seen substantial improvement during his five years as principal, believes that with the advent of autonomy, the opportunities for large-scale and long-term academic excellence are very possible.
“This is the most important work of our time,” Rochelle said. “We really have to do this right, so that we can prepare our children to be citizens not only of the United States, but of the world.”
Kentwood Elementary principal Jean Pennicooke had not returned phone calls by Argonaut press time.
The remaining Westchester schools are slated to vote in January