The Los Angeles Unified School District, along with independent charter organizations and even Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have sought educational reforms for students in the nation’s second largest city for several years, with varying degrees of success.

LAUSD and supporters of the charter schools have often been at odds with the definition of reform and in what form it manifests. But in an interesting and somewhat unlikely partnership, a group of teachers in the school district and the founder of a charter organization are exploring an approach that would combine teacher-directed curriculum with the perceived accountability of charter schools.

Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, is pairing with a group of teachers to create several academies – including one in Venice – called pilot schools, which he sees as the latest school reform effort to improve student achievement.

“I got into this to reform (the school) system,” Barr, the founder and executive director for Future is Now Schools, said in a recent interview. “We’re trying to work with LAUSD teachers in a collaborative way and with the school district.”

Pilot schools are somewhat of a hybrid of charter schools and traditional public schools. They have the freedoms – or some charter opponents say the lack of accountability – of charter schools but are under direct district control.

An important distinction is these schools would be heavily influenced by teacher innovation and like Green Dot schools, the instructors would remain unionized.

Green Dot took control of Locke High School in a controversial takeover several years ago that angered teachers and some parents at the school. Locke has improved on its standardized test scores since Green Dot took control of the formerly consistently under-performing high school.

The first two LAUSD pilots opened in 2007.

Barr and his supporters are taking advantage of a provision outlined in a new agreement with United Teachers Los Angeles, the district’s largest teachers union, that allows an unlimited amount of pilot schools.

Rachel Bonkovsky, LAUSD’s executive director of division of intensive and intervention support, said the pilot schools are a reform approach that the district likes. “This is a model that we’re very excited about,” she said.

Asked the difference between a charter and a pilot school, Bonkovsky said when a pilot school was opened in Boston, it was ostensibly the school district’s answer to charter schools.

Despite LAUSD’s support of pilot academies, the district is taking a wait and see approach to Barr’s initiative.

“We’re still learning about it and we need more information on what Mr. Barr plans to do,” Bonkovsky said. “We’ve been in discussion with his team but we have not gotten any details on what is being proposed.”

LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer is taking a similar approach.

“I’m supportive of any district reform or any type of mode that will keep folks in LAUSD,” said Zimmer, who represents schools in Venice, Mar Vista, Del Rey and Westchester in District 4. “I’m very supportive of teacher-led models, including pilot schools.”

But the school board member was careful not to give his unconditional support to Barr’s initiative yet. “It’s always good to carefully study and be vigilant that funding going to these types of efforts have a political edge to them,” Zimmer noted.

Future is Now Schools will be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the Ford Foundation.

“If the goal is to use a certain kind of governance structure to create an internal fight between (LAUSD’s) bargaining units, then I don’t think that students should be collateral damage,” Zimmer asserted.

Barr said one goal would be to have a Future is Now school in Venice soon. “By 2013, it would be great to have a middle school in Venice,” said Barr, who lived in the coastal community for 12 years. “You can’t find a more unique place than Venice.”

Long a target of charters and reform minded education advocates, the Westside has an abundance of families with elementary and middle school aged children whose parents are seeking new academic opportunities for their children. Several charter schools have sprung up in Westchester in recent years and Green Dot has been active in soliciting students and their parents in Mar Vista and Venice.

Green Dot currently collocates or shares classrooms at Cowan Elementary in Westchester. Animo Venice High School is located on the campus of Broadway Elementary School in Venice, which Barr noted is one of the more successful and collaborative colocations in LAUSD.

Troy Takaki, a Venice parent whose elder daughter will begin sixth grade at Animo Venice Middle School on the Cowan campus next month, said he is intrigued by the pilot school idea.

“I personally think that giving greater control at the local level is helpful,” said Takaki, whose younger daughter attends Walgrove Avenue Elementary School in Mar Vista. “I think that it’s interesting that (Barr) is collaborating with LAUSD teachers.”

Sujata Bhatt is one of the LAUSD teachers who is assisting with the design of a potential pilot school in Venice.

“This is where my heart and soul is: making schools better for our kids,” said Bhatt, who will be teaching a combination of fourth and fifth graders next month at Grand View Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista.

Zimmer said there are already new proposed instructional programs for Westside schools in District 4. Near the end of the school year, the board member held a series of community meetings designed to inform parents about a plan to take advantage of language initiatives at Broadway Elementary School in Venice as well as at Grand View. Broadway has a rapidly growing and popular Mandarin Chinese immersion program and Grand View has the district’s longest serving Spanish immersion curriculum.

Barr said no planned or existing innovations would be harmed by his pilot school.

“We want to be collaborative for systemic change,” he said. “We’re not trying to get into fistfights with anyone.”

Bhatt agrees. “There is room for more educational alternatives on the Westside,” she said. “With a pilot school, we can think about new technology and how we can use it to engage our students.”

Barr said he is thrilled about the new partnership. “It’s kind of exciting to see LAUSD become a leader in reform and not just sitting on the sidelines all the time,” he said.

UTLA did not return calls for comment as of Argonaut press time.

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