Westchester academic reform advocates will have the opportunity to hear another alternative to improving their schools and increasing local control at 7 p.m Tuesday, August 28th, when Steven Barr, the founder and chief executive officer of Green Dot Public Charter Schools, is scheduled to speak before the Westchester Playa del Rey Neighborhood CouncilEducation Committee.
Green Dot bills itself as “the only organization with a proven track record of successfully serving secondary students, the highest-need student population of Los Angeles.”
In May, the charter school company became embroiled in a highly publicized clash with the Los Angeles Unified School District board over its entry into Locke High School in South Los Angeles, which had been underperforming for years. Green Dot hopes to set up ten smaller reform-oriented schools at Locke by next fall.
The move was heralded by many teachers and parents at the high school, who are desperate for a new method that will increase their children’s chances of improved graduation rates and improved academic performance.
Locally, parental education advocates, including the Westchester-Playa del Rey Education Foundation, have also been lobbying with community groups to change the way that children are being taught in Westchester schools. While the elementary schools have performed quite well, Orville Wright Middle School and Westchester High in recent years have not.
“It’s another option to consider,” said Kelly Kane, the education foundation’s president, who has been at the forefront of the push for autonomy at Westchester schools. “We’re not saying that [Green Dot] is necessarily the kind of reform that we want, but we all recognize that there needs to be a change in the way that the district has been functioning, and [the district] has been very close-minded about changing its ways.”
Barr, in a recent interview, stated that the purpose of his discussion at the Westchester council meeting will not be to advocate for his charter school, and he says Green Dot enters schools that are willing to work with them.
“We only go where we’re wanted,” he said.
He said that both Kane’s organization and the Westchester Neighborhood Council invited him to address the education committee. “I think that they are getting restless, and they want to hear another approach,” Barr surmised.
On another front, Los Angeles Unified School District teachers have selected a charter-like reform model that they believe will fit their goals of having more localized control while maintaining teacher benefits.
The new model “encompasses the entire [union] contract,” said A.J. Duffy, the president of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA).
While Green Dot teachers are union educators, teachers at Locke, for example, would need to re-apply for their jobs to principals hired by the charter school. The current UTLA contract would become invalid.
Throughout the summer, Westchester teachers, parents and concerned community members participated in a series of workshops on the campus of Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in an effort to define what kind of autonomy plan would best fit their schools.
“We have very specific needs for Westchester schools,” Kane noted. “So not all reform plans are going to work here.
“The district cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to school autonomy.”
Dr. Shane Martin, LMU’s dean of education, agrees.
“We’re at a point where we can no longer continue to move forward with business as usual in regard to education,” he said. “At times, I think that we tend to get comfortable with certain methods and don’t want to change.
“But our children can longer continue like this. We have to give them an opportunity to succeed.”
The university has acted as a facilitator in these meetings, a role that Martin says the school will continue to play.
“I believe that our summer meetings have created a climate of unity, and in September we will continue to work with all of the stakeholders to create a reform model that will benefit students, parents and teachers,” he pledged.
Barr says that some of the advantages of a Green Dot program would appeal to Westchester parents and faculty.
“We pay our teachers more, we have high expectations of students and teachers, we don’t have the huge bureaucracy and we include parents in what we’re doing,” said Green Dot’s founder.
Asked about the biggest difference between his organization and other charter schools and autonomy plans, Barr replied, “We have a success record. I think that we can make our model work anywhere, including in a diverse community like Westchester.”
The teachers union joined the school board in opposing Green Dot’s involvement in South Los Angeles schools, including this summer’s move to enter Locke. While Duffy says that he does not personally dislike the charter school’s methods of teaching, he has other reasons to believe that his union’s reform options are better suited for the district’s faculty and students.
“Of all of the charter school companies, Green Dot is the most palatable,” said the union leader. “But they get a vast amount of money from corporate America, the same people that want to privatize education.”
Duffy described the union’s proposed reform plan as “charter-like freedom without charter-like conditions.”
Like Barr, Martin cautioned that the charter school has not made a proposal to Westchester, and Green Dot is not actively being considered as an official alternative.
“At this point, I don’t think that we are looking at the Green Dot model for Westchester, but I think that Green Dot has helped to push reform in Westchester,” he added.
Most agree that academic reform in some fashion is overdue in Westchester.
“Autonomy in Westchester doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly like the Green Dot model, but it can include many features of the Green Dot model, like smaller school size, stronger parental involvement and an environment that stimulates learning,” said LMU’s dean of education.
“It’s time for the district to stop granting charter schools and start granting charter-like reforms within the existing schools,” said Duffy.
“The reform train is coming to Westchester,” Kane asserted, repeating a phrase that she has used in the past. “And anyone who wants to ride on the train is welcome to join.”