Parents and teachers at Kentwood Elementary School, Orville Wright Middle School and the magnet school at Orville Wright continue to bask in the afterglow of the December 11th vote for independence from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which many view as a critical first step for their schools and students to reach their full academic potential.

As the next phase of navigating these uncharted waters begins, Loyola Marymount University (LMU) has promised to continue to act as a guidepost on the challenging road to autonomy.

According to representatives of the university, LMU will continue to play a key role in assisting schools that join the Innovation Division, a subdivision of the school district that was created over the summer to provide guidance and support to schools such as those in Westchester that opt for autonomy.

“It is our mission to be involved in the community around us,” said Shane Martin, dean of the LMU School of Education. “Our Family of Schools is a perfect example of how LMU is transforming the way universities work with their neighborhood schools.”

“It’s a great day for the kids and the schools in Westchester,” Drew Furedi, executive director of LMU’s Family of Schools added. “The vote in favor of autonomy really demonstrates the deep commitment to taking a hard look at what things are working and figuring how to support the things that are working and make them even better.”

School district officials have given their blessing to autonomy for Westchester, where there are seven schools.

“[The vote on December 11th] was another important step forward for our families and students as we continue to work together to ensure that children in these schools — which are our highest priority — graduate from high school and are college prepared and career ready,” said school superintendent David Brewer. “That’s why we created our Innovation Division for Education Achievement as part of our efforts to transform the LAUSD into a high-performing, world-class district.”

School board member Marlene Canter, whose district includes Westchester, feels that autonomy is more than just about the acquisition of academic freedom and having hands-on management of a neighborhood school.

“This is a way to create innovation within the district,” Canter said. “What I was hoping to do [with autonomy] was to create an access point for partners that could help us create better schools, and autonomy is a great way to create innovation within the district.”

Furedi, who has been actively involved in helping to shape conversation surrounding the topic of academic independence since his arrival at LMU this summer, believes that the vote at the three schools was more than just a watershed moment for Westchester.

“We saw strong, overwhelming support from parents in the vote, and you also saw a lot of engagement among parents, teachers, staff and community members during the runup to the actual vote,” he pointed out. “In the few days since, we’ve seen more engagement and excitement in trying to put this into context.”

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.

Furedi listed two reasons he thinks that the decision to pursue freedom from the Los Angeles Unified School District is important and should be viewed in a wider context.

“This is about a community saying, ‘We are taking absolute responsibility for the excellence and success of our schools.’ That’s different from how public education has worked in the past,” he explained. “The other difference is, here is a university saying that we are redefining what a university partnership looks like.”

Ingrid Lamoureux, who heads the Parent-Teacher Association at Orville Wright, is thrilled that the university has offered to be actively involved with the reform movement.

“I and the [Orville Wright] PTA look forward to collaborating with LMU,” said Lamoureux. “Drew Furedi has been a dream to work with.”

Stephen Rochelle, the principal at Orville Wright, also feels that having a prestigious university on board is a distinct advantage for his school and others in Westchester that chose autonomy.

“LMU has the infrastructure, the research teams and the resources,” Rochelle noted, “and what better partner to have than a university of its caliber?”

The university has begun working with the Innovation Division to continue to design the next stage of autonomy and what it could look like in Westchester.

“Literally right after the votes were tallied, we started working on pulling together foundational data and information around instruction and operation of schools,” Furedi said. “We’ve already begun taking apart the budget to see what the real numbers are going to show us in terms of funding, and we’re looking at individual success and talents of students in order to frame a conversation to figure out a way to unlock the greatness that’s there, using research based methods and data to figure out what’s best for our kids.”

Canter, who also has been publicly supportive of autonomy for Westchester schools, believes that autonomy can be “a sustainable way to reform from within the district.”

Schools that choose autonomy will chart their own plan for academic improvement, and while there will be discussion, suggestions and comparing notes among all the principals and teachers in Westchester, each school will be responsible for designing its own academic blueprint.

“I think that’s the really exciting part of working with the whole group of schools,” said Furedi. “It’s exciting for each school to be working with several other schools that might have slightly different programs, but taking into account what the specific needs of their students are.

“It’s about maintaining the individual character of a school, but really making more intentional use of a professional learning community,” Furedi said.

The remaining five schools in the Westchester area are slated to vote in January. Proponents of autonomy believe that sustaining the momentum of having three schools that have joined the Innovation Division is critical.

“There’s a palpable energy and excitement among the parents and teachers that there are schools that have [voted for] autonomy already, and there’s an excitement about that,” Furedi said. “And I think capitalizing on that energy is very important.”

One of the challenges that must still be overcome is that for some, change remains a risky proposition.

“[Change] is difficult, and we realize that,” said Furedi.

Canter agrees.

“It’s always hard in the beginning,” the board member stated. “My hope is that [the December 11th vote] ignites parents to see that now they finally have a vote.”

Orville Wright principal Rochelle is looking forward to both the excitement and the challenges of autonomy.

“This is the most important work of our time,” Rochelle said.

He contemplated the possibility that Westchester could be used as a reform model for the school district.

“If we are successful, could this be replicated throughout LAUSD?” he asked.

Furedi reiterated that the university will continue to be a partner as Westchester parents and teachers explore autonomy in 2008.

“But it’s going to take everybody working toward the same goal,” Furedi said. “The idea behind autonomy is to give all of the stakeholders a voice in improving their schools, not for the university to become the new LAUSD.”

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