Following the lead of Orville Wright Middle School and Kentwood Elementary School, Westchester High School parents and teachers have voted overwhelmingly to join the rapidly growing drive for local control in Westchester schools.

Parents and educators cast their ballots in favor of autonomy from the district by wide margins — 100 parents in favor and 12 opposed; and 72 teachers in favor and 24 opposed.

Representatives of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the district Board of Education, Loyola Marymount University (LMU), Westchester High School and local parent education advocates presented a united front at a press conference at Westchester High School Friday, January 25th, to address what Westchester High principal Anita Barner called “a landmark movement.”

The vote for autonomy means that the high school will join what is known as the Innovation Division, or iDivision, which is a reform initiative within the Los Angeles Unified School District that will work with LMU, Westchester parents and teachers and that have opted for autonomy to install the process of governance of their own schools.

Schools that have chosen to become autonomous from the school district will begin working with LMU and the iDivision on how to govern their schools, which will include professional development for teachers and workshops on budgets and how to run a school for parents and community members.

Barner, who has been the principal at the high school for four years, said in an interview prior to the press conference that it was a very exciting day for everyone connected to Westchester High.

“We are looking forward to working with LMU and also the iDivision,” Barner told The Argonaut.

The high school, which ranked in the bottom fifth of the state in 2007, has seen an escalation of community and parental involvement in recent months, with two parent advocate groups — the Westchester/Playa del Rey Education Foundation and Parents of Westchester With Orville Wright — frequently visiting the campus to encourage parents, teachers and school officials to look at new and creative ways to stimulate academic improvement.

Barner said she is happy that LMU will play a role in what many feel will be a resurgence in test scores and more well-rounded students.

“We are definitely excited to have them as our partner,” said the principal. “Over the years, we have always worked with them in some type of capacity. But now, we can expand the resources and expand the partnership for the benefit for all students.”

Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent David Brewer, who came to the high school in November to publicly voice his support for the local control venture, told the audience that he was very optimistic about the school’s decision to join the breakaway from the district.

“I welcome you all into the innovation Division,” he said. He added that LMU was a “wonderful network partner” and that he was hopeful that this new venture would lead to continued academic success throughout Westchester schools.

“I expect a lot of students coming out of kindergarten to go all the way through and become graduates of a college, specially at Loyola Marymount,” he quipped.

A.J. Duffy, president of the school district’s largest teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, characterized the vote as a welcome journey to the promise of academic success.

“We have embarked upon an adventure that I think everybody hopes will lead to radical change in public education,” he said. “This is something that many of us have striven for years, and have been frustrated in our attempts to get there.

“What we have embarked upon is like a newborn baby; fragile in its infancy. If we don’t have infinite patience and infinite care, then we will lose this.”

Duffy said that in years past there had been offers of similar reforms that never took place, and district officials should not consider attempting to back away from localized control at a future date.

“I want the district to be mindful to not take back what you have given us,” Duffy warned.

Parents who have students enrolled at the high school were among the happiest to hear the news that the school had voted for autonomy.

“I am ready for an academic revolution at Westchester, with the cooperation of Westchester High teachers, parents and our students to realize that they have a role shaping their future to be able to compete not only nationally, but globally,” said Sonja Golden, who herself is a Westchester High graduate.

Florence Bracy, whose son is a senior at the high school, called the vote a “victory” for the community, saying, “We’re now seeing the fruits of our labor after working together since last summer.”

Initially, Bracy was not convinced that autonomy could be the answer to improved academic achievement for students at the high school.

“I had my doubts in the beginning,” Bracy admitted. She changed her position when LMU and others “put down in writing” their goals for autonomy.

Like Bracy, Yavonka Hairston-Brown, a magnet honors history and geography teacher at the high school, was somewhat skeptical about autonomy initially.

“I was hesitant at first because the information [regarding autonomy] was not clarified, and we have seen changes in the past here that did not benefit our students once they were implemented,” she said, echoing Duffy’s earlier comments.

Hairston-Brown, who voted to join the iDivision, was persuaded after attending meetings organized by LMU and the parent advocate groups when the concept of local control and increased teacher input was clarified for her.

“We’re due for a change,” she said. “Hopefully, autonomy will give us the liberty to do so.”

Brewer pointed out that the next phase of moving toward autonomy would require strong commitment by all parties.

“We have a lot of work to do,” he cautioned. “We can smell the roses, but the real work begins right now.”

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?'”

Kelly Kane, the president of the Westchester/Playa del Rey Education Foundation [WPEF], agreed.

“The real work starts now,” said Kane, whose organization has been at the forefront of the Westchester autonomy movement. “And WPEF will be the watchdog to make sure that everyone who belongs [in the autonomy structure] will be allowed [to participate].”

Barner feels that bringing the high school into the iDivision was crucial, as was the vote by the middle school and Kentwood Elementary to embrace the concept of autonomy. “Orville Wright is the only middle school [locally] that feeds into Westchester High, so that’s very important,” she said.

“With the addition of Westchester High, we now have the entire pipeline, from the elementary schools to the high school, ” Kane added.

The remaining Westchester elementary schools — Cowan, Paseo del Rey, Loyola Village and Westport Heights — will vote in February.