Westchester schools that have joined the movement for autonomy within the Los Angeles Unified School District have begun to establish one of the principle tenets of local control — their own elected bodies that will be in charge of determining governance policies for their own school.
Orville Wright Middle School has established its council and Westchester High School is in the process of doing so. The high school will have three models of governance from which to select, and parents, teachers and members of the local community had an opportunity to hear them on November 20th and 22nd during two community meetings at the high school.
Two of the plans at Westchester High would have one school site council as the governing body, while another proposal, backed by United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), recommends a local leadership council along with a school site council.
Terry Marcellus, who graduated from Westchester High in the late 1960s and who chairs the education committee of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester/ Playa del Rey, is proposing a platform that is based on what is being used at Palisades Charter High School.
“Very clearly, our belief is that the situation that is most applicable to what it’s going to take to have lots of local kids attend Westchester High is what they’ve done in Pacific Palisades,” Marcellus said. “They’ve been incredibly successful in attracting kids to the school, and they have a 1,000-kid waiting list, while we have declining attendance.”
Marcellus’s plan is known as Proposal Three, and has more community and business representatives — five — than the other two, which have two. Proposals Two and Three each have 17 members, and the other has 16. All include five teachers, and the local leadership model has an eight-teacher component.
Marcellus, whose three daughters graduated from the high school, is aware that some might view his model as a takeover because it has the highest number of community and business members.
“Five out of 17 is clearly not a takeover — that’s just participation,” he noted. “But we think that it’s really symbolically important that we all consider ourselves equal in making this happen, and I think that those community members constitute the outreach committee to bring back more kids.”
Five of the seven members of the transition team at the high school support Proposal Two.
“The basis for our proposal was that the teachers with the most experience should probably be the majority on the council,” said Kenneth Tiegas, who has taught government at the high school for six years and is the co-sponsor of Proposal Two. “Our goal is to put the professionals in a position of leadership, which I think has been lacking in recent years.”
Some of the teachers at the high school, including Tiegas, feel that there is a sense of urgency to improving the scholastic performance of their students, which has improved recently after a few years of steady decline.
“One element of this transition is that it’s going to be slow,” Tiegas said. “There are reasons for that, but as far as I’m concerned, I would like to see some immediate improvements.
“We want to increase the academic achievement of all of our kids and achieve the benchmarks that we are all looking for.”
Peter Accardi supports what is known as Proposal One, the governance plan backed by the teachers union.
“Neither UTLA nor I are in opposition to the other two single proposals,” said Accardi, who is the union representative at Westchester High. “We haven’t had a dual council model running here according to the state Education Code. They’ve had the school site council, but not the local leadership council, which, according to our contract, it should.”
Union officials echo Accardi’s beliefs.
“Westchester High School has never had a governance council that has functioned properly,” teachers union president A.J. Duffy told The Argonaut. “That’s the reason why I favor keeping those two bodies at this time.”
Accardi, like Tiegas, thinks that, given the relatively rapid transition from being part of the L.A. Unified structure to autonomy, the high school needs more time to adjust to the new circumstances.
“I personally think that Westchester High needs more time to run appropriately, and see how that improves academic achievement, climate and culture,” he said. “That alone will bring children back to the school.”
At both meetings, a relatively small audience heard the details of each plan and its benefits. A possible point of contention regarding the Palisades model emerged after Gwen Vuchsas, a past president of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester/ Playa del Rey, discussed some of her experiences on the local advisory board.
“Even though we had all of these great committees, we still had trouble finding people to serve on them,” Vuchsas recalled. She indicated that it might be beneficial to have business and community leaders on any governance board who had the expertise in recruiting others to serve on various subcommittees.
Some in the audience, including teacher Andrew Terranova, inferred that Vuchsas’s suggestion could be interpreted as a furtive move for more seats by business leaders in return for their assistance.
“I don’t want people who are driven to contribute to the school, based on wanting to feel important on a governance council,” Terranova told Vuchsas. “I want people who want to do the work.”
Tori Hill, whose daughter attends the high school, questioned whether business leaders needed a certain number of slots on a governance council in order to contribute to the restoration of the high school academically.
“I’m not sure, but I’m getting the feeling that business is willing to abandon Westchester High if they do not have an equal vote with parents and teachers, which I don’t believe you need to have that level of representation in order to contribute,” said Hill, who favors Tiegas’ proposal.
Hill believes that people within the business community like Marcellus do support the high school, but added, “I hope that I’m wrong, but I do get the feeling that if that particular proposal is not chosen, that they will not be as actively involved as they have been in the past.”
Duffy also took issue with the model that is backed by Marcellus and the local neighborhood advisory board.
“There are basic structural differences,” he pointed out. “Charter schools have a lower population of special needs kids and ESL [English as a second language] kids.”
“The Neighborhood Council has done its best to identify what has worked at Pali [Palisades Charter High School] without going charter,” Marcellus countered. “That’s what we’re trying to do. Yet, when we identify a core Palisades accomplishment, which can be brought here, you argue against it.”
Duffy suggested that the only way that the model Marcellus backs could be considered is if waivers from the state were obtained, due to the fact that it is based in a charter school.
“There might be some legal challenges, and there might be some waivers, absolutely,” Marcellus conceded. “But I’m assuming good faith on this, and if Number Three wins, Duffy will do what needs to be done for waivers, and I think that the iDesign Division [of Los Angeles Unified School District] will.
“We’re in this together. We’re not going to have teacher jobs if we don’t make this a success.”
The teachers union president said later that he was “dubious” of the governance model being proposed by Marcellus.
“I would not be inclined at this time to support waivers for that model of governance,” said Duffy.
Autonomy supporters such as Kelly Kane have been keeping track of the suggestions for governance that have been proposed.
“I’m going to vote on the model that I think is best for our school,” said Kane, president of the Westchester/Playa del Rey Education Foundation, who has been at the forefront of the local autonomy movement. “It’s going to take the people that consistently insist on change to bring change to Westchester in order to make our schools the best that they can be.”
Due to a number of parents who expressed concern regarding a lack of dissemination of information regarding the three proposals, the vote, which was scheduled for December, will now take place in January.