After a summer of intense discussions and heated debates about the need to improve the level of academic instruction for Westchester students, two parental education advocates have joined forces to seek autonomy from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Kelly Kane of the Westchester Playa-del Rey Education Foundation and Crissina Johnson of Parents of Westchester With Orville Wright, with the help of dedicated teachers, business leaders, local residents and Loyola Marymount University educators, are determined to create a new paradigm for educational success in Westchester through advocacy for autonomy from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Along the way, there have been a few stumbling blocks. Not all parents and teachers are certain that they want to see autonomy from the district in Westchester, although the majority of those who have spoken with The Argonaut have indicated that they would welcome some type of reform effort.

How and when educational reform arrives is still being debated, and the challenge of balancing the need for all interested parties — teachers, parents and district officials — have shown signs of improvement, but they are still a work in progress.

“The reform train is coming to Westchester,” Kane declared in an interview this summer, “and everyone is welcome to ride along with it.”

Adding to the sometimes contentious movement to bring education reform to Westchester schools are rumors that surfaced recently implying that there was tension between Johnson, who is black, and Kane, who is white.

“The idea is absurd,” Kane responded when questioned about the rumors over friction between the two parent support organizations. “For anyone to use that as a way to slow down change in Westchester is unacceptable.”

Johnson, whose three sons attended Westchester schools, also sought to quell the rumors, which were heard at a teacher conference earlier this summer.

“There is no tension between Kelly and me,” she said. “We talk frequently, and there aren’t those types of issues between us at all.”

Kane believes that the gossip may have emanated from the district’s Local District Three office, where former district superintendent Grace Strauther, who recently retired, had at times clashed with Kane’s group. Argonaut calls to the District Three office had not been returned at press time.

District Three covers the Westchester area.

“The district stands to lose money and power if we can get autonomy,” Kane pointed out.

Drew Furedi, the executive director of LMU’s Family of Schools has also heard the rumors.

“Any focus on anything else is really just counterproductive, and it doesn’t impact on anything that’s going on in the classroom,” said Furedi. “And we at LMU will continue to focus on how we are going to tie everything that we are doing back to the classroom.”

Hosting several meetings over the summer at LMU that focused on getting everyone on the same page regarding proposed reform was very helpful in quieting gossip, unfounded accusations and misinformation, both Kane and Furedi believe.

“We wanted to get everyone in a room and start to talk about what does it mean to have an effective and excellent school and what are the outcomes we’re looking for for our students,” he explained. “And it’s all geared toward hearing it from the source rather than hearing little tidbits here or there.”

Kane, the mother of two young children who are attending Westchester schools this year, finds the charge ludicrous.

“Why would I send my children to schools that are 80 percent African-American [if that were a problem for me]?” she asked.

On September 4th, the Westchester Playa-del Rey Education Foundation passed out school supplies to all seven Westchester schools, which it has done each year since 2005, when the foundation began. Later that day, at a lunch at Westchester High sponsored by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the district’s largest teachers union, Johnson and Kane greeted teachers and parents from the high school and reiterated their respective plans to bring excellence back to both the high school and Orville Wright Middle School.

Johnson’s group also contributed books to both Orville Wright and Westchester High.

Johnson’s organization primarily focuses on the middle school and the high school, because studies have indicated throughout the district that students who do not do well in school begin their descent before eighth grade.

“That’s where our group comes in,” said Johnson. “We’re focusing on the secondary (school) parents because it’s at the middle school level that parents begin to divest. Parents aren’t as active as they are during elementary schools.

“We’re trying to keep parents at the secondary level engaged and informed and involved with the academic process and the achievement of our students.”

The leaders of the respective parent education groups say that they will not allow gossip of any sort to derail the reform movement. To the contrary, it has brought them closer together.

“We’ve bonded over this issue,” said Kane. “We have so many goals in common.”

She feels that it is also important to let the teachers — “the ground troops” — know that they are appreciated.

“As I have said many, many times in the past, we love and value our teachers,” Kane stressed. “There is a natural alliance between teachers and parents.”

LMU will play a vital role in keeping everyone’s eyes on the prize — enhanced academic performance — and keeping open and clear lines of communication between all parties.

“What we’ve endeavored to do — and I think that we’ve been very successful at — is to get people in active conversations towards what’s going on in the classroom. Because, when it comes down to it, that’s what we’re about,” said Furedi.

Regardless of what form autonomy takes, everyone seems energized about the coming scholastic year.

“The morale is extremely high this year,” said Johnson. “The administration, the parents and the teachers are extremely excited.

“We’re looking forward to a new Westchester High School.”

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