Dozens of Los Angeles Unified School District teachers filled Auditorium 1000 of University Hall on the campus of Loyola Marymount University (LMU) Tuesday, June 19th for a question-and-answer session on potential school reform that some believe can threaten their livelihoods.
Drew Furedi, the new executive director of LMU’s Family of Schools, served as the forum’s moderator. In an effort to quell any lingering anxiety for educators, who feel that they are in danger of becoming casualties of a district-sponsored change in education realignment, Furedi stated that no specific reform plan had been decided to date.
The university has offered to act as a facilitator in the school reform effort in Westchester, which is backed by the LAUSD board and LAUSD Superintendent, Admiral David Brewer.
A large part of the teachers’ unease was due to what they assert was an attempt to push through a new education model without being consulted. LAUSD and the Westchester-Playa del Rey Education Foundation, an education advocacy organization that has been active in seeking ways to assist teachers and local parents in improving the region’s seven schools, are exploring the possibility of introducing autonomy zones in local schools.
On Thursday, June 7th, the foundation unveiled the potential school reform in a community meeting, where teachers heard about it for the first time. This outraged many educators, including United Teachers of Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy. The day after the meeting, Duffy sent a letter to teachers in the Westchester-Playa del Rey area, telling them that he would not allow anyone to force them to become part of a reform plan that they did not agree to.
“Let me be perfectly clear,” the union leader began. “No one will be forced into any reform that they don’t wantÖ You have my absolute guarantee that this will not happen,” Duffy promised.
Kelly Kane, the director of the education foundation, was dismayed that so many teachers were misinformed about the autonomy plan that she, her group and district leaders are hoping to implement. Much of the confusion, she said, stemmed from a letter that the district was supposed to send to all school principals that was not released at the time of the June 7th community forum.
“What happened was the information didn’t get distributed by the right time by the right people,” Kane explained.
Furedi, LMU Dean of Education Shane Martin, and Kathy Littman, who will be in charge of the new Innovation Division that will facilitate the new reform structure fielded questions on school funding, teachers’ rights and benefits, racial disparities, class size and the role of parent advocates under an autonomy model, which has not been selected.
Littman pointed out that along with more local control, the schools and governing boards under the new proposal would also be held accountable for their schools’ progress.
“This is not a license to be mediocre,” she cautioned.
Many teachers were seeking assurances that their benefits and jobs would be protected under any reform plan, and that they would have a say in whether they could choose to be a part of an autonomy zone, or remain in a traditional school.
“It’s about choices,” Littman answered. She assured the teachers that there are agreements in place that will protect their tenure and benefits, and each Westchester-Playa del Rey school would have the option of participating in an autonomy zone.
“Whether you are a part of an autonomy zone or not, we need to do something to create better student achievement all the way through the 12th grade,” Littman said.
In response to a question from an audience member, Martin said that the university, which is currently engaged in other scholastic partnerships with Westchester High School, would continue to lend their support to the reform effort, both short and long term.
“I can say absolutely that we are in this relationship for the long haul,” he promised.
“I don’t have any illusion about how hard this is,” Littman acknowledged. “This is about systematic reform, and that’s why we’re having this dialogue with the community, so that everyone’s voice can be heard.”
The idea of local control appeals to many parents, school administrators and teachers, but it is essential that teachers be included in a reform measure, says Duffy.
“I must let you know that there are some promising possibilities for reform (not necessarily the Westchester Autonomy Zone model) that will be presented to you in the fall,” Duffy wrote in his letter to the teachers. “At the heart of all of these reforms is local control and putting teachers at the center of decision-making. Nothing less is acceptable to UTLA.”
Kane, mindful that many teachers are accusing her organization of seeking to get rid of them with the advent of a possible new reform effort, reiterated in an interview prior to the meeting that she and other education advocates want teachers to be involved at every level of charting a new course in public education.
“We absolutely love our teachers. We cannot do this without them,” she said.
As far as imposing a new reform plan on the district, Kane, whose children attend Westchester schools, replied, “Autonomy is not a one-size fits all model. Besides, we are in the beginning stages, and this is not a done deal at all.”
“For us, as a facilitator in this process, this is the beginning of a conversation,” Furedi concluded near the end of the meeting. “The conversation is not written yet, and we’re going to make sure that we write it together.”
The director pointed out that working toward change would not always be easy, but encouraged all parties to look at the big picture, which is meaningful education reform.
“I think that forums like this, where all parties are available to come and hear what’s being proposed, will help to dispel the anxiety that has been building up in some people,” Sharon Dewees, Westchester resident and a retired LAUSD administrator, said after the meeting. “It’s the beginning of a process.”
Mark Gauthier also lives in Westchester and is a teacher at Orville Wright Middle School, and he believes that the reform proposal can be a benefit to local schools.
“This is a great opportunity to work on our schools and get more people involved,” he said. “As a teacher, more parent involvement is always welcome, and if you can turn that into action, then it’s good for everybody,” Gauthier, whose children attend Westchester schools, added.
LMU will be hosting more community forums throughout the summer. All meetings will be available to the public and anyone who wishes to attend may participate.