Continuing a recent trend of Westchester schools seeking local control and breaking way from the Los Angeles Unified School District, Westport Heights Elementary School voted to become a part of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Innovation Division during voting held at the school last month.

Westport joins Orville Wright Middle School, Westchester High School, and Cowan and Kentwood Elementary Schools as local schools seeking academic and bureaucratic freedom from the school district.

A plurality of parents participated in the vote — nearly 66 percent, which is the highest margin to date. One hundred and eight parents voted for autonomy, and 16 teachers joined them.

The results were certified recently.

Loyola Marymount University (LMU) has acted as both facilitator and mentor to the schools as they move toward self-governance. The university has also pledged to provide assistance in creating school plans, professional development and resources and support for student services.

“The [LMU] Family of Schools is a model of how universities can come together with parents, teachers and community to improve student success,” said Shane P. Martin, dean of the LMU School of Education. “The parents and teachers at Westport have demonstrated their strong support for this initiative and we look forward to working with them.”

Innovation or iDivison schools will have more autonomy over funding, hiring, professional development, curriculum, and the procurement of school services than other schools in the district.

The autonomy undertaking began gathering steam last spring. Although some educators and members of the teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, were initially skeptical, the effort now enjoys broad-based support from business leaders, LMU and many Westchester parents.

The Westchester/Playa del Rey Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has advocated for the enhancement of Westchester and Playa del Rey schools, has been at the forefront of the push toward local control.

L.A. Unified superintendent David L. Brewer has stood behind the effort by Westchester schools to gain autonomy.

At a community meeting at Westchester High School in December, Brewer told an audience of parents and teachers that while students have been making progress, the current district method of educating students was not functioning properly.

“I think, to be very frank, we’re in a system that is not working for us,” Brewer acknowledged.

He commended LMU for its assistance and offered his support for the autonomy effort.

“You’re going to partner with one of the best universities in the country, that you can almost walk to right now,” the superintendent told the audience. “They have programs that are specifically targeted to educating grades K-12 [kindergarten through 12th grade].”

Brewer compared the district’s support for autonomy with a parent allowing a teenager or young adult to drive the family car.

“We’re saying, ‘Here are the keys,'” he said. “Now we’re going to watch you and make sure that you don’t run off the road. But we are saying, ‘Here are the keys.'”

Lisa Rowley, who has a child in kindergarten and a second-grader at Westport Heights, was enthusiastic about the possibilities for her children’s schools, now that they are part of the iDivision.

“I voted for and am thrilled that our community has joined the i-Division,” she told The Argonaut. “It makes sense to me that if you give the decision-making process to the people closest to the kids, they are going to make the best decision regardless of how much budget you have to work with.

“Also, if there is a budget shortfall and there are still remaining needs, if the parents are involved with the decision-making process at the school, we can help raise any money that is missing via grants, fundraising, etc.”

Parents, educators and some administrators from the five schools that have voted for local control have been meeting to begin to explore concepts and possibilities for the next phase of what autonomy might look like.

Self-governance, finances and lesson planning are seen as important components to the success of local control.

“Now goes the hard part,” said Rowley. “How to structure our [school] government so that everyone who wants to can have a voice and we can get to the hard business of improving the deficits that remain at our local schools.”

“The parents and community have sent us a message for change,” said Brewer after the results of the Westport vote were announced. “I am excited that the Westport Elementary School community has embraced change and is ready to move forward with us to improve instruction with the help of the iDivision, and its local partner, LMU.”

Rowley is also counting on the university’s commitment to the autonomy movement and its vast array of educators and academic connections to help lead the way to improved performance for all children of Westchester.

“Together with LMU’s resources, I hope that the iDivision will be the answer to many of our challenges and improve how our schools serve all the children in them,” she said. “I’m sure that it will improve the quality of education and research at LMU as well, since we will be bridging the gap between the ideals of a teaching environment and the real challenges that exist on the ground today at our schools.”

Rowley, like some other parents who voted for autonomy, feels that having a strong local voice in how their children are taught is of paramount importance.

“In my opinion, there is much more that can be accomplished when the people closest to the children have been empowered to make their own fate,” she said. “Only time will tell.”

Westport Heights principal Karen Long had not returned phone calls for comment at The Argonaut press time.

Loyola Village Elementary and Paseo del Rey Elementary are the two remaining Westchester schools that have not voted. Loyola Village is expected to conduct its vote very soon.