Dozens of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) teachers and employees held an enthusiastic rally on Saturday, August 11th, in Westchester to demonstrate their collective disapproval of an educational reform effort targeted for Westchester schools and a payroll deduction controversy.

A dedicated group of Westchester parents, educators and community leaders have united to push for more local autonomy from the school district and the right to make a greater contribution to how their children are taught.

Westchester High School, while showing signs of improvement, has been a rallying point for reform, based on its low test scores and a recent history of overall below-average scholastic performance.

One point of contention is a draft circulated by the school district’s newly created Innovation Division, which will oversee a number of the proposed reforms in Westchester schools.

One of the division’s recommendations was to request that teachers vote by October on whether they want to be a part of the autonomy effort. This stands in contrast to what the district had reportedly told them earlier.

“Teachers were promised that they would have a year to decide if they wanted to have a hand in designing how this reform should be implemented,” said A.J. Duffy, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. “There were some meetings with small groups of people about this, but the majority of the teachers were not involved in this decision.”

He predicted, “The district is now going to force this on the teachers, and it’s going to be a disaster.”

Another area of disagreement is a proposed district policy of adopting a new teaching schedule called “four-by-four,” in which students change classes every ten weeks.

Teachers like Jannette Metcalf are against this new form of instruction.

“It’s similar to a quarter system that you have at some colleges, and a lot of teachers feel that this is not beneficial to students because they cannot do in nine or ten weeks what they can in 20 weeks,” said Metcalf, who teaches business courses at Westchester High and participated in the rally.

Fred Page, another Westchester High teacher who teaches math and who also took part in the teacher protest, concurs with Metcalf on the four-by-four method of teaching.

“How are we going to be able to present (the school’s curriculum) in a shortened period of time under this policy?” he asked.

Kelly Kane, president of the Westchester-Playa del Rey Education Foundation, agrees with Duffy that the Innovation Division’s recommendation could create problems with the teachers.

“There were two things in the draft that I did not agree with, and that [the October vote] was one of them,” she said. “It’s like getting engaged; you need at least a year to decided if this is the right thing for you.”

Kane, whose group has been at the forefront of the Westchester autonomy drive, believes that a higher percentage of parents and teachers should have a vote in the choice to take part in the proposed reform.

“The plan can go forward with only 60 percent of teachers and 50 percent of parents voting for it,” she explained. “I would like to see other stakeholders, including business leaders, community members and school administrators have a greater voice in this.”

Throughout the movement to bring a new system of accountability and more parental and community input into Westchester schools, many teachers have voiced concern over being shut out from having a choice to participate in the reform plan that many educators believe is long overdue.

Others have complained that they were being forced to go along with an autonomy plan that they feel will rob them of their tenure and hard-won benefits.

Several educators were under the impression that the Westchester-Playa del Rey Education Foundation, which has strongly advocated academic reform for two years, was behind a move to impose a particular brand of autonomy upon them, which Kane has vehemently denied.

Loyola Marymount University (LMU) has served as a neutral third party to bring the various parties together in a series of summer conferences on the LMU campus.

University officials have seen a number of teachers, parents and administrators who might have originally had opposing views on the kind of reform they want now engaging each other in discussions about how these reforms should be approached.

“As the various stakeholders have come together, what we’ve seen is that we are identifying the kinds of questions that we want to ask,” said Drew Furedi, director of LMU’s Family of Schools.

Furedi, who has been leading the summer study sessions, believes that although working toward a system of autonomy is still in its nascent stage, there have been hopeful signs that point to a greater understanding of how to arrive at such reforms.

“By the end of our summer sessions, it seemed that we had jelled into a group of people who were having conversations with each other that reflected what each stakeholder really wants, which is to give our kids the best education that we can,” he said.

Metcalf, who has attended the summer meetings at LMU and is also the career advisor at Westchester High School, said she is in favor of having what are called small learning communities — a measure that is strongly backed by Kane’s organization — where students are taught in smaller groups.

“I think that’s a good thing,” she said.

Kane hopes that LMU will take a more involved stance as the reform movement continues.

“They have been a very distinguished facilitator so far,” she said. “As we move forward toward autonomy, I’m looking forward to them being more out in front.”

That is a challenge that Furedi looks forward to eagerly.

“We’re excited to play that kind of role,” he stated. “There’s a lot expected of LMU and we’re ready to take a leadership role in the process.”

PAYROLL COMPLAINTS — Teachers not being paid accurately and on time was another topic that the Westchester teachers at the protest were anxious to talk about.

“The payroll system that the district implemented in January has not been the best for teachers,” said Page. “There are teachers that have not been paid, teachers that have been shortchanged, and the district doesn’t seem to be able to explain to us why this is happening.”

Calls to the school district for comment on the payroll controversy had not been returned at Argonaut press time.