Nearly 18 months after five Westchester schools joined an ambitious academic reform effort to improve their scholastic quality, several questions regarding what reform will actually look like still remain unanswered.

With this in mind, members of the Westchester-Playa del Rey Education Foundation have begun taking steps to create a task force to search for more concrete answers regarding the future of the reform effort and how the community will collectively define autonomy.

At the group’s monthly meeting on July 2nd, its members were joined by community members, two local principals and officials from Loyola Marymount University.

Kelly Kane, the foundation’s president, outlined what she personally thought was important to keep the autonomy movement going forward and what elements should be included in the task force.

“We really need to have a Bill of Rights for the school community that tells us what we can and can’t do,” Kane asserted. “We also need to figure out what in the state Education Code doesn’t work for us with autonomy.”

She proposed approaching the existing governance councils at the five schools that are part of the local control initiative to ask them to choose a representative for the proposed task force.

Kane also suggested that the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa be included, as well as the LAX Coastal Area Chamber of Commerce, local students and her organization.

“What we need is a group of people that is representative of all the schools, the community businesses, the community government and LMU to sit together and figure out how to move the needle (on autonomy),” the foundation president said.

The five schools that joined the iDesign Division have indeed made significant progress following elections that were held at Westport Heights, Cowan Avenue and Kentwood elementary schools, Orville Wright Middle School and Westchester High School last spring. These schools voted overwhelmingly to break away from the academic clutches of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The iDesign Division was created in 2007 by then LAUSD Superintendent David L. Brewer III and the Los Angeles Unified school board in an effort to accelerate student achievement throughout the school district.

The iDesign (formerly iDivision) serves as a separate division for external “network partners” interested in facilitating school reform in families of schools. LMU is the network partner for Westchester schools.

Paseo del Rey and Loyola Village elementary schools have not voted on whether to join the academic reform movement.

To date, many agree that progress has been made on many fronts. Governance councils and hiring committees have been established at each school and the members of the former group are scheduled to undergo training in budgets and planning from LMU.

Nevertheless, there was a feeling among the assembled group that reform had not begun to take shape in the manner that many had envisioned two years ago.

Some who attended the meeting, like Stephen Rochelle, Orville Wright Middle School’s former principal, believe that parents, teachers and administrators at the Westchester schools must take the initiative to craft academic reform and no longer wait for iDesign officials to assist them.

“You have to be very clear on what you think reform should look like,” said Rochelle, who is the director for learning and leadership for LMU Family of Schools.

Rochelle then offered his views on what criteria true educational reform could have.

“It’s providing students with what they need, holding them accountable and knowing what your measurable outcomes are,” he stated. “But it’s also changing the rules of the game, so that you don’t get sabotaged by the (education code), district policy or some kind of arcane law.

“People make the difference in reform.”

Changing the state education code, which most of the attendees acknowledged was a daunting task, was discussed as a possible alternative to be able to keep the teachers and administrators that have been hired by the school councils.

In an effort to reduce its multi-million dollar budget deficit, the LAUSD school board is considering laying off nearly 4,000 teachers, including some from Westchester schools.

“What’s the point of having the ability to hire the people that we want if LAUSD can take them away from us?” Kane asked.

Others at the meeting expressed a certain disillusionment with the autonomy process to date, specifically how iDesign has not helped to define what reform will look like and LMU’s role in the Westchester local governance initiative.

Rochelle called defining what true reform is and outlining a plan to achieve it the “800-pound gorilla in the room.”

“If I didn’t learn anything else this year, I learned that,” he said.

James Stapleton, the new principal at Orville Wright who was hired last fall, was impressed with the audience that attended the meeting.

“It was really wonderful to have dialogue with people who want to help make public education better,” he said.

Dr. Bruce Mims, principal at Westchester High School, told the audience that in order to continue down the path of reform at the high school, parents would need to make the commitment to send their children to local schools.

“We can’t provide programs and continue to be innovative if we continue to suffer from declining enrollment,” said Mims, who like Stapleton was hired by a local governance council this year. “A lot of folks in the community are sending their kids elsewhere.”

The Westchester High principal said that he and his staff are working very hard trying to improve the school.

“But the improvement will only go as far as the quality of the commitment that surrounds the school,” Mims added.

A community meeting to announce the members of the task force is scheduled for next month.