Westchester school reform advocates were joined by several elected officials to celebrate what many consider a successful summer of Westchester school reform activities. The event, at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) on October 16th, highlighted accomplishments that have been made under the mantle of educational reform.

The university’s Family of Schools has an instrumental role in the autonomy movement that has been taking shape in Westchester over the summer. It has pledged to assist the schools with professional development for teachers and fundraising, and has offered the university’s considerable resources to the schools that are a part of the autonomy movement.

The Family of Schools includes Westchester High School; Orville Wright Middle School; and Cowan Avenue, Kentwood, Loyola Village, Paseo Del Rey and Westpoint Heights elementary schools. Paseo del Rey and Loyola Village have not joined the other schools in opting for autonomy.

LMU president Robert Lawton thanked the audience and his School of Education Department dean Shane Martin for the guidance that he has provided to the reform effort during the transition from the traditional school model.

He then introduced Congresswoman Maxine Waters, saying she had “touched us for the better, both in our lives and in our souls, and that we are a much better institution for her challenges to us and her concern for education.”

Lawton related a story about how, one day over lunch, the congresswoman asked him what the university could do to help improve the level of education among Westchester public schools, and soon after that, LMU became more involved in helping local students through a variety of educational outreach.

Waters, whose district includes parts of Westchester and Playa del Rey, praised LMU for its efforts assisting in the reform movement and sponsoring several initiatives with Westchester High School to assist deserving minority students with opportunities to pursue careers in higher education at LMU and elsewhere.

“The Westchester community is very well known for its activism, volunteerism and the interest of the people who live here,” the congresswoman told the audience. “It just so happened that when you started the effort to create the Family of Schools, that you had a community that was already talking about what could be done to strengthen our schools in the area, so it came together rather nicely.”

Waters touched on the war in Iraq and the presidential election as well, and asked the audience to consider the enormous tasks that the nation faces, especially regarding education.

“Think about the challenge that we face of finding the resources to strengthen the infrastructure of this country, but also the challenge of educating not some, but all of our young people,” said Waters, a former federal Head Start program teacher. “I believe that every child can learn. It’s a matter of what you’re willing to invest in them and the kind of support that you’re willing to give them.”

Martin discussed the university’s role in the formation of transition teams made up of parents, teachers and other community members, which are now making decisions regarding their respective schools.

“The LMU Family of Schools has put some of these ideas into action by creating and implementing a design process for the transition teams, and creating and implementing new hiring processes for administrators within the Family of Schools,” said Martin.

Most of the five Westchester schools that have joined the Innovation Design, now known as the iDesign Division, of the Los Angels Unified School District (LAUSD) have formed governance councils and have begun hiring administrative personnel, which is one of the features of autonomy that many have been looking forward to: having the ability to make their own decisions regarding their children’s education with less input from L.A. Unified.

The iDesign Division was created by school district superintendent David Brewer and the Board of Education as an alternative support system for schools interested in using greater decision-making authority as a strategy in the pursuit of increased academic achievement.

The transition teams have hired new personnel, including new assistant principals, and at Orville Wright a new principal, James Stapleton. He replaces Stephen Rochelle, who is the new leadership and learning director of the Family of Schools.

The experience of being hired by someone other than a school district was not new to Stapleton, who was the principal at Paul Revere Elementary, a charter school.

“There, you are hired by a committee,” he explained. “And when you are hired by community stakeholders, like we have here at Orville Wright, you get to hear many different points of view.”

This method of hiring can also be beneficial to the applicant, said Stapleton.

“This way allows me to see who all of the stakeholders are,” said the middle school principal.

Westchester High School’s team established a governance council and a hiring committee, and is now considering other duties it can perform as it begins to explore what managing a school entails. It has also hired an interim principal, Fonna Bishop.

The university has been involved in assisting local high school students through other initiatives as well. Last year, LMU secured a four-year million-dollar grant for its Upward Bound program, which enables 50 students from Westchester High to begin college preparatory classes at the university.

Also, for nearly a decade, students from several Los Angeles high schools, including Westchester High, have attended the Science and Engineering Community Outreach Program (SECOP), an intense two-week summer outreach initiative that focuses on teaching advanced studies in math and science to female and minority students who are interested in pursuing science and engineering.

Representatives from LMU, along with principals and administrators from Westchester schools, spoke at a Playa del Rey Neighbors meeting Wednesday, October 22, where in addition to hearing updates about the local schools, additional information about recent development with the iDesign Division was discussed.