After 63 years as a community school, Westchester High School will be transformed into three different magnet schools starting in the fall.
The 4-1 vote by the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education April 12 officially begins the process of converting the high school into a full-time magnet.
The Argonaut reported March 24 that the school district was considering turning Westchester High, where an aerospace magnet already exists, into a full-fledged magnet program for the 2011-12 academic year.
The proposed new name of the school is Westchester Enriched Science Magnets and it will be comprised of three magnet programs: sports medicine and health, environmental sciences and natural science engineering, and the existing magnet.
LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer, who voted in favor of the magnet proposal, had the agenda item removed March 29 due to his concerns about the possibility of the school’s demographics changing and that teachers at the high school would have to reapply for their jobs if the magnet program was accepted.
“My biggest concern was that it had not been fully vetted or voted on by the high school’s governance council,” Zimmer told The Argonaut before the vote. “I feel that a duly elected body should have an opportunity to examine the proposal.”
The governance council is a product of Westchester’s bid for autonomy from LAUSD, which many of its leaders thought they had obtained after the school district agreed three years ago to permit them to elect representatives at their school sites as well as form committees to hire principals for their seven local schools.
The council voted unanimously April 7 to ask the school board to proceed with the magnet conversion.
Zimmer said the proposal was reconfigured so that current students at the high school and Orville Wright Middle School in Westchester would be considered for the new magnets.
“This is very unusual, given the parameters of a magnet,” the school board member noted. “There are very unique circumstances surrounding Westchester High School.”
All students who wish to get into the magnet programs will need to complete a Choices application, said LAUSD spokeswoman Susan Cox. “However, due to low enrollment presently at Westchester, current Westchester High School students will be accepted for the 2011-12 school year,” she said.
Kelly Kane, president of the Westchester-Playa Education Foundation, blasted the decision to convert the school into a full-time magnet. “The community school will no longer exist,” she said.
Kane, one of the primary leaders of the autonomy movement, has questioned the wisdom of converting the school into a full-time magnet with so little turnaround time and is also concerned about losing the neighborhood school. She also lamented the fact that she wanted her two children, who are at Westport Heights Elementary in Westchester, to attend the high school someday.
“My children are in the feeder pattern for Westchester High School, but (with this vote) it will no longer exist,” Kane told the school board.
The question of which of the current teachers at the high school would be re-hired has not been completely resolved. Fred Page, who teaches mathematics and business at Westchester High, supports the change to a full-time magnet.
“I think it’s the best thing for us,” said Page, who has taught at the high school for 16 years.
Westchester High School Principal Robert Canosa-Carr, who together with outgoing LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines originally proposed the plan, cited some of what he believes would be some of the intrinsic benefits to converting the school into a full-time magnet.
“We’re hoping that this ends up transforming the culture of our school to where expectations of all stakeholders are elevated,” the principal said in an interview last month. “At a school like this that has been through so many changes and so many principals you lose a sense of focus about what the expectations are.”
Carr, who is in his first year at Westchester High, is the third principal at the high school in five years.
State Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, whose district includes Westchester, thinks it’s a good idea to switch to a magnet school as long as the majority of her constituents favor it.
“Moving to a new sciences magnet and new curriculum is very interesting and very good,” the assemblywoman said.
The lack of notice or late notice also bothered Mylah Wessels, whose two children attend Orville Wright. While she supports the idea, Wessels says she has concerns about how Westchester and Playa residents were informed about it.
“If this was brewing all along, why wasn’t it (made public) sooner?” she asked.
Like other Westchester residents, Wessels learned about the school board’s plan to vote on the magnet proposal in a letter from Loyola Marymount University less than a week before the board vote. “The community only recently learned (about this plan),” she said.
Ironically, said Kane, Carr was hired by the high school’s hiring committee, and now she feels the conversion to a magnet program will spell the end of autonomy in Westchester.
“When Carr was hired, he was never charged with closing the school,” she said.
Wessels, a former member of the Orville Wright Parent-Teachers Association Board, wonders where the students who are not accepted to the magnets will attend school.
“I think that it’s a wonderful idea but I don’t see how all of the community members and those in the Westchester boundaries will be guaranteed spots in the magnets,” she said. “Are they going to have to go to Venice High School or somewhere else?”
Kane said her foundation would raise money for the Venice High transition if that is where students who are not able to get into the new magnets are rezoned.
“Whatever schools Westchester kids are moved to, WPEF will support it,” she promised.
Magnets, like charter schools, operate on a lottery system, and students from all over the district will be able to apply for the new Westchester magnets.
The school board’s vote came an hour before a rally at Venice High, where students walked out of class to protest planned cuts to its world languages magnet program, including the magnet coordinator’s position.
“A magnet cannot run without a coordinator, who organizes programming, class schedules, parents, teachers, administrators and counsels students,” a release announcing the rally stated.
Zimmer does not foresee a lottery for the anticipated 1,600 spots at the new magnets, given the current enrollment of 1,400. “It would only be a lottery if there were not enough seats,” he said.
LAUSD’s Office of Student Integration Services will be in charge of all magnet programs.
As far as which teachers will be hired back – if any – Zimmer said the district was still working out that piece of the puzzle.
“There will be a process for hiring new teachers at the magnets, but it has not been determined yet how that will take place,” he said.
Carr said there is already evidence that there is interest in the school’s new direction. “We have already had several calls about the magnet proposal,” the principal said. “So there is definite interest in local parents sending their children here for the new magnets.”
Zimmer is confident that Westchester and Playa del Rey students will be able to enroll at the new magnets and will come to believe this the conversion is the best thing for everyone.
“If I did not think that way, and that our current students would be able to go to school there, I would not have voted for this proposal,” he said.