A comumunity meeting hosted by the Westchester/Playa del Rey Education Foundation Thursday, June 7th, to discuss the concept of autonomy for Westchester area schools took a contentious turn after several area educators complained that they had not been properly informed of the proposed reform.
Education advocates, parents, teachers and key members of the Los Angeles Unified School District addressed a packed auditorium at the community room at the Westchester Municipal Building regarding establishing “zones of autonomy” at area campuses, which they feel would improve the level of education, particularly at Westchester High School.
The concept of giving members of the community whose children are currently attending schools in the Westchester neighborhoods more local control, direct community involvement in school policies and a stronger voice in decision-making is an idea that Kelly Kane is excited about exploring.
“Autonomy is coming to Westchester,” Kane proclaimed prior to the meeting. She is director of the Westchester/Playa del Rey Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the enhancement and advocacy of public schools in Westchester.
“This is just the beginning,” Kane continued. She said that she was “inspired and encouraged” by what she called “enthusiastic” support for the possibility of creating zones of autonomy from Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) superintendent David Brewer and LAUSD board member and president Marlene Canter, whose district includes Westchester.
The school district, by outward appearances, seems to be receptive to the plan outlined by Westchester parents and some area teachers, unlike the proposal by Green Dot Public Schools, an organization that is seeking to wrest control of Locke High School away from LAUSD and transform the inner-city school into several charter schools, independent of district oversight.
“Everyone who has a stake in making our schools better is being invited to participate,” said Kane.
The Westchester/Playa del Rey Neighborhood Council approved a motion to back the autonomy plan, which is still in its nascent stage, on Tuesday, June 5th. Terry Marcellus, a Neighborhood Council director who heads the council’s education committee, said that his organization supports the concept of self-rule in principle, with certain conditions.
One of the most important considerations for Marcellus is having governing councils for the schools.
“In my mind, a governing board that has broad representation of all of the stakeholders is essential,” he said.
The Westchester/Playa del Rey Neighborhood Council also believes that any autonomy plan should include “best practices of charter schools or another autonomy model.”
At the community forum, which was the regular meeting of the Westchester/Playa del Rey Education Foundation, Kane repeatedly asked the audience to “open your minds, open your hearts,” and “think big.”
“We’re going to move away from fear, and into beautiful, wonderful, amazing education,” she proposed. “Nothing is written in stone, and every voice here will be heard. All of us are on the precipice of greatness, and we can only get there together.”
Kathy Littman, who will head LAUSD’s new Innovation Division, which has been created to “develop and implement educational models to support effective educational practices,” according to the district, spoke in favor of the concept of autonomy zones.
“It’s time to do something different,” she said. “This is a magic moment that we can take advantage of.”
While Kane and Littman spoke in positive tones about the possibilities of self-governance, several teachers in the audience appeared disgruntled about the reform proposal.
At least three times during comments by Kane, teachers interrupted her to inquire why they had not been notified about the meeting, which several of them learned about at the last minute via word of mouth or from representatives of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the union that represents the majority of the school district’s educators.
Various teachers also alleged that parent volunteers have threatened to replace them if the autonomy reform is successful.
A.J. Duffy, the president of UTLA, said that by not notifying the educators in the Westchester area schools, Kane’s organization had “scared the hell out of the teachers,” which drew applause from many of the assembled faculty members.
“I made it as clear as I could possibly make it to teachers that if they do not want to be in an autonomy zone, they do not have to be in an autonomy zone,” Duffy continued. “I believe passionately in autonomy, and the idea of a family of schools was a concept that we developed at UTLA in agreement with [Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa].
“All of those concepts were about percolating from the bottom, not putting it down from the top.”
Kane told the angry teachers that the district had promised to send out a letter to all area school principals informing them of the meeting and highlighting the specifics of the autonomy plan.
She also attempted to assuage the angry teachers’ fears that her organization had any ill will toward them.
“What happened is, the information didn’t get (distributed) at the right time by the right people,” she reiterated. “That is why this meeting tonight is a little tense.
“I’m hoping that we can all step over that, and get to the place where we know where we can be; which is, let’s make our schools the best that they can be, for the kids that are in them,” she added.
Barbara Stern was one of the teachers who challenged Kane during and after the meeting. She and some of her colleagues took issue with what they believe is the foundation’s attempt to squeeze them out of the reform process, and impose its standards on both the faculty and students.
“I specifically asked [Kane] why the teachers had not been invited to this meeting,” the teacher told The Argonaut. “Pretty much every teacher that is here came only because they heard about it through word of mouth.”
Stern also wanted to know why Kane did not acknowledge elementary school educators if the scores at those schools have improved.
“The teachers feel like this is coming down from the top, and being thrust upon us,” Stern asserted. “As a veteran teacher, I’ve seen a lot of these programs, and we’ve been through all of these different reforms, and then the board has dropped nearly every innovation.
“They stop funding them, dissolve them or they just drop them.”
Kane said she believes that a lot of the “panic and rumors” that were on display at the forum were the result of misinformation that emanated from teachers union circles and the failure of the school district to distribute the letter that would have explained the plan in more detail.
“We felt that they dropped the ball,” the foundation director contends, referring to the fact that the letter of explanation to the school principals about the community meeting and the autonomy proposal was not mailed.
“It was important that the letter come from the LAUSD chain of command. They left it up to us to tell the community.”
Kane said that Canter, who also spoke at the foundation meeting, agreed to make sure that the letter was distributed, and denied telling any member of her group that teachers might be replaced if the proposed reforms take place.
Kane stated that her organization later heard that the letter had been “held back” by the school district.
“Principals were told by our district leaders to not distribute the information,” Kane alleged.
During an interview subsequent to the community forum, Kane repeatedly stated that she and her advocacy group believe that teachers are invaluable to their mission of improving Westchester schools.
“We love our teachers,” she reiterated. “How can we expect to have good teachers without good schools?
“To be accused of trying to take away teachers’ benefits makes me absolutely irate.”
Duffy says that he has great respect for Kane and other parent volunteers.
“I believe that they are pure of heart, and want what’s best for their kids,” he acknowledged. “But even though they say that they have no desire to force people to go along with their plan, [not being included in discussions about autonomy] makes it appear to the teachers that it is mandatory.”
He took umbrage at what he felt was an attempt by Brewer and Canter to hijack an idea that he says his union initiated.
“They have talked about a ‘family of schools’ that doesn’t exist,” he said.
“It has to be created, and teachers have to play a critical role in any kind school reform, and I will not allow that family to be created for another top-down organization,” Duffy vowed.
He alleged that Brewer and Canter brought forth “an amalgam of ideas, none of which were theirs.”
“(Duffy and I) agree that our ultimate goals are the same; that we want better schools and more local control, so that our kids can have the best education possible,” said Kane.
However, she said she was surprised that Duffy would make the statements that he did at the community meeting.
“I think that Duffy does not like the speed at which I travel,” Kane speculated.
The Neighborhood Council’s Marcellus, a longtime education advocate and a graduate of Westchester schools, concurs that teachers are a valuable part of any new reform.
“Teachers are one of the key stakeholders in this autonomy plan,” said Marcellus, who attended the gathering. “They want to make sure that they get the benefit of their seniority and the benefit of their contract.”
Loyola Marymount University (LMU), which is involved in an educational partnership with Westchester High, plans to be an important participant of any reform plan that is created, said LMU’s dean of education Shane Martin.
There will be additional forums on the topic of autonomy zones and education reform throughout the summer. LMU will host a community discussion Saturday, June 16th.
From Kane’s point of view, school autonomy is not a matter of how; it’s a matter of when.
“Autonomy in this generation started on May 18th with Admiral Brewer,” Kane asserted. “The autonomy train is coming to Westchester.”