Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent David L. Brewer lent his voice to the growing cacophony surrounding the possibility of Westchester schools breaking away from the nation’s second-largest school district.
Brewer told an engaged audience of approximately 75 teachers, parents and education advocates at the Westchester High School Auditorium Thursday, December 6th, that he backed the autonomy movement that has been brewing in Westchester.
While he congratulated the school for having many fine teachers, Brewer feels that a change in the way that students are educated is necessary.
“I think, to be very frank, we’re in a system that is not working for us,” he acknowledged.
This was the second trip to Westchester High School in as many weeks for the former Navy admiral. He had spoken earlier this month with teachers at the high school regarding the concept of autonomy and what part they would play under this proposed reformed system of education.
Schools in Westchester — five elementary schools, one middle school and the high school — have the option of voting over the next two months to join the district’s newly formed Innovative Division or remain directly under Los Angeles Unified School District purview.
While the elementary schools have done reasonably well in scholastic achievement, the high school, although it has shown some improvement recently, has ranked in the bottom fifth in state scholastic rankings for the past few years.
Although under autonomy each school would be able to plot its own course on how to improve, they would still be required to conform with certain state-mandated curriculum.
Brewer mentioned that Loyola Marymount University would be assisting schools that wished to become independent from the district in navigating the still nascent concept of autonomy, and that the university’s involvement was a great asset.
“You’re going to partner with one of the best universities in the country, that you can almost walk to right now,” he told the audience. “They have programs that are specifically targeted to educating grades K-12 [kindergarten through 12th grade].”
For a little more than a half an hour, Brewer took questions from members of the audience pertaining to the autonomy plan. In response to one question regarding male students and how to improve their test scores, Brewer suggested considering same sex classes, which some school districts around the nation have instituted.
Brewer repeated that the district would do all that it could to facilitate independence from the district and would not be an obstacle to autonomy. He compared the district’s support for autonomy with a parent allowing a teenager or young adult to drive the family car. “We’re saying, ‘Here are the keys,'” he said.
“Now we’re going to watch you and make sure that you don’t run off the road,” he added, “But we’re saying, ‘Here are the keys.'”
Due to past experiences with district promises of reform, some parents and teachers were somewhat skeptical of this promise.
“In the past we’ve been given the keys to the car, but no gasoline to put in the car,” quipped Gail Levy, who has three children in Westchester schools, including one at the high school. Levy and others stated that previous reform pledges had not brought any long-term efforts, and she wanted to know how autonomy would change that dynamic.
Brewer replied that schools that opt to be included in the Innovation Division, or iDivision, would not only have access to all of the resources that LMU can provide, but they would also have a governance council at each school. These councils would in effect be policymakers at their respective schools, including handling and managing budgets and hiring principals.
“Whereas your current school site councils basically serve an advisory role, you will have a governing role,” Brewer noted.
Dr. Frank Wells, a former Locke High School principal, expressed concern that there had been very little discussion about what he feels is one of the biggest detriments to student achievement.
“I’m shocked and amazed that we’re not talking about the real problem, which is teachers and class instruction,” said Wells. “Ask any kid what is the biggest detriment to learning, and they’ll tell you it’s the teacher.”
Wells then referred to a charter school in Los Angeles that he believes offers an alternative to autonomy.
“Unless there is a 100 percent commitment to bringing in A-plus quality teachers, you’re going to have major, major challenges,” he predicted.
Kathi Littman, who is the executive director of the iDivison, replied that charter schools were not required to accept students who transfer in midyear.
In addition, she said, “If a student has a discipline problem, [charter schools] don’t have to have an intervention group that supports the child.
“I think that [autonomy] is worth the work,” Littman said. “I do know one thing for sure — in our schools where there is parent and community involvement and a focus on building that school, there are quality parents and quality teachers.”
Acquinetta Cook, another Westchester parent, asked Brewer what touchstones he would personally use to chart the success of autonomy.
“How will you determine if [autonomy from the district] is successful?” she asked.
Brewer said that it would be prudent not to expect instant results, but seeing improved student achievement and improved graduation rates would be examples of successes.
“The bottom line in all of this is that we’re here to see to it that Westchester should take its rightful place as one of the best schools not only in LAUSD, but in the nation,” he said. “There is no excuse for it to be anything but the best, none at all.”
In an interview with The Argonaut after the meeting, Brewer reiterated his support for reform in Westchester. He believes that this new reform can help to close what he termed “the achievement gap” between African Americans and others.
“This has been the most pernicious problem in America for a long time, and we’ve got to do something about that,” the superintendent asserted.
Autonomy from LAUSD, where local communities would have more control over resource allocation and educational planning, can offer all students the opportunity to succeed, Brewer said. He acknowledged that it is natural for there to be a certain amount of apprehension associated with anything new.
“There’s always concern anytime change is involved,” he said. “People deserve to ask a lot of tough questions, because these are their children who we are talking about.”
During the interview, Brewer also discussed the ongoing payroll crisis at the district.
“This has been the best payroll since we had the initial crisis in January,” he said. “We’ve had the fewest number of people coming to our customer service center. So, I think that we are reaching a point were we can begin to stabilize the system.”
Kentwood Elementary School and Orville Wright Middle School voted on whether to join the iDivision Tuesday, December 11th.
The other five Westchester schools are slated to vote on whether or not to join the iDivision in January.