Between four and five hundred students at Westchester High School walked out of their classrooms June 1 after learning that 24 of their teachers would not be rehired for a new magnet school that is slated to open in September.

In addition, the president of the Los Angeles teachers union claims the April 12 vote to convert the high school into three magnets was unlawful.

“This school does not qualify under the (federal) No Child Left Behind law to be converted,” United Teaches Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy alleged in an interview June 3.

The union leader did not specify which provisions of the law that he believes were violated.

There will be three new magnets in the 2011-12 academic year that will focus on sports medicine and health, environmental sciences and natural science engineering programs. There is currently an aerospace magnet on campus.

The No Child Left Behind Act is a 2001 congressional act that is based on the belief that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in public education.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy did not specifically address Duffy’s contention that the magnet conversion was illegal, but said June 7 that he believes the district’s decision on who will be eligible to attend the magnets has been examined by its legal team.

“Our legal counsel has assured me that students who currently attend Westchester and those eligible students in the feeder pattern will be able to continue to attend, should they desire to do so,” Deasy wrote in an email.

“Overall, I believe the conversion of Westchester High School to a magnet school will benefit the students of the Los Angeles Unified School District.”

Duffy called the firing of the 24 teachers “totally unacceptable” and claims that it violates the terms of what was earlier discussed by LAUSD officials regarding the retention of the school’s teachers. “This goes against an agreement between the school, the Westside leadership and (LAUSD Board Member) Steve Zimmer,” the UTLA president asserted.

In an interview with The Argonaut in April, Zimmer addressed the question of what could become of teachers who are not asked to be a part of the new magnets. As part of the conversion to a school-wide magnet, all teachers were required to reinterview with LAUSD.

“This is not about experience; it’s about being great,” Zimmer said. “I expect teachers who are great to remain at the school.”

Several educators who were informed that they would not be asked back have at least 10 years of teaching experience.

The controversial magnet conversion, which was spearheaded by Westchester High Principal Robert Canosa-Carr, has the support of many parents in Westchester and Playa del Rey. Some see this as the last opportunity to save the high school and transform it into a high-achieving institution.

But other local parents have been critical of the plan, calling it ill-thought-out and rushed.

Carr’s leadership on the conversion has also been questioned by some, who say he claims to have included community members, parents and teachers in decisions about the school conversions, but they feel that they have been shut out of the transformation process.

“He’s shown no signs of leadership and even less enthusiasm for student achievement,” said Kelly Kane, a Westchester parent. “While the current students lost a year of learning time, he sat alone in his office writing this ridiculous plan to rip the school away from the community.

“The (magnet school) proposal is poorly written – and no one is demanding a new one, but I am,” Kane added.

And until June 1, the students had not largely been heard from until they decided to walk out of class.

The student action occurred during third period at approximately 10:30 a.m. and the students returned to class after noon. The line of protesting students, who waved signs and chanted under the watchful eye of campus police, stretched at least two blocks in front of the school.

“A lot of times, teachers don’t get their voices heard,” said Terrell Emerson, a junior who works on the school newspaper. “We’re the majority, so it’s up to us to be their voice.”

Kristina Iliopoulos, who is in the ninth grade, was confused as to why some of the teachers at the aerospace magnet were not retained since the school board has voted to change the high school into a school-wide magnet program.

“I don’t get that if the school is going to be all magnet why fire the majority of the magnet teachers, especially the well-liked ones who have been here for a long time and have a high passing rate on the (Advanced Placement) exams?” she said.

The students cited Alan Sacks, who teaches Advanced Placement English literature, as well as the school’s librarian, Michelle Addison, as examples of teachers and employees whom they believe should not have been fired.

Duffy said he was not surprised by the student demonstration, given what has transpired with LAUSD over the last several weeks. He said he is also not especially thrilled with how Carr has handled the conversion since it received support from the school board.

“(The leadership) at the high school is trying to please LAUSD,” said the UTLA president. “They have pushed this plan without any regard for the community.”

Iliopoulos said no one informed the student body why the teachers were essentially fired from their jobs. “That’s why we’re doing (the demonstration),” she said.

Other advanced placement instructors who were not asked back include educators who teach physics and chemistry, Iliopoulos said.

“We like a lot of the teachers who weren’t (retained),” Emerson added.

Duffy said his organization plans to take action on behalf of the 24 educators. He blamed the firing of the teachers largely on a change in leadership at the local district level, where Brenda Manuel recently replaced Gay Havard as the interim superintendent.

“We will file grievances and do whatever it takes to demand that Local District 3 follow through with what they have agreed to do,” he vowed.

Local District 3, which includes Westchester, is one of eight local entities that function as mini-school districts within LAUSD.

This is not the first time that students at the high school have been involved in taking action in support of their teachers. Two years ago on April 27, a group of Westchester High School students initiated a petition drive asking then-LAUSD Board Member Marlene Canter to rescind her vote two weeks earlier that authorized laying off more than 5,000 school employees.

Emerson said the conversion was not the reason why the students decided to demonstrate.

“Change is always good,” he said, adding that parents had been told that if they signed a certain document, they would be eligible to attend the new magnets in September. “Everyone is out here for the teachers today.”

Iliopoulos said firing whom she and others consider to be some of the school’s best teachers has not won the district any points with students in regards to the magnet conversion. “I don’t think it can get any worse,” she responded when asked what she thought of the change to a school-wide magnet.

“But (LAUSD) is really trying to make us mad by firing all the teachers that we really like.”

Emerson said the students would look at other alternatives if their teachers who were fired are not brought back to the new magnets. “If our voice is still not heard, we’ll have to get together again, I guess,” he said.

Carr, who witnessed a portion of the student protest, declined several requests for comment from The Argonaut.