Teachers at Westchester High School are reeling from the broadside they received March 15 that the Los Angeles Unified School District is considering a plan to convert the entire school into a magnet program.
If the school district’s plan goes into effect, all teachers could be required to reapply for their jobs, and that is one of the many things that concern Westchester High teacher Peter Accardi.
“This is very disheartening,” said Accardi, who is the United Teachers Los Angeles representative at the high school. “We haven’t been able to get any straight answers from the district, so everyone is left wondering what’s next.”
The school currently has a math/science aerospace magnet center, now in its 20th year, according to the high school’s website.
Faculty members and their supporters rallied outside the school March 22, passing out leaflets to the public on the current district budget crisis and the possibility of the school losing experienced teachers.
LAUSD spokeswoman Susan Cox said turning the entire school into a magnet is an option that the district is considering.
“(Transforming the high school) into a magnet is something that is being explored right now,” Cox told The Argonaut. “No decision has been made on whether it will be greenlighted or not.”
The district’s proposed conversion comes on the heels of 5,000 layoff notices that were sent out March 15. “We have nine teachers, some with a great deal of experience, who could lose their jobs at our school,” Accardi said.
There is also a feeling of being underappreciated by LAUSD officials among some of the high school’s teachers and a distinct lack of trust due to past experiences.
In 2008, Westchester schools embarked on an ambitious education reform effort to gain academic autonomy from LAUSD. Working with Loyola Marymount University and its Family of Schools, parents, educators and other community members met for several years and hammered out details that would allow local schools to have their own budgets, hire their own principals and establish school governance committees.
Those dreams of autonomy were dashed last year when LAUSD made the decision to close the iDesign Division, ostensibly due to budget cuts. The division had four directors since its inception in 2007 and many autonomy leaders believe closing it was an attempt to sabotage the community’s quest for independence.
Kelly Kane, the president of the Westchester-Playa Education Foundation, firmly believes that sentiment. Kane blasted LAUSD for even considering changing the high school to a full-time magnet.
“I resent that Mr. Cortines (LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines) is demanding that we do anything without community stakeholder input and I resent that fact that they fired our principal last year without asking us first,” asserted Kane, who has been at the forefront of the autonomy movement in Westchester.
She was referring to the district’s decision to fire Dr. Bruce Mims, who was brought aboard by the high school’s hiring committee.
During Mims’ 18 month tenure, the school’s Academic Performance Index score rose several points and the high school posted the largest increase in overall pass rate on the California High School Exit Exam in Local District 4, which includes Westchester, Venice, Mar Vista, Playa del Rey and Del Rey.
Westchester High was also given a full accreditation extension from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the state agency that provides accreditation for educational entities in the western United States. In the prior year, the school had been ranked in the lower tiers in the state.
Some of the benefits that were promised Westchester schools that joined iDesign as a part of their independence from LAUSD were the authority to form governance councils, manage their own budgets and use hiring committees to bring in principals of their own choosing.
“This is the final slap in the face to this community,” said Kane. “This shows that they could care less about the stakeholders of this community and the students of this community.”
Fred Page, who teaches mathematics and business at the high school, views the option presented by the district as an ulterior motive to discharge teachers who have a great deal of seniority.
“By converting us to a full-time magnet, it’s a quick way to get rid of certain teachers,” Page, who has been at Westchester High for 17 years, said.
Accardi, who has taught math at the high school for seven years and has been an educator for 12, said Cortines was set to meet with Westchester High teachers recently and then backed out of the meeting.
“That’s what’s so hard to take,” said the union representative. “No one is telling us anything concrete.”
LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer said no teacher would be dislodged whom has given the same amount of time to the school that many who were involved in the governance council and the autonomy movement have.
“I think (Westchester High Principal Robert Carr) is an outstanding school leader and I think that he is the person that is going to transform Westchester High,” said Zimmer. “There are teachers like Accardi and others who have given their lives to make Westchester a better place, and I would imagine that any of the core leaders who have been fighting for change would be at the center of any transformation.”
Accardi sees the possible change to a magnet as an attempt to turn the school into a charter. “I really think that could be their intention,” the teacher said. “The way that they’re portraying this is either we go along or lose Westchester High School to a charter.”
Ann Wexler, a Westchester resident whose daughter graduated from the high school last year, was another parent who worked with Kane and others on the autonomy movement for years. When the district disbanded the iDesign and essentially told teachers and parents that they would need to spell out what autonomies they wanted, Wexler joined with a group of Westchester residents who hope to create a charter middle school.
While there are several hurdles to overcome, she is not deterred.
“Westchester has successfully managed its community organizations for 50-plus years, and has the ability to manage a school,” Wexler said.
Two-thirds of the faculty at the high school would be required in order for LAUSD to convert the school into a charter, according to UTLA representatives.
Many Westchester High teachers have spoken in strong terms against having a charter replace the neighborhood school.
“Morale is seriously low here,” Page said. “We feel like we’re being squeezed from all angles.”
Accardi sees another possibleulterior motive. “We have a lot of senior teachers here at West-chester High, and some think there is this underlying motive to force some of our senior teachers out,” he asserted.
Page, who has accrued many years of seniority, concurs. “It looks like a quick way to get rid of some of the most experienced teachers,” he said.
Accardi said that many teachers were discouraged after the autonomy situation last year and the news that LAUSD is considering converting his whole campus to a magnet is along the lines of reliving an instant replay.
“We bought into autonomy and did a lot of the work (with the governance councils.) We really tried to make it work,” he said. “Then they pulled the rug out from under us.
“This feels a lot like the same thing that happened with autonomy.”
Kane has indicated that she would like to start her own school district, but has not completely given up on the concept of autonomy.
“If they think that this fight is over, then they are in for a rude awakening,” the education foundation president vowed. “The answer is to start our own school district so that we can break away from the dysfunctional quagmire that is LAUSD.”
Carr did not return phone calls for comment.