By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Daily News
Updated: 10/19/2009 -- The Los Angeles Unified District is just weeks away from launching its deepest reform effort to date - allowing nonprofits and other outsiders to run 36 new and underperforming schools.
As the Nov. 15 deadline for the first phase of bidding approaches, targeted campuses are asking themselves a big question: Do we let others bid for us or do we put up a plan of our own to retain control?
Many educators anticipate publicly funded, but independently run, charter school operators to bid for a number of schools under the LAUSD's Schools Choice Plan. But teachers, administrators and community members at dozens of affected campuses see the plan as an opportunity to kick-start long-stalled innovation within the massive district.
"There's been a lot of change in the district, a lot of growth and movement ... people no longer believe there is only one way to serve students and the community," said Rosamaria Figueroa Calderon, principal for Civitas Leadership Academy, an LAUSD pilot school - one of many non-charter options on the table. "A couple of years ago the only option was to go charter."
Prompted by sagging test scores and dismal graduation rates - and more recently by the growing popularity of charters and declining enrollment at the district - local educators have attempted to bring alternative school models to LAUSD.
From magnet schools, founded in the 1970s to improve education for minority students, to pilot schools, the district's newest and fastest-growing non-traditional school model, alternative schools have emerged as competitors to the rapidly expanding charter school movement.
And the LAUSD, which once opposed charters, is now embracing the various alternatives to the traditional model.
"This district has not celebrated change before ... has not celebrated thinking out of the box," said LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines.
The School Choice Resolution gives a lot of control over school selection to teachers, parents and communities.
"I believe there is an energy moving now among teachers, parents and administrators. ... They don't have to follow every policy, cross every `t' or dot every `i'," Cortines said.
"I am only interested in people coming forward with plans that raise the bar."
For Calderon, a veteran teacher and administrator at LAUSD for more than two decades, the opportunity to work at a non-traditional campus has been invigorating.
At her small school of about 300 students in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles, Calderon is not just a principal. She is also the only counselor on site, and she teaches Spanish.
Civitas was one of two pilot schools to open in the district three years ago, as part of the schools that were built to relieve overcrowding at nearby Belmont High School.
A model created in Boston, pilot schools run almost completely free of mandates from their local district. Perhaps more importantly, almost all of the school decisions - including who gets hired, and how many hours they work - are controlled by a board of directors made up of teachers, students and parents.
Another option available to schools is the Expanded School Based Management Model, a concept spearheaded by local teachers and United Teachers Los Angeles.
The ESBMM model puts teachers on a level playing field with administrators and allows many of the school's decisions to be made locally, including the hiring of staff.
"It's like we are a small town where everyone really cares," said Colleen Schwab, a teacher and union representative at Woodland Hills Academy, the only district school to operate as an ESBMM campus.
Schwab was part of the group of teachers who originally wanted to make the West Valley middle school a charter. Schwab said the ESBMM model granted teachers and parents at the school the kind of flexibility they wanted to change the school's curriculum and calendar, without having to leave the district.
UTLA president A.J. Duffy hopes the ESBMM model is viewed as a viable option by schools that will be up for bid under the district's plan.
"Teachers are at the epicenter of decision-making power here ... this is what UTLA has been fighting (for), for decades," Duffy said.
Even as UTLA contemplates suing the district over its reform plan, the union leader admitted the school choice resolution also opens the doors for more teacher-driven reform to take place districtwide.
Pilot schools and partnership schools are supported by the teachers union. The union has historically opposed traditional charter schools that usually do not hire union employees.
"I don't believe I or this union should stand in the way of teachers' desires for reform," he said.
While it seems that LAUSD is ushering in a new era of reform, efforts to improve schools have been initiated before by the district, but many have fallen short of their goals.
For example, the iDesign Division of schools was created by former LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer to house the district's partnership schools - campuses that are run jointly by the district and a non-profit partner. The program's 19 campuses - which include the 10 schools in the Mayor's Partnership of Schools - were supposed to be laboratories for emerging teaching strategies and were touted by district officials as the solution to the district's chronic under-performance.
Three years later, staff and resources for the iDesign division have been severely reduced and the division's last director - who left this summer to be a school administrator - hasn't been replaced. District officials also admit that the partnership schools have failed to create a cohesive vision for themselves.
Some wonder if the district's latest invitation for reform could simply be another case of LAUSD taking on more change than it can follow through on.
All final decisions on the school takeover plan are expected by February and all schools will be expected to open in fall 2010.
"L.A. doesn't need another poorly implemented plan," said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University who specializes in reform of large urban districts.
"There's always too much change, too many reforms ... but if they are not clear on what the problem is, how can they make sure the remedy will actually work?"