Daily News: FREMONT STAFF PAYS PRICE WHEN KIDS UNDERPERFORM
EDUCATION: LAUSD's drive to reform hits high school hard and fuels a backlash.
EDUCATION: By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Dally News
2/27/2010 -- Moved by the tragic Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Agnes Cesare decided she needed a career with meaning so she decided to go back to school to become a high school counselor.
That career path eventually led her to Fremont High School - one of the lowest-performing schools in Los Angeles Unified, where the bubbly counselor has pushed dozens of struggling students to get to class on time, avoid distractions and graduate. In return teens have filled her tiny sky-blue office with dozens of their snapshots and giant hand-drawn graffiti posters.
But Cesare and all other staff at Fremont - except the newly appointed principal - have been fired under a reform plan that aims to overhaul the campus. It's a course of action already taken up by school districts in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago to deal with chronically underperforming schools.
"It is unfair and unjust to bring this kind of change to this school, without the input of the teachers, parents or students," Cesare said Friday at a rally organized by teachers, parents and students at the school.
"For me it is not about my job, it is about giving this community a say in what happens at their school."
While she and other staff have a chance to reapply for their jobs, the district will not necessarily bring them back, and could opt to transfer all to other district schools.
Fremont High is the first school in Los Angeles Unified to be reconstituted, the name given to the drastic reform effort that under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 allows districts to take over a school, restructure it's staff and even convert it to a charter.
The move can only be done if a campus has been designated underperforming for more than five years, based on state and federal math and reading test scores.
However, in Los Angeles Unified, more than a third of all 800 district schools fall under this "failing" category, including 28 in the San Fernando Valley. Fremont has been designated a failing school for a dozen years.
Despite the emotional reactions from community members, employees and students who oppose the plan, LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines said he plans to use this reform strategy on other failing schools.
"People need to understand that they can no longer hide... I am not going to ignore this issue and allow the status quo to continue," Cortines said.
Cortines said he has worked with Fremont's staff for the last two years in an effort to improve student achievement at the campus.
However, last year, fewer than 2 percent of the Fremont students who were tested were proficient or better in math. And fewer than 14 percent who were tested were proficient or better in English.
Unlike more drastic efforts in Chicago and recently Rhode Island, where employees from a school are fired and not allowed to come back, Cortines said he wants all workers to reapply for their jobs.
This way, Cortines said, next year only workers committed to improving Fremont will be left at the school.
Still parents and students are distraught over the possibility of losing the entire teaching staff and worry about the chaos that could ensue.
They also complain that district officials have not included them in plans for next year, that at Fremont starts July 1, because the 4,700-student campus is still on a year-round schedule.
"Mr. Cortines must think kids here are orphans," said Myrna Rico, a parent of a Fremont student. "Why then doesn't he host community meetings with us?"
Students also said they wanted to be included in planning for their school's future.
"For real reform to succeed, it needs to have the voice of students, parents and teachers," said Fremont senior Mariela Martinez. "They are the ones who know the challenges we face."
Teachers say administrators don't realize what they have to overcome every day. Three-quarters of Fremont students are from low-income homes, more than a third are English language learners and many live in foster homes. Students also arrive each day with burdens of their own; many work to help support their families, while others raise their own children or younger siblings.
The Fremont campus also leaves much to be desired. The school has a problem with mice, rats and other pests; lockers don't work; classrooms lack textbooks; and most bathrooms are locked during class time for safety concerns.
"Blame our crowded classes and our prison-like conditions, not our teachers," Martinez said.
Teachers also stress that despite their challenges test scores have increased, more students are graduating and they've managed to develop and maintain some thriving extra-curricular programs like the school's band and student newspaper.
"We have been ignored consistently year after year," said Maria Gaspar, a Fremont teacher and alumni.
"Now they are finally shining a light on us, but it is negative."
Still, district administrators said the time of waiting for improvements at schools like Fremont, where four out of 10 students drops out, is over.
"But we cannot sustain this low level of academic achievement anymore," said George McKenna, Local District 7 superintendent. "There is nothing left to defend."
by Howard Blume | LA Times LA Now blog
February 26, 2010 | 7:55 pm | More than half of the faculty at Fremont High School have pledged to leave the school rather than participate in a mandated improvement plan.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is requiring all school employees to reapply for their jobs. It’s an aggressive attempt to alter what district officials describe as a school culture grown complacent with poor student achievement.
Most teachers have signed a petition saying they won’t go along, staff organizers said.
The ongoing rebellion was underscored at a Friday morning news conference near the school, which is located south of downtown in Florence. A small group of teachers, students and parents took part.
“If new teachers come in, they won’t know anything of the past history of the community,” said Mirna Rico, the parent of a ninth-grader. “There’s a certain stability that students need and, as it is, the school has been very unstable. But it’s getting better.”
Veteran administrator George McKenna countered that progress has been too slow and inconsistent.
“The data is dismal,” said McKenna, the senior administrator for the local region. “And it’s been going on so long long it feels normal to people.”
Only 13.6% of the school’s students tested as proficient in English language arts. Math was worse: Of 3,226 students tested in 2009, only 45 were proficient. Only two students scored as advanced.
Fremont senior Patricia Gonzalez said she had 50 students in her calculus class, which she said was emblematic of a shortage of resources. She said blaming the staff by making them re-interview for positions is the wrong approach.
She, too, said things have improved, which she credits for the recent graduation of her 19-year-old sister and her own academic success. Not all of her siblings have done as well. Of the six that preceded her at Fremont, only two graduated. The others dropped out largely because they felt lost, uninvolved and uncared for in the large school, Gonzalez said.
L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines has said he will not back down from the restructuring plan, which McKenna will oversee in conjunction with the principal.
The teachers who refuse to reapply would be assigned to fill vacancies elsewhere.
“We’d like most of the staff to be rehired at Fremont," McKenna said. “They can all be rehired if they participate. We’re still asking them to participate in the restructuring process.”