by Mitchell Landsberg | L.A. Times
June 6, 2010 -- The year ended much as it had begun, with multitudes filling a sun-splashed football stadium to hear speakers offer words of hope and inspiration.
One big difference: No one booed this time.
It was less than a year ago that Birmingham High School in the San Fernando Valley received approval to pull out of the Los Angeles Unified School District and become a charter school — still publicly funded but with its own local leadership and budget.
The decision followed months of bitter infighting involving teachers, administrators, students, parents and the teachers union, with charges and countercharges flying between those who supported the charter conversion and those who opposed it.
It was a scale model of the larger battle being waged over charter schools nationally. Advocates, led by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, believe charters offer the flexibility needed to reform American education. Foes, including labor unions and education traditionalists, see them as a boondoggle.
At Birmingham, the fight got personal.
Opponents predicted a financial and academic disaster if the school were allowed to go charter; proponents predicted that it would blossom once it was unshackled from the L.A. Unified bureaucracy and rules. Friendships splintered over accusations of character assassination and double dealing. When school began last August, students filed into the campus stadium for a somewhat listless pep rally punctuated by catcalls and boos.
On May 28, in the same stadium, the charter school held its first graduation. This time, there was unbridled jubilation — hardly a surprise, this being a graduation. But there also was widespread agreement that Year 1 for the re-minted Birmingham Community Charter High School had been, on balance, a modest success.
"It was challenging," history teacher Maria Agazaryan admitted, "but I'll take it over LAUSD any day of the week."
No one was claiming that a high school long mired in the middle of the academic pack had suddenly found the keys to academic greatness or that the year had been without its pitfalls. But in interviews, there was near unanimity among faculty, administrators, students and parents that the strife had been worth it.
To begin with, Birmingham made it through the year without having to reduce the number of school days or significantly increase class sizes, both of which occurred at traditional L.A. Unified schools. "We have avoided it by being very careful with our spending," Principal Marcia Coates said.
Rather than paying the school district to provide services, she said, Birmingham used cheaper outside contractors for its food service, buses for special education students, and gardeners and janitors. The school also saved money on supplies, which it bought through a purchasing agent.
"When we see that we need 20 Xerox cartridges, we'll call her and ask her to get the best deal," Coates said. Although the nation's second-largest school district theoretically can save money through economies of scale, Birmingham often gets supplies for less and buys only what it needs.
Faculty said that the new way of doing things has been more efficient and that the contract employees often do better work.
"Things are cleaner, things get fixed faster," said Robin Share, one of the school's three instructional coordinators. "If we have a need for an extra set of books, all that happens much faster."
To some degree, the school's first year as a charter was a relief, coming on the heels of a virtual civil war the year before. Most of the teachers who vehemently opposed the charter conversion wound up leaving for other Los Angeles Unified campuses.
"They're gone, so there are more smiley faces here," said veteran math teacher Steve Kofahl, the school's union chapter chairman. "And you see it in the students too. The whole attitude on campus is happier."
Graduating senior Merlyn Perez had praise for the new teachers. "They were really enthusiastic," she said. "The teaching staff has improved."
Last month, a judge ruled against a lawsuit challenging the charter conversion.
If there was one remaining source of discord, it was the relationship between the Birmingham charter and a freestanding L.A. Unified school, the Daniel Pearl Journalism Magnet, which shares the campus.
When Birmingham broke off from L.A. Unified, Supt. Ramon C. Cortines agreed to the magnet's request to remain part of the district.
Birmingham staffers complained that Pearl got preferential treatment from the district. There were tussles over classroom space, over parking, over the presence of Pearl students on the Birmingham side of the campus.
"I have always had a very cordial relationship with Mrs. Coates," said Pearl's principal, Janet Kiddoo. "I think the challenges exist in relationships between certain adults. I think some of them will never get over it."
Next year, the district plans to move the Pearl magnet onto a nearby campus formerly occupied by the West Valley Special Education Center, which is closing.
"For the good of everyone, I hope the magnet goes ahead and moves," said Coates.
It is still too early to say whether the shift to charter status has improved Birmingham's academic standing. Faculty and staff are optimistic, saying they believe the improved morale and some initial academic reform efforts would pay off in higher test scores and graduation rates.
Scores from state standardized tests won't be released until August. Coates said results from the California High School Exit Exam show a passage rate of 67%, down one percentage point from last year, when the Pearl students — typically among the highest performers — were included. And Birmingham graduated 501 students in May, a number that should rise as students finish courses taken elsewhere. That compares favorably to a graduating class of 561 last year, when more than 100 graduates were Pearl students.
Teacher Ed Jacobson said things are looking up — which is a good thing, because Birmingham's staff now has no one else to blame if the school doesn't succeed.
"Something about having the whole thing in your hands is cool," he said. "It takes a while for it to dawn on people — it had better be good."