Thursday, November 01, 2007


Among The Many Complaints From Critics Is That His Proposal Would Stigmatize Such Schools.

by Howard Blume and Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

November 1, 2007 - Faced with stiff opposition from the teachers union and little support elsewhere, Los Angeles schools Supt. David L. Brewer has backed away from his plan to put nearly four dozen poorly performing schools into a separate "transformation district."

The superintendent's retreat comes only about four weeks after he unveiled the plan, which was widely viewed as an answer to critics who said the retired Navy admiral had accomplished too little in the year since accepting the top job at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The plan called for 44 secondary schools to be given immediate and intensive help under a handpicked administrator. After rolling out the idea with some fanfare, Brewer now says it is only "an option" -- one that many say is looking increasingly unlikely.

In an interview, Brewer emphasized that the targeted schools would still receive additional support and attention, although it remained unclear how that would be carried out.

The decision to change course, he said, came after district officials and community leaders expressed concerns about the plan and an ongoing review of data suggested that helping those lagging schools would mean addressing student learning well before the pupils entered secondary school.

"The separate district was a starting point based on the research we had at the time," Brewer said. "We don't have to submit something to the school board till the 13th of November. We're refining this plan, and everybody's learning. This is tedious work. You'll see different versions of things coming out."

His original framework ran into vehement opposition from United Teachers Los Angeles, whose executive board voted to oppose a new, separate district of schools last week. Union leaders informed Brewer that they intended to mount an organized campaign against his strategy if he did not change course. They characterized the proposal as a heavy-handed reform forced by the superintendent and one that would stigmatize those schools.

"We've lived with these top-down mandates for far too long, and that's the reason we haven't made the kind of progress we can and should make," said union President A.J. Duffy. To oppose Brewer's plan, "we would encourage teachers to put those teaching programs in their closets and to continue to teach the way they were."

Sounding the union's reform mantra, Duffy called instead for "local autonomy" for school sites, including giving teachers the right to choose their administrators. Some of the union's concepts are part of another Brewer initiative -- an "innovation division" -- which is still in the early stages. Initially, the program will involve only a limited number of schools, including the ones Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will help run as part of his own reform effort. But the program leaves out, for now, the lion's share of the district, not to mention most of the schools where test scores are low and dropout rates are high. The need to improve more schools more quickly was largely what prompted Brewer to announce his High-Priority Schools plan in the first place.

His idea has been tried elsewhere, by then-Supt. Arlene Ackerman in San Francisco and most notably Supt. Rudy Crew, first in New York City and later in Miami. The construct was eventually disbanded in New York after Crew's departure. Both Ackerman and Crew have advised Brewer, who has no formal background in public education.

L.A. Unified board members Yolie Flores Aguilar and Marlene Canter commended Brewer for changing course after listening to others' concerns. Flores Aguilar said she "had not been particularly sold on the idea of a separate district. What we see here is an evolving idea."

She criticized the superintendent, however, for "getting ahead of himself. . . . He's feeling the pressure to act and he's trying to act, but he's not ready to act."

For others, word of Brewer's shift was troubling.

"What was really energizing about the first idea was that he was making an unequivocal statement that business as usual has not been working for these schools," said former Occidental College President Ted Mitchell, a senior education advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "I would be really concerned if this became a business-as-usual exercise: a lot of talk, a lot of contention, but not a lot of action."

Brewer initially tried to keep his concept under wraps, quietly convening a task force of district and community leaders to flesh out the idea. But things got off to a rough start. At the first meeting, held at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce offices downtown, Michael O'Sullivan, president of the union that represents district administrators, said he was asked to speak in support of Brewer's idea with little notice.

"Normally, I like to think through ahead what I'm going to say," O'Sullivan said. "We all just stood up there and cranked out the platitudes. But none of us had an idea of what was on his mind."

As recently as Oct. 24, Brewer was defending his original concept to district parent representatives, who complained about lack of input and disclosure. Brewer countered that the need for change is urgent and warned of possible intervention from the state and federal government if the district did not take extreme action on its own. He also said senior administrators liked the idea because the poorly performing schools took up too much of their time.

But the superintendent was also hearing complaints from administrators who were unhappy over schools being removed from their jurisdiction. Brewer's staff received calls and letters from principals, community members and even board members about campuses they believed he had incorrectly included in a so-called dummy district.

"I worry that this could have a severely negative impact on student achievement," wrote John H. Francis Polytechnic High School interim Principal Gerardo Loera, whose letter outlined various improvement efforts already underway. The Sun Valley campus is one of 10 that Brewer has removed from the list; 34 others -- half of them high schools, half middle schools -- remain.

On Friday, Brewer's plan was roundly condemned at a gathering he convened of principals and teachers from each of the schools on his list.

"We have magnet programs here that are not failing," said Dorsey High School teacher Sherlett Hendy. "Many of those who'd want to attend the school wouldn't."

But Hendy also had some praise for the superintendent.

"It was a frank meeting. He spoke very candidly," she said. "I think he kind of changed his mind, like, 'maybe we're going about this wrong.' "

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