L.A. Unifed should treat the public campuses as partners, not threats.
[If the LA Times and/or Mayor Riordan are going to spell "unified" that way we obviously need something in our schools!]
Opinion By Richard Riordan
April 21, 2008 — Strong leaders hire talented executives. Supt. David L. Brewer's hiring of Ramon C. Cortines as chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Unified School District gives Brewer such an executive and demonstrates a welcome commitment to tackle the many problems the district faces.
Cortines -- with his experience heading school districts in New York City, San Francisco, San Jose and, for a short time, L.A. -- is the team leader Brewer needs to fully implement his strategy to partner with outside organizations, such as the Los Angeles Urban League, Cal State L.A., Loyola Marymount and other entities, to turn around our most troubled public schools. Cortines' ties to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for whom he was a top education advisor, provide the foundation for another important relationship for Brewer and the district.
One more partnership needs to be added to the mix: charter schools. For too long, the district has treated charter schools as a threat. The teachers union and its allies are challenged by these schools, which operate outside the district's direct control, and the district has responded by resisting their creation, denying up-and-coming charters the space and support they need and deserve.
But the district need not be threatened by these schools. After all, they are public schools authorized by the district. The children they educate are our children too. In fact, 7% of all public school students in Los Angeles now attend a charter school. The district oversees them and is called on to renew their charters every five years, or close them down if they are unsuccessful.
Consider how much good it would do all Los Angeles students if the district's leaders and those from high-performing charter schools sat down together and formed a mutually beneficial partnership, one involving significant exchanges of resources and information. Traditional public schools could learn from and adopt the best practices leading to success in high-performing charter schools -- practices such as empowering principals, offering a rigorous curriculum, regularly using student assessment data to improve instruction, relying on technology to operate central offices efficiently and extending the school day.
Partnerships come in all different forms. They require some give-and-take by both sides. For its part, the district should end its obstructionism and instead engage in a collaborative planning process to ensure charter schools' access to public school facilities, help them build or remodel schools and permit charter schools to get the maximum per-pupil dollars without playing games. On the other side, charter schools should find ways to assist traditional public schools without criticizing them. They should also be open to negotiating with the teachers unions without surrendering to them.
The district's record of resistance to charters has stymied the educational potential of many students, but the hiring of Cortines shows that Brewer is capable of starting over. Now the question is whether he will follow up that encouraging decision with real changes in the lives of students. There is no better place to start than with the charters.
Imagine how much academic improvement we might see citywide if all our schools worked together and learned from one another.
Richard Riordan is a former mayor of Los Angeles.
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