By George B. Sánchez, Staff Writer | Daily News
August 25 -- As Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's school partnership takes over 10 of Los Angeles' lowest-performing schools, his ambitious reform plan is being met on the campuses with both skepticism and hope.
Seven of the 10 schools' principals decided they didn't want to be part of the mayor's experiment and asked for transfers to other campuses just months before classes started.
The others remained, and the mayor has now brought in his own administrators to implement his vision. But while some of those who left said they were just looking for a different challenge or planning to retire soon anyway, others said they didn't have faith in the mayor's vision or methods.
They also felt left out in planning the fate of their own campuses.
"I'm totally for getting behind grass-roots reform, but what's the reform and how is it going to work?" said Verna Stroud, former principal of Markham Middle School. "It felt like, to me, it wasn't a partnership, it was a takeover."
The seven newly hired principals, some of them fresh to Los Angeles Unified, will be part of an untested plan - based on a framework created by the partnership, but ultimately one that is to be fine-tuned by the staff at each school.
Set against an LAUSD bureaucracy that has traditionally functioned under a strict chain of command, there is bound to be confusion.
There also likely will be discord.
The mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools told principals they could stay on if they wanted. But they also expected some would choose to leave.
"We were very direct. We were honest," said Marshall Tuck, chief executive officer for the partnership. "Frankly, our job was to make sure people know what this was about. We expected people to leave."
Despite plans to free them from LAUSD headquarters, the mayor's partnership schools are not completely autonomous.
New principals could not be recruited until July 1, when the partnership contract began, Tuck said. Ideally, new principals would have been hired in April and arrive on campus before the end of the school year.
New principals were announced last week, and new assistant principals will be announced this week. But some of the old principals question whether they were ever considered.
While parents and teachers were allowed to vote on whether their campuses should leave the district and join the partnership, principals and classified employees were not offered a say.
Seasoned educators were skeptical of the latest education reform effort.
"The thing about the partnership is it's an unknown. There's no track record," said Karina Salazar, who asked for a transfer after serving as principal of 99th Street Elementary School for the past four years.
"Even though it's called a partnership, how can you call it a partnership and exclude the administrators?"
Tuck said it's unfortunate principals didn't have a vote but said they would have likely solidified support for the change.
That would have been the case with Teresa Hurtado, who was principal at Stevenson Middle School for the past 5<MD+,%30,%55,%70>1/<MD-,%0,%55,%70>2 years.
"I didn't want to leave. I was open from the beginning to the transformation," she said.
In retrospect, she said, it seemed the partnership was interested in new leadership.
"Sure, I made the decision to leave, but what else am I going to do?" she said. "You have to have a good working relationship with your supervisor."
Stroud said no one told the principals to leave, but communication problems and a lack of collaborative opportunities led some principals to draw their own conclusions.
But the connection between the partnership and principals can drive education reform, one expert said.
"What is important in school reform is that leadership is in sync with one another from the superintendent to the principals to the teachers," said Harold Levine, dean of the school of education at University of California, Davis.
"As long as senior management and the principals are in sync, you have a much better chance for real change to benefit students. That's the bottom line."
A.J. Duffy, president of the district's teachers union, said principals should have been allowed to vote on the transformation. But their role within this vision of education reform, he said, should not be what it was.
"What we're trying to create is a completely new model and yes, the role of administrators is different because they no longer make the ultimate decision," Duffy said.
Duffy did not know if any teachers requested transfers out of the mayor's partnership schools. But if they had, their decision should be honored, to benefit students and staff alike, he said.
"We don't want teachers who are not going to buy into this, to be forced into anything," he said. "We want to make sure everyone is excited."
The actual plan for schools within the partnership was also unclear to some principals.
The partnership's vision, contained within a slim, 32-page document, Tuck said, is purposefully loose because it's meant to allow teachers and community members the opportunity to do what works, instead of being told what to do.
Stroud said that idea isn't fair.
"Everybody needs some type of leadership," she said. "I can't imagine any organization that would just give itself over to the employees and say, go do it."
The vision was just that, she said - a philosophy without a plan or instruction.
"The question was always how," she said.
But the vision appeals to some, despite only a few weeks to prepare for a new school within a new system.
Tim Sullivan, who was appointed by the partnership to take over Markham Middle School on Aug. 18, said he has followed education reform since the late 1990s and is excited by the partnership.
"This is my 18th year in education and will be one of the more exciting years in my career," he said.
Most of Sullivan's experience in education is as an administrator.
That's the key to the change in leadership, said Robert Cooper, an associate professor of education at UCLA.
"I think the concern ought to be, are people ready to take over leadership roles at those institutions," he said. "It's not just an issue of if they're new. It's about what experience they have."
The process that moved the schools out of the district and into the partnership was rushed and haphazard, said Mike O'Sullivan, president of the principals union.
There are concerns for the new principals and the support they will get, O'Sullivan said, and not necessarily who they are.
"We're cautiously optimistic things will be fine," he said. "Schools are strong institutions that are almost impossible to mess up."