L.A. Unified officials say former mayor's effort lacked campus support but say it could yet be welcomed elsewhere.
By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 15, 2008 -- A yearlong effort by former Mayor Richard Riordan to lead reforms at storied Dorsey High School was met Tuesday with a clear answer: Thanks but no thanks.
The longtime education philanthropist has sought a quasi-management role at a low-performing high school, much like current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other civic leaders.
"I'm offering my heart, my soul, my reputation, my pocketbook and everything to the students at Dorsey High School," said Riordan, who also served as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's first education secretary.
Riordan had lined up former movie studio executive Sherry Lansing through her charitable foundation as well as the San Francisco-based NewSchools Venture Fund, headed by Ted Mitchell, president of the state Board of Education.
But that cast, along with boxes of glossy folders, a PowerPoint presentation and a nascent staff with solid credentials, failed to carry the day.
"I sent an e-mail this afternoon that the school no longer wants to pursue a partnership with that foundation," Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said Tuesday. "It is now at an end."
Cortines said he made that decision based on the wishes of the school community and the South Los Angeles campus' recent improvement.
"I am very proud of them," Cortines said. "I also challenged them that we have to set the goal higher next year."
Dorsey increased its score on the state Academic Performance Index by 30 points, which equals the target improvement goal set by Villaraigosa for the 10 schools under his stewardship. A 30-point rise is considered incremental but well above the average gain in L.A. Unified and statewide. Dorsey has surpassed its overall state improvement target three of the last four years and scored higher each year.
"I'm not looking for someone to turn around what my school is doing," said Principal George Bartleson, who has started his fifth year at the school.
Bartleson said he and his staff spent considerable time working through disagreements and logistics to develop their own reform plans. Last year, they divided Dorsey into seven small learning communities, which include three magnet schools and an academy for ninth-graders.
But Dorsey still ranks among the lowest 10% of California high schools: In math, 1% of students test as proficient; in English, it's 16%. The graduation rate is 49%.
Dorsey has long been associated with black Los Angeles, both its era as a cultural mecca and its later economic struggles. The school today is 57% African American and 42% Latino.
The Riordan group is assembled under a still-organizing nonprofit called Pathways-to-Success. Riordan said he hoped that its board would include Lansing and Mitchell as well as Edward James Olmos and Cheech Marin, actors with activist profiles.
Riordan's proposed reform model resembled the one at Locke High, now being run by a local charter school operator. Dorsey would have been divided into separately run small schools, each with its own principal. Unlike Locke, existing union contracts might have remained in force. Staff members would have been promised continued employment, but not necessarily at Dorsey. Each small school would have managed nearly all of its budget, much like a charter school.
Meaningful local control sounds good to Noah Lippe-Klein, a veteran Dorsey history teacher and a union representative. He had joined faculty and parents last year in petitioning the district for more academic counseling, along with better college and career guidance; expanded, updated vocational offerings; and more Advanced Placement courses.
"We are definitely against any kind of takeover or any kind of outside organization imposing its ideas on Dorsey," he said. "And that's what this comes across as."
At a poorly attended community meeting Monday night, Pathways staff offered nonspecific reassurances that there would be full community engagement.
In recent years, Riordan has heavily supported independently managed charter schools. He pursued Dorsey after being asked to "partner" with a struggling school through the district's Innovation Division. That invitation came a year ago from Kathi Littmann, who then headed that division, and from Los Angeles schools Supt. David L. Brewer.
But Brewer never openly supported Riordan's effort. He said Tuesday that Riordan's group had the job of building community and teacher support. He added that the group could yet be welcomed elsewhere.
School board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who represents the Dorsey area, said she learned secondhand about the Riordan effort, which did not sit well with her, given her history with the former mayor. Riordan, with the tacit blessing of Villaraigosa, had helped to raise funds for an unsuccessful attempt to thwart LaMotte's 2007 reelection.
"This is personal political retaliation," she wrote in an e-mail to senior district officials. In a later interview, she said she wasn't interested in Riordan's proposal unless Dorsey supported it.
Former school board member Caprice Young said the scenario seems unpleasantly familiar.
"The district says, 'Give us money,' but there's no constructive way to do that with a real, possible chance of creating academic success," said Young, who until recently headed the California Charter Schools Assn. "So much good should be happening and the district keeps blowing great opportunities. That's why people like Dick Riordan and parents like me are so frustrated."
●●smf’s 2¢: I have it on good authority that Riordan & Company came a little too late to the community – perhaps assuming that their largess and expertise would be welcome – with or without the inevitable strings. Sherry Lansing, Jeff Wald and the ICM Talent Agency have built a valued partnership with Dorsey – it can be done!
Perhaps we need to revisit some history, ancient and more recent:
Dorsey is named for Superintendent Susan Dorsey who oversaw the 760% school growth, resultant construction boom and historic outreach to the community between school district, city and the neighborhoods almost a hundred years ago.
Superintendent Dorsey wouldn’t have done it this way.
The Dorsey community undoubtedly remembers Mr. Riordan’s politically and allegedly racially insensitive remarks made to a child back when he was Secretary of Education. At the time it was misreported that the child was Black …but memories die hard.
4LAKids suggests that Mr. Riordan use his good offices and bully pulpit to engage the community, the current mayor’s office and the MTA/Expo Line Authority on the school safety issues surrounding the Expo Line construction. That is viewed in the ‘hood as the most important issue confronting Dorsey High School at this time. Safety trumps test scores and Mr. Riordan could well build a bridge (or a below-grade crossing) to the community on that issue by investing some political capital.