Monday, November 23, 2009

CHOICES ROILING VALLEY SCHOOL: Competition causes apprehension at San Fernando campus.

By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Daily News

11/23 -- The last two months have been a whirlwind of meetings and deadlines for Eduardo Solorzano, principal of San Fernando Middle School.

Visibly exhausted, the first-year principal has been working 12-hour days and weekends since his school was chosen as one of 36 Los Angeles Unified campuses that are up for grabs this year under a new district reform effort that lets both outsiders and insiders compete to run schools.

The School Choice plan is meant to breed better academic results at the district's new and failing schools through competition. This week it was announced that more than 200 bidders answered the district's call and submitted bids for the three dozen schools.

With so many in the ring, tensions are running high for administrators, teachers, students and parents who worry about the future of their schools while they sort through the competing visions, with little time to settle differences as the Jan. 11 deadline approaches.

"Based on the history of this community and this school, we can't afford to have our school given away," Solorzano said.

"The next two weeks will be crucial for us."

Solorzano, like most principals of existing campuses selected for School Choice, had to submit his own proposal to operate the school.

His was among eight bids for the 100-year-old campus. Other bidders include a local tutoring provider, a community nonprofit group and out-of-state organizations that have never worked with LAUSD before.

One of the applicants was ABC Learn Inc., a San Fernando-based tutoring service that serves students under a No Child Left Behind Act clause that allows kids at failing schools to get free academic help.

Debbie Greenfield, president and CEO of ABC Learn Inc., said her vision for San Fernando could include converting it to a charter and making it a "teaching school" similar to a "teaching hospital" where college students would shadow credentialed teachers.

"The school would have a major focus on literacy and would allow teachers to bring creativity and a joy of learning to the classroom," Greenfield said.

Also bidding for the school are Synesi Foundation and American Charter Foundation, neither of which has worked with LAUSD in the past.

Synesi Foundation is the non-profit arm of Synesi Associates, a school-management consulting firm based in Illinois. Gary Solomon, president of Synesi Associates, said his organization bid on all but one of the 36 schools as a way of developing a relationship with LAUSD, but ultimately may withdraw the bids and work with the district through other means.

Ted Frederick, a board member of the American Charter School Foundation, said his group placed bids on San Fernando and every other available district school just to seek out a "great opportunity." He said his Arizona-based organization is looking to expand and is seeking growth opportunities in other states as well.

But the worries by staff and parents at San Fernando don't just involve outside bidders.

From within the school two groups of teachers submitted applications to launch pilot schools - small schools that grant teachers more power over curriculum, staffing and budget - within San Fernando.

Speaking to a small gathering of parents and teachers recently, Pearl Arredondo, a multi-media teacher at San Fernando, explained that she submitted the independent application to benefit her students.

"We found something that works and we want to move ahead with it and continue the success of our kids," she said.

Before Arredondo could finish describing her proposal to take over only a section of the school, hands in the audience shot up as parents prodded her with questions about "dividing" the campus.

"Our kids are stressed about next year. ... If you say it's about the kids then keep your adult agendas away from them," said Christine Provencio, an LAUSD parent representative who has one child at San Fernando.

Ana Maria Barroso, mother of seventh- and eighth-grade students, said her children told her that kids were teasing each other about which schools they would end up at if several small schools opened at San Fernando next fall.

"Kids are saying `Oh you're dumb so you're going to go to the dumb school,"' Barroso said.

But even as tensions grow, so has the creativity, with plans for the future of San Fernando Middle getting more and more elaborate.

Solorzano's plan calls for joining forces with Project GRAD, a nonprofit that promotes college attendance among students in the Northeast Valley.

The proposal would also bring in California State University, Northridge, UCLA and the Los Angeles Educational Partnership to provide professional development to teachers and enrichment to students.

The Youth Policy Institute, a local nonprofit that brings educational and training programs to the Northeast Valley, has also applied to take over day-to-day operations at San Fernando.

The organization, currently operating under an annual budget of $28million, wants to enrich San Fernando with the same kind of resources that have allowed the group to give away 400 computers with a year's worth of Internet access to local families.

While the organization currently operates two charter schools - public schools that are free from most state regulations and don't have to hire district staff - it is not interested in converting San Fernando to a charter, said Iris Zuniga-Corona, YPI's director of youth services.

Instead the plan would be to work with teachers and parents to design the best model for the school. Currently, YPI is collaborating with some of the teachers who have submitted pilot-school plans, to see if they can devise a joint proposal.

The misinformation among parents has been especially frustrating for Zuniga-Corona, who also questioned the fairness of a process that naturally favors proposals from the school's current staff because they have the most interaction with students and parents.

"At the end of the day this is about choices and competition, and it's good because it puts everyone on their best game," Zuniga-Corona said.

"What I am not comfortable with is inaccurate information being spread to parents, and things need to be fair."

So much remains uncertain for San Fernando, just as it does for the other 35 schools, which in two months will learn who stays and who goes.

Final applications are due by Jan.11. They will then be reviewed by two panels, and teachers and parents will also vote on their favorite plan.

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines will then submit his recommendations to the Board of Education, which will make its final decision by Feb. 23.

The quick process is scary for nearly everyone involved, but change is inevitable.

"Things are never going to be the same as they have been in the past," said Maria Reza, a former LAUSD administrator and former principal of San Fernando Middle School.

However, Reza said she would remind the community that some things always stay the same.

"The best things for kids are always the same," she said. "It's the best teachers, with a supportive administrative staff and supportive parents that will make them successful. There is no magic there."

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