Monday, January 25, 2010

TEACHERS PUSH GARDENA HIGH REFORMS – proposal ‘met with mixed reactions and some befuddlement’

By Melissa Pamer Staff Writer | Daily Breeze

01/25/2010 - In response to a reform mandate from the Los Angeles school board, teachers and administrators at Gardena High have come up with a plan they hope will get the troubled school back on track.

But the proposal, drafted to comply with a closely watched board initiative that lets groups inside and outside of the Los Angeles Unified School District bid for control of 30 campuses, has met with mixed reactions and some befuddlement.

Next week, thousands of parents at Gardena and its feeder schools will be asked to take a yes-or-no vote on the 43-page plan, which aims to improve academic achievement, increase campus safety, boost family involvement and give teachers a greater voice.

Supporters characterized the document as a plan to "keep Gardena, Gardena."

Teachers, who appear to back the proposal while remaining skeptical of the process, say they already have another vision in mind for Gardena High: turning it into a district-affiliated charter school. That move, which they say will proceed on a separate track from the Public School Choice process, would increase local control over school policies.

"We would like a model that would give teachers more say so," said Saul Lankster, a Gardena history teacher and union leader who helped draft the proposal. "If the local people were in control of that school, you would have a completely different outcome."

Last week, the panel that drew up the plan presented its vision to about 150 parents. Similar presentations have been made this month across LAUSD, as teams compete for control of 12 existing "focus schools" and 18 newly constructed campuses that will open in fall.

The focus schools were named in September by Superintendent Ramon Cortines because, he said, they met a list of criteria that showed academic failures, including poor or nonimproving performance on standardized tests and a high dropout rate.

Gardena, with its score of 576 on the state's Academic Performance Index, is tied with Leuzinger High in Lawndale for the lowest-performing school in the South Bay.

Gardena High has also experienced less measurable problems in recent years: a rapid succession of district- appointed principals, an unhappy faculty, and safety concerns about the large campus.

So it surprised few when no outside charter or nonprofit group stepped up to apply for control of Gardena High. Likewise, no groups sought control of crowded San Pedro High, also named a focus school.

The Gardena High "improvement proposal," produced by a group of teachers and administrators, focuses on the implementation of "small learning communities," a districtwide program that divides students into educationally themed groups.

It also calls for the creation of a discipline committee, a modified bell schedule, and an earlier beginning to the school year. School would end earlier on most Tuesdays to give teachers time for professional development and collaboration.

Many said the process of drawing up the plan had been therapeutic for a fractured staff that was now more united. A crucial shared school governance council that had not been established in fall is on its way to resurrection because of the process.

"We are on the right path to healthy, trusting relationships between faculty, administration and students," said Principal Rudy Mendoza, who was appointed to his job in October.

At its public presentation last week, the panel that wrote the plan offered generalities and academic buzzwords - such as "project-based learning" and "personalized instruction" - in describing its vision to parents.

During a limited question- and-answer session that was marked by poor audio quality, parent suggestions about requiring student uniforms or posting grades and homework assignments online were essentially met with "maybe."

Some wanted assurances that the school would stop busing in students from overcrowded campuses in Carson, Wilmington and South Los Angeles. Officials responded that it remains unclear if busing will continue.

Many observers - including district officials - said they felt the reform plan listed policies that Gardena High should already be practicing.

Others were left without a clear picture of how the school would be changed.

"There's no clarity in what they're presenting; there's no transparency," said Gardena Councilman Dan Medina, who has followed the process closely. "It's hard to be enthused about something that you don't understand."

Medina said that even having attended multiple meetings, he and others felt confused by the presentation.

"The parents left, saying `huh?"' Medina said.

Internally, there appears to be less confusion, though few could summarize - or agree on - how the plan would ultimately improve the school.

"The overarching issue at Gardena is governance and teachers wanting more of a voice," said Juan Flecha, the Local District 8 administrator overseeing the plan. "The teachers really feel that they don't have a venue to provide input."

Some teachers said that while they were on board for the proposed reforms, they believe turning the school into a charter is the best choice. The earliest that complicated process could be completed is in the 2011-12 school year.

As teachers pursue that option, they're worried about another upheaval. Some believe Principal Mendoza will be moved from the school to a new secondary campus under construction near Carson. Mendoza denied that, saying he's at Gardena High "for the long haul."

Lankster, who has railed against the district's policy of moving administrators around, expressed optimism about the future. The teachers, he said, were united.

"We have come to realize that we need take that step together," he said. "We cannot make this step as a house divided."

A public vote on the plan is set for early February. The outcome will not determine the fate of the proposal - that's up to a district review panel and Cortines, who will consider the vote when making recommendations to the school board. Later in February, the board will select a plan for each of the 30 campuses subject to the reform initiative.

If the board does not approve the Gardena High plan, it's unclear what would happen next.

"Just because there's only one applicant per school doesn't mean that applicant will automatically get it," said district spokeswoman Gayle Pollard-Terry.

One possibility is reconstitution, in which all staff are fired and made to reapply for the jobs. In December, Cortines announced such a restructuring for Fremont High School in South Los Angeles, warning that the move would be considered for other failing schools.

Pollard-Terry said the move was not currently being discussed for other schools, but rumors have persisted about what Cortines might do.

"It's certainly in his arsenal," Flecha said. "It's a definite possibility."

But there's no been no official warning of any kind to Gardena, Flecha said.

"We haven't gone to Gardena in any shape or form and said, you really need to shape up or you're going to be shipped out because now you're going to be reconstituted," Flecha said. "The school has really done their best effort to put their best foot forward."

What's next?

Gardena High School parents are asked to take part in an advisory vote on a campus reform plan, which is available at Parents from the following feeder schools may vote: 135th Street, 153rd Street, 156th Street, 186th Street, Amestoy, Avalon Gardens, Chapman, Denker Avenue, Gardena and Purche Avenue elementary schools and Peary Middle School.

Where: Gardena High School, 1301 W. 182nd St., Gardena.

When: 7 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. Feb. 2, and

9 a.m. to noon Feb. 6.

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