By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Daily News
3/15/2010 -- SAN FERNANDO - Critics of Los Angeles Unified's school reform effort say it simply isn't bold enough, pointing to a recent move to keep most poor-performing schools under district control rather than hand them over to innovative charter operators.
Don't tell that to teachers, administrators and parents at San Fernando Middle School.
It's true that this chronically underperforming school - one of 12 targeted in the first wave of the district's School Choice plan - will remain in district hands. But no one expects it to maintain the status quo when the school opens this fall.
For one, the campus will be divided into two schools, with two principals, two teaching staffs and two student bodies.
"We'll have to learn how to share, not step on each other's toes, build bridges," said Eduardo Solorzano, principal of San Fernando Middle School. "Now comes the real work."
A big part of Solorzano's job over the next five months will be to guide the school on a smooth transition as it splits into two units.
Some teachers are worried about inequities that might develop at the two schools. For example, one has plans to raise money from a local nonprofit so that every student has a laptop.
"I'm concerned this could become a case of the `haves' and the `have-nots'," said Phyllis Castaneda, an English teacher at the school for four years.
"I am very concerned with how we are going to divide the resources at school. Like the nurse - will they have their own nurse or will we have to split the time or can any child from either school come to her any time."
The middle school was one of 12 underperforming and 24 new campuses that were subject to bidding by outside operators and district-led teacher and administrator groups. It's part of an ambitious attempt to turn around the worst schools and let new ones start on a strong footing.
The plan was originally cheered by charter schools and other education reformers, like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's School Partnership group, which runs a number of schools. But when the school board voted last month to let charters take over only three campuses, and half of one more, the decision was seen by many as a missed chance at true reform.
LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines recommended the San Fernando Middle School plan and it was later adopted by the school board. It calls for breaking the campus into a traditional 1,200-student campus and a 400-student independently run pilot school that operates free of many district mandates.
Cortines said he knew forcing campuses to share space would be an adjustment, but he also stressed that it is part of a larger concept that he is trying to achieve at LAUSD that brings more choices to parents, teachers and students.
"My vision is to create healthy educational competitiveness and raise the bar," Cortines said.
"We want to have choices at the school level ... People need to understand that the status quo is not acceptable and everyone is going to have to compete."
San Fernando Middle School was selected due to its consistently low student academic achievement.
Last year, fewer than 21 percent of the school's students were considered proficient in English or math. Also, the school has failed to meet federal and state academic benchmarks for years.
Still, tensions ran high at the school when it was announced that it could be taken over under the district's new reform policy. And while those anxieties were soothed when it was announced that the school would remain under district control, the changes are ruffling many feathers.
For one, the pilot school was part of an application submitted by a local nonprofit that intended to take over the entire school - something fiercely opposed by the majority of the school staff.
The pilot school was also backed by a group of teachers at San Fernando, who were seen as disloyal by some of the teachers since they were backing an outside operator.
By definition, pilot schools are run much like charter schools - they do not have to follow many district mandates and they get to control their own budget and hiring decisions.
So class sizes and courses can be very different at San Fernando's pilot school compared with the larger comprehensive middle school.
Castaneda, the English teacher, said many teachers are also concerned that the small school, which plans to have a technology focus, could have resources not available to the rest of the students, such as the individual laptops.
Some teachers at the campus are also leery of the pilot school concept since educators at these schools can be hired and fired much easier than teachers at traditional schools, because of a more flexible union contract.
Also vexing teachers and other staff is exactly which 400 students will be enrolled in the pilot school. Students have to apply to enroll at a pilot school, and it will generally be done on a first-come, first-served basis. But the school needs to have an even distribution of grade levels.
Nury Martinez, the school board member representing the East Valley, said she voted in favor of the shared concept for San Fernando Middle School knowing it would create some tension. She believes healthy competition will ensure that San Fernando performs better.
"I am personally concerned ... but I'm trying to let dust settle," Martinez said. "I know they have to work around some of the feelings that still exist on the campus, but as adults they have to figure it out for the good of the kids."
Pearl Arredondo, a multimedia teacher at San Fernando Middle School for the past six years, said that despite the unanswered questions, she is excited to launch a school with a unique concept.
With a focus on technology, the pilot school plans to use animation to analyze literature and graphic design to complete algebraic equations.
Collaboration with all of her colleagues at San Fernando is something Arredondo sees as crucial, even if they are working at different schools.
"We want to be able to move forward and not get hung up on adult issues," Arredondo said. "We realize people's visions are not the same, but we can all learn work together."
Principal Solorzano, one of the primary writers of a proposal that would have kept the school as one large campus, now has to compromise and cede some control to the new principal.
"Will it be perfect? ... It might never be and some of us will have a harder time letting go than others," Solorzano said.
"No matter what, though, we all have to accept that this is the new San Fernando."