By Melissa Pamer, Staff Writer, Daily Breeze | http://bit.ly/i17y2J
Westchester High School Principal Bobby Canosa-Carr has taken the lead in an effort to convert the struggling campus to a science magnet school with three areas of study: aviation and aerospace for gifted students, sports medicine and health, and environmental and natural science engineering. (Brad Graverson, Staff Photographer)
3/26/2011 - Faced with severely declining enrollment, poor academic performance and a student body that largely comes from outside the community, Westchester High has been the target of repeated reforms in recent years.
Now Los Angeles Unified officials have a radical plan in mind: Shut the school down, let the staff go, and reopen it this fall as a magnet campus available to students from across the sprawling district.
Though the plan has been kept quiet, word is spreading. In a community where issues of education and autonomy from LAUSD create passionate responses — and where race is often a subtext in conversations about local schools — reception has been decidedly mixed.
The Board of Education is set to vote on the concept Tuesday, and public community meetings are expected next month.
Principal Bobby Canosa-Carr presented the basic details to the education committee of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester/Playa last week.
"I really do believe this is the best possible alternative for this school," Carr said. "We did know the status quo was not working."
Some are thrilled by the promise of a high-achieving local public school replacing a campus where standardized test scores place it in the bottom fifth of schools statewide.
But Westchester is a community where local activists have sought doggedly to persuade parents to keep their children enrolled in local schools rather than sending them to nearby school districts such as El Segundo and Manhattan Beach. Those boosters see their high school being taken away, and they feel betrayed.
"Everyone knows the school is bad and it needs to change, but you don't change it by burning it to the ground. That's what they're talking about," said Kelly Kane, president of the Westchester/Playa Education Foundation.
At issue is a plan that would convert Westchester High to Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets, with three themed courses of study: aviation and aerospace for gifted students, sports medicine and health, and environmental and natural science engineering.
It's in part the brainchild of Carr, who began his first year on campus last semester following a series of changes that alienated some of the school's supporters.
"I think he's courageous," said Sharon Robinson, special assistant to Superintendent Ramon Cortines and a member of the team working on the plan. "We think it's very exciting. We think it will be a positive experience for parents that want options and want to keep their kids in L.A. Unified School District. This is another choice they have."
Kenneth Pride, the principal of neighboring Orville Wright Middle School who served as an assistant principal at Westchester for many years, called the magnet plan a "dramatic turnabout."
"Parents are looking for an avenue, a place where their kids can go to school locally. They ask us constantly, what's happening at the high school?" Pride said at the education committee meeting.
"It has to be dramatic. It just has to. There's been too many years of nothing happening."
All current Westchester High students would be grandfathered in and allowed to graduate, Robinson said. But she was not certain what would happen to students in feeder elementary schools and Wright Middle School.
The fate of those students is a major concern of activists such as Kane and board member Steve Zimmer, who represents Westchester.
Zimmer would support the conversion if those issues were adequately addressed, but he said concerns about the loss of a neighborhood school were "totally valid."
"The idea could be a transformational idea, but my No. 1 concern is that the students who are at Westchester High School and the students who are in the Westchester feeder pattern are not excluded," Zimmer said. "That's kind of my line in the sand."
The high school at one time had more than 3,000 students. Today, it has fewer than 1,500 - and that's including about 440 in an existing aerospace magnet program on campus, according to Carr.
"The school is slowly withering away," he said.
In the general education population, fewer than 500 students come from the school's enrollment area. The rest arrive from Washington Prep, Dorsey and Crenshaw high schools, and some from farther afield — from Gardena and Narbonne high schools, Carr said.
About 73 percent of Westchester High's students are African-American, according to the most recent available data from the state Department of Education. The same figures show 8 percent of the student body is white, and about 15 percent is Latino.
The campus with the highest proportion of black students in LAUSD, Westchester High is located in a neighborhood that is majority white — a scenario that has made conversations about "taking back" the campus particularly loaded.
District data shows at least 365 students in the school's attendance boundaries transfer to other public school districts, costing LAUSD $1.8 million in attendance-based funds from the state.
Under the magnet plan, the racial makeup of the school would change.
Part of a court-ordered integration initiative begun in 1977, the LAUSD magnet program creates racial parameters for each of its campuses. Westchester's goal would be 70 percent students of color to 30 percent white students.
Carr said the change would increase diversity on campus, something "almost everyone believes is a positive thing."
But he'll leave that to the district magnet office to sort out.
"My concern here is changing the academic culture," Carr said. "Right now we're struggling to find enrollment of any race."
He said he would seek to continue the successful sports program for which Westchester High has been known.
Under the plan, incoming students would have go through LAUSD's notorious magnet application process, in which a variety of factors accrue "points" to students seeking magnet seats. But the process - called CHOICES - has already closed for this year.
Robinson said students who applied but were not awarded magnet seats elsewhere would be offered space at Westchester.
Meanwhile, the district has not yet decided which nearby high school would become the new neighborhood campus for Westchester, though many presume it would be Venice High.
For activists who have sought for years to foster community engagement in local schools, a lot is at stake. And many say there's good reason for some mistrust.
J.D. Webster — the chair of the neighborhood council's education committee, a member of the school governance council and a supporter of Carr - acknowledged a "50/50" split in the community regarding the magnet concept.
"The history of what's been going on ... is LAUSD promises and then doesn't deliver. People have been burned, so it's genuine, honest, well-earned skepticism," Webster said. "Everybody's goal is a quality school. It's a matter of which way you get it. This is not the way we thought we were going to get it."
Kane has two children at Westport Heights Elementary, one of seven schools that were part of a much-heralded initiative announced in 2006 to bring Westchester campuses under the guidance of Loyola Marymount University's School of Education.
The LMU Family of Schools continues to exist, but last year the Westchester university lost its status as a "network partner" with LAUSD, according to Family of Schools Director Darin Earley. That was because it didn't fit the definition that required partners - such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools - to operate schools.
The university has continued to provide professional development support, student teachers and some supplies to the campuses, Earley said.
"We went back to what we were doing before," Earley said, adding that the university is not taking a position on the magnet plan.
"I want what's best for the students. Whatever configuration that is, we're going to be there," Earley said.
But the announcement that Westchester schools would return to the oversight of LAUSD's Local District 3 - after a hard-fought battle for local control that had seen decidedly mixed results - was truly disappointing to some.
It followed the firing of former Westchester High Principal Bruce Mims, a former Navy SEAL who was hired from outside LAUSD by a committee of parents, community members and staff. Mims took a no-nonsense approach to leadership in his brief tenure.
"For me the final straw was when they fired our principal last year. ... It was a blow to our autonomy. It was really clear to me that we can't work within the system. Parents have no power," said Ann Wexler, whose daughter graduated from Westchester last year.
Wexler, now home-schooling her son, is drafting plans to create an independent Westchester charter for grades six through 12. She criticized the district's magnet plan, though she said her charter school could end up benefiting because the magnet would "disenfranchise" local parents.
"Many of us see it as a final slap in the face to the community because it will not be a community school anymore," said Wexler, who is on the board of the Westchester/Playa Education Foundation.
Kane, who has butted heads with local teachers in the past, said she is opposed to the district's plan to require Westchester High instructors to reapply for their jobs.
"This is a battle cry as far as I'm concerned. You don't kick a dog when they're down," Kane said.
Kane is frustrated in part because she hopes to see Westchester schools secede from LAUSD and form their own small district. That would be impossible without the high school.
In the long run, Principal Carr believes the change from a community school to a magnet would actually result in more Westchester children attending the campus than do currently. Resistance to the concept, he said, is natural because local reformers have been looking for solutions outside of LAUSD.
He called the critics a "small minority" and said parents have shown "overwhelming support."
"I don't think those people will believe it until they see it," Carr said of the plan's critics. "If they're sincere in wanting a high-performing school, they're going to get it."